What the president likely knew -- and when he knew it.
Newly declassified documents reveal that high-ranking members of the Obama administration were aware that the September 11, 2012 assault on the American consulate in Benghazi was a "terrorist attack" only minutes after the battle began. In classified testimony given on June 26, 2013 to the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, Gen. Carter Hamm, former head of the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) revealed he was the one who broke the news to former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. According to declassified testimony obtained by Fox News, Hamm testified that he learned about the attack only 15 minutes after it began at 9:42 p.m. Libya time. Thus, the administration's carefully crafted narrative that the attack was based on a video has once again been revealed for the lie it always was.
"My first call was to General Dempsey, General Dempsey's office, to say, 'Hey, I am headed down the hall. I need to see him right away,'" the General told lawmakers. "I told him what I knew. We immediately walked upstairs to meet with Secretary Panetta." Hamm characterized the ability to meet with both men so soon after the attack occurred as a fortunate "happenstance" because "they had the basic information as they headed across for the meeting at the White House."
That meeting had been pre-scheduled with the president for 5 p.m. EST. A Defense Department (DOD) timeline notes that the meeting occurred one hour and 18 minutes after the attack began, and even as the battle at the consulate was ongoing. The DOD also revealed that an unarmed drone arrived over the battlefield during that time. As both men revealed in subsequent testimony, the meeting with the president lasted approximately 30 minutes -- after which they never heard from anyone in the White House again.
Hamm revealed that he met with Panetta and Dempsey when they returned from that session.
Armed Services Chairman Howard "Buck" McKeon (R-CA) was the lawmaker who put Hamm on the spot regarding the administration's video narrative. "In your discussions with General Dempsey and Secretary Panetta, was there any mention of a demonstration, or was all discussion about an attack?" McKeon asked. Hamm characterized the discussion of a demonstration as "peripheral," but noted that "at that initial meeting, we knew that a U.S. facility had been attacked and was under attack, and we knew at that point that we had two individuals, Ambassador Stevens and Mr. Smith, unaccounted for."
Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH), an Iraq war veteran and Army reserve officer, pressed the General more forcefully on the nature of his conversation with Panetta and Dempsey. He expressed his concern "that someone in the military would be advising that this was a demonstration" rather than a terrorist attack. Hamm noted their was some "preliminary discussion" of the point, but emphasized that they were aware of what was really going on. "But I think at the command, I personally and I think the command very quickly got to the point that this was not a demonstration, this was a terrorist attack," he testified. Hamm also reiterated that "with General Dempsey and Secretary Panetta, that is the nature of the conversation we had, yes, sir."
Hamm, Dempsey and Carter were not the only ones aware that a terrorist attack was occurring. The declassified transcripts show that key officers, along with several channels of command throughout the Pentagon and its combatants commands, were equally quick to label the assault a terrorist attack.
Wenstrup took the approach with Marine Corps Col. George Bristol, commander of AFRICOM's Joint Special Operations Task Force for the Trans Sahara region, that he did with Dempsey. Bristol testified he was in Dakar, Senegal when the Joint Operations Center called to tell him about "a considerable event unfolding in Libya." Bristol called Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, an Army commander stationed in Tripoli, who informed Bristol that Ambassador Stevens was missing and "there was a fight going on" at the compound. "So no one from the military was ever advising, that you are aware of, that this was a demonstration gone out of control, it was always considered an attack on the United States?" Wenstrup asked Bristol. "Yes, sir. ... We referred to it as the attack," he replied.
When their investigations continue, staffers on the Armed Services subcommittee have indicated their desire to recall Panetta to ask him additional questions. "He is in the president's Cabinet," Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL), chair of the panel that collected the testimony, told Fox News. "The American people deserve the truth. They deserve to know what's going on, and I honestly think that that's why you have seen -- beyond the tragedy that there was a loss of four Americans' lives -- is that the American people feel misled."
Kim R. Holmes, a former assistant secretary of state under President George W. Bush, echoed that assertion. "Leon Panetta should have spoken up," he insisted. "The people at the Pentagon and frankly, the people at the CIA stood back while all of this was unfolding and allowed this narrative to go on longer than they should have."
As of now, the retired Panetta has resisted requests for further testimony.
Preliminary conclusions reached by those same staffers regarding Panetta's earlier testimony that a rescue operation would have been impossible, agreed with the former Secretary's assessment. But those same documents reveal it was because America's assets in the region were badly arrayed. And not just with regard to Benghazi, but other Middle East hotspots as well. Transcripts from top military commanders paint a woeful picture of gaps in the position of assets worldwide. Examples of unpreparedness include the reality that no aircraft were put on high alert for September 11, and that the closet F-35 fighter jets to Benghazi, stationed in Aviano, Italy were unarmed. Moreover, the closest mid-air re-fuelers were 10 hours away in Great Briatin.
