On Sept. 11, 2012, four Americans — including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens — were killed in an attack at a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Questions in the days following the assault centered on the public reaction of the Obama administration, which for two weeks treated the attack as a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic YouTube video, even though, as Reuters reported, White House officials had been told within two hours that it was a planned terrorist attack.
Before long, attention turned to warning signs leading up to the attack and pleas for better security that were overridden in the weeks and months before the attack, as a House panel tried to figure out why American diplomats were left unprotected in a city the British consulate and the Red Cross had already fled.
Now some aggressive reporting by Fox News' Jennifer Griffin has expanded scrutiny to real-time events during the attack itself — the seven hours during which the doomed men battled for their lives.
As to whether damaging information is being suppressed by the media, ABC’s Jake Tapper — an aggressive honest broker who pulls no punches for the Obama White House — is skeptical.
On Wednesday, Tapper tweeted, “For those who want to know more about Benghazi — I do, too. But that doesn't mean repeating rumors or speculation or stories I (can't) prove. If you really think I would 'sit' on any scoop to protect any politician, you don't know me or my work very well."
Tapper was responding to an assertion by Newt Gingrich that a reliable U.S. senator had told him two networks have copies of an explosive email. “There is a rumor — I want to be clear, it’s a rumor — that at least two networks have emails from the National Security Adviser’s office telling a counterterrorism group to stand down,” Gingrich said.
On Tuesday, Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, a reliably measured foreign affairs voice, acknowledged Griffin’s work, adding that there are “some questions about the attack that deserve a clearer answer from the Obama administration” and that the “Obama administration needs to level with the country about why it made its decisions.”
Among the remaining questions are these: Who knew what during the attack? Were CIA operatives in the annex near the consulate ordered not to act? Were military options available, and if they were, who decided not to employ them?
For some, the question of what military options were available leads to further questions. Did surveillance drones feed real-time video images to decision makers in Washington? If so, were these drones armed? Or were gunships available that could have put down suppressing fire?
Shortly after the attack began, Griffin reported, two U.S. surveillance drones were diverted to Benghazi. “Any U.S. official or agency with the proper clearance, including the White House Situation Room, State Department, CIA, Pentagon and others, could call up that video in real time on their computers,” she added.
It remains unclear who in the White House security team followed this feed, assuming it was available in real time.
It is also unclear whether the drones were armed, or whether airborne gunships were in the area. On Sunday, Fox News' Chris Wallace asked Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., whether the drones were armed. "We're going to find that out ..." Udall began. But later when Wallace pressed the point, Udall said, "I can't comment on that at this point in time," leaving it unclear whether he did not know or was refusing to comment.
One detail in Griffin’s narrative involves a laser apparently used by Woods as he sought to get air support.
Tyrone Woods, one of the former Navy SEALS killed in the battle, "used a ground laser designator to illuminate an enemy mortar team," noted Tom Cotton, a Harvard law graduate, Iraq war veteran and now a GOP congressional candidate.
"For all those veterans out there, you know that infrared discipline in combat is just as important as light and noise discipline," Cotton said on Hugh Hewitt's radio show. "You don’t use an infrared illuminator until you’re ready for fire support," he added, arguing that Woods "would not have illuminated that mortar team unless he expected air fire immediately as soon as he did so.”
“I strongly suspect there was an armed drone, or even a Specter gunship overhead that did not fire, even though Tyrone Woods expected it to," Cotton concluded.
Were two former Navy SEALS and current CIA operatives prevented from going to the rescue of the diplomatic team at the consulate?
Griffin reported last Friday that two of the men at the CIA annex, a mile distant from the consulate, sought to respond as the attack began but were twice told to “stand down.” According to Griffin’s sources, the two finally decided to directly disobey those orders and attempted a rescue.
Ignatius appears to contradict Griffin in his account: “There was a brief, initial delay — two people said it was about 20 minutes — before Woods was allowed to leave.” The CIA seems to deny this report. “No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need,” the statement read.
Some were struck by the careful phrasing. As William McGurn observed in Tuesday's Wall Street Journal, “in Beltwayspeak this means: The buck stopped somewhere between the Pentagon and the White House," not at the CIA.
Later in the conflict, the official State Department narrative reports, eight CIA operatives arrived at the Benghazi airport and were rushed to the scene in time for one of them to die in the struggle.
And John Hudson at The Atlantic Wire noted that "for now, the CIA isn't saying no one was ever prevented from assisting the U.S. compound but it is vowing that the agency itself never played a role in denying those requests."
One of the few reporters given access to President Obama lately tried and failed to get him to say whether requests for help were denied. A local Denver television reporter who, Tapper related, twice pressed President Obama without success "to answer questions as to whether the Americans under siege in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, were denied requests for help."
Additional questions center on whether special forces could and should have been scrambled from southern Italy, whether those troops were prepared to move, and, if so, who decided not to deploy them.
"You don't deploy forces into harm's way without knowing what's going on, without having some real-time information about what's taking place," Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said last week at a Pentagon press conference, according to CBS News.
Investor Business Daily, among others, has speculated that fears of a “Black Hawk Down” incident drove the caution, a reference to the 1993 disaster in which 19 U.S. soldiers were killed in Mogadishu, Somalia.
Panetta said that "senior officers, including Gen. Carter Ham, the U.S. commander for Africa, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all opposed military intervention. 'Gen. Ham, Gen. Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation.'"
But there is some question whether Gen. Ham did agree. On Oct. 28, Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz said on Fox News that he met with Ham and directly asked him whether U.S. forces were prepared to intervene.
Ham emphatically told him they were ready to respond, Chaffetz said. "Asked why he did not send in some of those assets," Chaffetz said, "the general said he was not requested to do so." Chaffetz concluded that someone who outranked the four-star general made that decision.
Obviously, the Chaffetz account directly contradicts Panetta's statements as to whether Ham endorsed the decision to stand down. Former U.N. ambassador John Bolton told Greta Van Sustern on Fox News that "Gen. Ham has now been characterized in two obviously conflicting ways," and "Somebody ought to find out what he actually was saying on Sept. 11th."
Eric Schulzke writes on national politics for the Deseret News. He can be contacted at [email protected].