Commentary Magazine


Topic: Tom Donilon

Ignatius Asks Important Questions About Benghazi

David Ignatius, the liberal Washington Post columnist, has a good column on the Benghazi episode in which he recounts what we know–and, more to the point, what we don’t know–about the official response to the hours-long attack on our consulate and a CIA annex. Ignatius quotes a statement from the CIA making clear that no one at the agency told contractor Tyrone Woods or anyone else not to go to the aid of the embattled diplomats: “no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.” 

That still leaves open the question of whether anyone else in government told them not to do so, and also, more importantly, of how and why the decision was made not to send more military help to Benghazi beyond a force of eight security personnel from the CIA who were dispatched from Tripoli. Ignatius asks: “Why didn’t the United States send armed drones or other air assistance to Benghazi immediately? This one is harder to answer.” After all, he notes: “A Joint Special Operations Command team was moved that night to Sigonella air base in Sicily, for quick deployment to Benghazi or any of the other U.S. facilities in danger that night across North Africa. Armed drones could also have been sent.” Yet those assets were not deployed during the seven or so hours that the attack lasted.

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David Ignatius, the liberal Washington Post columnist, has a good column on the Benghazi episode in which he recounts what we know–and, more to the point, what we don’t know–about the official response to the hours-long attack on our consulate and a CIA annex. Ignatius quotes a statement from the CIA making clear that no one at the agency told contractor Tyrone Woods or anyone else not to go to the aid of the embattled diplomats: “no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.” 

That still leaves open the question of whether anyone else in government told them not to do so, and also, more importantly, of how and why the decision was made not to send more military help to Benghazi beyond a force of eight security personnel from the CIA who were dispatched from Tripoli. Ignatius asks: “Why didn’t the United States send armed drones or other air assistance to Benghazi immediately? This one is harder to answer.” After all, he notes: “A Joint Special Operations Command team was moved that night to Sigonella air base in Sicily, for quick deployment to Benghazi or any of the other U.S. facilities in danger that night across North Africa. Armed drones could also have been sent.” Yet those assets were not deployed during the seven or so hours that the attack lasted.

One wonders if the decision not to act was taken at Africa Command, the Pentagon, or at the White House. My bet is on the White House. It’s likely that National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, known for his attention to details, was the crisis manager in the White House, and if he didn’t inform his boss, the president, of what was going on at the time, he would have been guilty of dereliction of duty–which seems unlikely for such a conscientious bureaucrat. The decision not to act, taken in the heat of the moment and without full information available, was understandable; it might even have been the right decision in hindsight, although this seems less likely. But the White House isn’t really answering these questions. Instead, it seems to be trying to push the whole issue past the election–and the news media, which would have been putting this on page one every day if this had happened on President McCain’s watch, are happy to cooperate by burying this controversy. David Ignatius is an honorable and welcome exception to this trend.

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When Did He Know?

When did the president learn that the Christmas Day plot was not an “isolated extremist?” On Monday, he told us that it was. Now we hear the excuse that the president only learned Monday night of “some linkage” between the bomber and al-Qaeda. The Washington Post gets this report on background (you wouldn’t want your name used either):

The official said the president and his top advisers are “increasingly confident” that Al Qaeda was involved in the attempted attacker’s plans.

Obama, in his remarks to reporters earlier in the day, said that if intelligence about the suspect had been handled differently he would have been blocked from boarding a plane for the United States. Senior officials said that was among the new details that the president learned in a conference call with top national security officials – National Security Adviser Jim Jones, his top counterterrorism expert John Brennan, and deputy National Security adviser Tom Donilon – on Tuesday morning.

So we are supposed to believe that the president went in front of the nation, that he declared something that the public (after paying attention to a plethora of news reports) was beginning to believe was not true (i.e. this was a lone wolf), and that he only learned of the al-Qaeda connection four days after the incident? I’m not sure which is worse — the possibility that the president was misinformed or uninformed for a number of  days, or that he knew better and for reasons not entirely clear decided to play down the al-Qaeda connection until it could no longer be ignored. This is, of course, a second scandal — the primary one being that we did not act on “information that was in possession of the government… that spoke to both where the suspect had been, what some of his thinking and plans were, what some of the plans of Al Qaeda were.”

As the Washington Post editors fume: “Now we want to shine a light on the stunning breakdown in communication among the State Department, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and the British government that allowed Mr. Abdulmutallab to buy a ticket in the first place.” And then we can find out why the president went before the public with incomplete and inaccurate information on Monday.

We seem to have an intelligence apparatus that cannot communicate effectively before a terror attack, and an administration that cannot communicate forthrightly and accurately with the public after one. Unlike those who coped with 9/11, the Obama administration had the experience of a massive domestic terror attack to guide and inform it. And yet this is the best that the Obama administration can do.

When did the president learn that the Christmas Day plot was not an “isolated extremist?” On Monday, he told us that it was. Now we hear the excuse that the president only learned Monday night of “some linkage” between the bomber and al-Qaeda. The Washington Post gets this report on background (you wouldn’t want your name used either):

The official said the president and his top advisers are “increasingly confident” that Al Qaeda was involved in the attempted attacker’s plans.

Obama, in his remarks to reporters earlier in the day, said that if intelligence about the suspect had been handled differently he would have been blocked from boarding a plane for the United States. Senior officials said that was among the new details that the president learned in a conference call with top national security officials – National Security Adviser Jim Jones, his top counterterrorism expert John Brennan, and deputy National Security adviser Tom Donilon – on Tuesday morning.

So we are supposed to believe that the president went in front of the nation, that he declared something that the public (after paying attention to a plethora of news reports) was beginning to believe was not true (i.e. this was a lone wolf), and that he only learned of the al-Qaeda connection four days after the incident? I’m not sure which is worse — the possibility that the president was misinformed or uninformed for a number of  days, or that he knew better and for reasons not entirely clear decided to play down the al-Qaeda connection until it could no longer be ignored. This is, of course, a second scandal — the primary one being that we did not act on “information that was in possession of the government… that spoke to both where the suspect had been, what some of his thinking and plans were, what some of the plans of Al Qaeda were.”

As the Washington Post editors fume: “Now we want to shine a light on the stunning breakdown in communication among the State Department, the National Counterterrorism Center (NCTC) and the British government that allowed Mr. Abdulmutallab to buy a ticket in the first place.” And then we can find out why the president went before the public with incomplete and inaccurate information on Monday.

We seem to have an intelligence apparatus that cannot communicate effectively before a terror attack, and an administration that cannot communicate forthrightly and accurately with the public after one. Unlike those who coped with 9/11, the Obama administration had the experience of a massive domestic terror attack to guide and inform it. And yet this is the best that the Obama administration can do.

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