Other assets, including AC-130 gunships were 10 hours from Libya, and a unit of 23 special operators that comprise part of a discretionary, "in-extremis" force, were training in Croatia. According to testimony, they didn't even make it to a staging base in Sigonella, Italy until 19 hours after the attack began.
Rep. Martha Roby (R-AL), the Republican chairwoman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, addressed this disturbing reality. "It does not appear that U.S. military forces, units, aircrafts, drones, or specific personnel that could have been readily deployed in the course of the attack in Benghazi were unduly held back, or told to stand down, or refused permission to enter the fight," she concluded. "Rather, we were so badly postured, they could not have made a difference or we were desperately needed elsewhere."
The newly released documents also reveal that Gen. Hamm had been left out of the loop in White House-led discussions regarding military preparedness and force posture on the eve of Sept. 11. This revelation undercuts White House assurances that then-counterterrorism adviser John Brennan had "convened numerous meetings," and the president and his national security principals discussed "steps taken to protect U.S. persons and facilities abroad."
Perhaps they they did. But it remains unknown why the head of AFRICOM would not be include in those discussions.
Hamm insisted that no one told him to stand down, there simply weren't assets available to counter the attack. He repeatedly argued that having an F-16 do a fly-over in Benghazi wouldn't have made any difference, despite that tactic being routinely employed to disperse enemy forces in Afghanistan.
AFRICOM and Pentagon officials insisted they were more worried about threats emanating from Tunisia, Egypt and Sudan on Sept. 11, 2012. "As I look back at the intelligence, I don't see the indications of imminent attack in Benghazi," Ham said. Yet Maj. Gen. Darryl Roberson, vice chief of operations on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon that night, seemingly confirmed the lack of military preparedness. "We were postured as appropriately as we can be and we thought we should be around the world. It wasn't just in Africa, in North Africa, that we had issues. We had issues around the world."
"Appropriately postured"--but with "issues"?
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) remained skeptical of Hamm's assessment. "The extraction took an exceptionally long amount of time," he noted. "I still don't understand, with two men down by 10:00 p.m. local time and then another attack at 5:00 a.m. the next morning, how at 6:05 in the morning the Department of Defense prepares a C-17 to go down, and that doesn't actually depart Germany until 2:15 p.m. and doesn't return back to Germany until 10:19 p.m. I have flown with you from Germany to Libya. It is not that far a flight."
Another infuriating fact revealed by the documents regards a FAST team of Marines in Rota, Spain. They were apparently forced to deplane and change out of their uniforms before flying to Libya. “When we got people down do you really have -- do you really actually let somebody push the military around and say, well, you are in the wrong uniform," Chaffetz asked in disbelief. "Is that really a reason to delay the FAST team coming in to protect Americans, that they are not wearing a t-shirt?"
Nothing should surprise anyone with regard to Benghazi anymore. Not the administration's wholesale lying about a video. Not the callousness of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who wondered aloud in congressional testimony, "what difference at this point does it make?" regarding the how and why of the attack. Not the equal amount of callousness demonstrated by a president who handed off responsibility for the operations to Panetta and Dempsey, and promptly disappeared, even as he showed up at a Las Vegas fundraiser the next day with his oft-repeated campaign slogan that was also a lie: "A day after 9/11, we are reminded that a new tower rises above the New York skyline, but al Qaeda is on the path to defeat and bin Laden is dead,” Obama told the audience.
That would be the same al Qaeda that, according to CNN, "appears to control more territory in the Arab world than it has done at any time in its history."
The can be no doubt any longer what the president knew and when he knew it. On September 11, 2012 four Americans were killed in a terrorist attack. The president was aware of that reality shortly after 5 p.m. EST, even as a drone flew over the battlefield relaying video in real time. And despite all the lying, and incompetence, not a single person has been fired or held accountable, nor has even one member of the media asked the president where he was between the time he left Panetta and Dempsey, and boarded a plan for the fundraiser in Las Vegas.
Last Sunday, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates may have inadvertently given America some insight in that regard. He was describing Obama with regard to Afghanistan. "As I write in the book, it was this absence of passion, this absence of a conviction of the importance of success that disturbed me," Gates said.
Americans might ask themselves whether that lack of compassion and absence of conviction extended to Benghazi.
Or perhaps former Carter campaign worker Pat Caddell had it right at an Accuracy in Media conference in June of 2012, when he lambasted the media and their unrelenting efforts to cover for Obama. "If a President of either party—I don’t care whether it was Jimmy Carter or Bill Clinton or George Bush or Ronald Reagan or George H. W. Bush—had a terrorist incident, and got on an airplane after saying something, and flown off to a fundraiser in Las Vegas, they would have been crucified!" he declared.
Perhaps that time is coming.
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