The administration spent almost two months releasing as little public information as possible about the Benghazi attack, presumably for reasons both strategic and political–it is sensitive information from a national security standpoint and from a campaign standpoint. But now a deluge of new information is pouring out of the government, thanks in part to what looks like finger-pointing between the State Department and CIA over who bears responsibility for not preventing or stopping the attack which left four Americans dead.
The Wall Street Journal is in the forefront with this long article, which has an anti-Petraeus spin because it leads with the information that the CIA director did not attend the funerals of two of his security contractors who were killed in Benghazi (he did not want to blow their covers, even posthumously). See also this David Ignatius column and an article in the New York Times.
The picture painted by all of these articles is complex but overall, despite the anti-Petraeus spin noted in the Journal piece, it serves to exonerate the CIA of culpability for the attack response–it turns out that pretty much all of the security response came from the CIA annex in Benghazi and from the CIA station in Tripoli. The CIA security personnel did what they could, but they obviously lacked transportation, heavy weaponry, and other essentials that the military could have provided. They were also hoping for assistance from Libyan militias that never arrived.
Why wasn’t there more military assistance? That remains murky, but the best explanation–and the one most exonerating to the administration–has come from none other than Paul Wolfowitz, the former deputy secretary of defense. He writes, based on information that apparently comes from senior military figures (albeit second hand), that “decision makers in Washington appear to have been leaning forward, as they should have been.” He goes on to to note that:
The military’s most capable rescue force, based on the East Coast, was deployed immediately (something that is very rarely done), but – given the distances involved – arrived at Sigonella only after the crisis was over.
Also, the European command (EUCOM) deployed its number one counter terrorism force, which was training in central Europe, as quickly as possible, but it arrived in Sigonella after the evacuation of the Annex was complete.
Other special forces deployed to Sigonella but arrived on the 12th after it was too late to make a difference in Benghazi.
There was no AC-130 gunship in the region. The only drone available in Libya was an unarmed surveillance drone which was quickly moved from Darna to Benghazi, but the field of view of these drones is limited and, in any case, this one was not armed.
The only other assets immediately available were F-16 fighter jets based at Aviano, Italy. These aircraft might have reached Benghazi while the fight at the Annex was still going on, but they would have had difficulty pinpointing hostile mortar positions or distinguishing between friendly and hostile militias in the midst of a confused firefight in a densely populated residential area where there would have been a high likelihood of civilian casualties. While two more Americans were tragically killed by a mortar strike on the Annex, it’s not clear that deploying F-16’s would have prevented that.
If accurate, Wolfowitz’s account would certainly explain why more wasn’t done and would appear to exonerate senior decision makers during the heat of the crisis. It is actually a much better defense of the administration action (or lack thereof) than the lame explanation offered by Defense Secretary Panetta that “you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on.”
However, it still leaves major questions unanswered about why more wasn’t done to prepare for an emergency such as this, and in particular–a point I stressed in a recent Los Angeles Times oped–why wasn’t more done to help Libyan security forces stand up after Gaddafi’s fall? It also leaves unanswered the question about why the administration hasn’t been more forthcoming, at least until recently, about what exactly transpired. There is still a need for a major independent report that addresses these issues.