Even as Benghazi intruded into Obama’s press conference with Cameron, Stephanie Surface summarises the turmoil in Washington over the incompetence and cover-up by the White House
At one point during the January 23rd Congressional hearings into the terrorist events in Benghazi, Hillary Clinton burst out in anger under intense scrutinizing by Republicans. Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wisconsin) had just questioned the State Department’s initial report that the attack on the consulate on September 11, 2012 in Benghazi had been a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Islam YouTube video. She raised her voice and shouted: ” …the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they would kill some Americans? What difference does it make?! “
This last sentence could come back to haunt the former Secretary of State as Eric Nordstrom, former regional security officer in Libya, seemed to answer this question, four months later, at the hearing on May 8th : ” …[ the truth] matters to me personally and it matters to my colleagues. It matters to the American public… and most importantly it matters to the families [of the dead]: Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith (a State Department employee) and (the Navy SEALS) Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
Not only Hillary Clinton, but also President Obama had been blaming this obscure video for days after the attack, even when the body bags of the four victims returned from Benghazi. The Obama-appointed UN ambassador Susan Rice appeared on all the Sunday talk shows, claiming that there had been violent demonstration, provoked by the “hate-video” and that there had been no premeditated or pre-planned terrorist action. The State Department also released a film, which was shown subsequently by five Pakistani TV stations, promoting tolerance of all religions, and trying to distance itself from the YouTube video’s anti-Islamic content.
These explanations, which were supposedly based on “talking points”, a report provided by the CIA, looked pretty shaky at this month’s Congressional hearings on May 8th. Three impeccable witnesses, Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant Secretary of State for counterterrorism: Greg Hicks, former deputy chief of mission in Libya: and the aforementioned Eric Nordstrom, all provided compelling testimony that the Obama administration’s response to Benghazi before, during and after the terrorist attack was a deadly mix of ineptitude, political miscalculation and outright lying.
The most compelling and moving statement came from Hicks as he set out the timeline of the September 11 2012 events to the House of Oversight and Government Reform committee.
Hicks, who was in Tripoli at the time, said that he first heard about the terrorist attack from a phone call he received from Ambassador Stevens, who was on a visit to Benghazi: “Greg! We are under attack!” A group of Americans were already fleeing the consulate, arriving at an annexe where the first mortar landed among a group of Libyans who tried to bring the Americans to safety. The next mortars landed on the roof of the annex, which killed Doherty and Woods and ultimately Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith from smoke inhalation. Hicks revealed that he tried desperately to save his colleagues during the seven hour attack, but an explicit order to “stand down” was issued from either AFRICOM or SOCAFRICA to prevent a four-man special rescue team in Tripoli from rushing to the trapped Americans in Benghazi.
Hicks quoted Lieutenant Colonel Gibson, the officer on the receiving end of the command: “This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than someone in the military”. This statement contradicted the Pentagon spokesperson who denied there was ever a stand-down order given by anybody. Mark Thomson testified that as he tried various options to get the Americans out of the burning buildings, he too was ordered to stand down.
The question is: who made these decisions? As we heard from an earlier testimony by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, the President met with him and General Martin Dempsey, less than an hour into the attack. None has yet clarified what decisions were taken at that meeting. Was there any rescue plan? All we know is that it was decided that the Air Force stationed in Italy was deemed to be too far away, a distance of a two hour flight (?), and that refueling facilities were missing. After that meeting was over, Obama went to sleep, as he had to get up early the next morning for a campaigning fund-raiser in Las Vegas.
Hicks further testified that he personally told Hillary Clinton on the telephone at 2am that the Benghazi raid was a terrorist attack; that everybody in the mission knew it “from the get-go”, including Libyan’s President al-Magarif, who confirmed three days later that his government had “no doubt this was a pre-planned, pre-determined” operation.
Eric Nordstrom related details of his and Ambassador Steven’s request for more security at the Benghazi consulate for months before the incident. These had been turned down by Hillary Clinton, despite extremely high risks in the area. British diplomats and the Red Cross had already evacuated their staff earlier that year. The State Department explained that all security was now supplied by the Libyan government.
After the Benghazi events, it seems that the Obama administration realized that it wouldn’t look good to the American public to confess to this monumental cock-up, so they started to conceal the true events. As we now know Hillary Clinton had sufficient knowledge that it was a vicious terror attack. Having to confess in the midst of a presidential election contest, to a failure in providing appropriate security at the consulate, would have been a major blow to the Democratic campaign.
In the meantime more US networks and newspapers are catching up on the story which had until then been ignored by most of the media. ABC reported that it got hold of the “talking points” and found that they were edited 12 times and scrubbed of all references to the Al Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al-Sharia. Some edits were made in response to concerns raised by State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. She wanted to prevent Congress beating up on the State Department for not paying enough attention to the earlier warnings.
As the facts stand, the Benghazi-gate does not bode well for Obama and his Secretary of State. It casts the President in the light of a man too occupied with his re-election campaign. He seems not to be the man of his campaign ads, staying awake “when the call comes in the middle of the night”, but leaving his overseas diplomats prone to terrorist attacks and stranded in burning buildings.