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July 13, 2014

What the military did while Benghazi post burned

WASHINGTON — One by one, behind closed doors, military officers explained what they did and didn’t do the night the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, burned.

Together their 30 hours of testimony to congressional investigators gives the fullest account yet of the military’s response to the surprise attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans the night of Sept. 11, 2012, and early the next morning.

Transcripts of the interviews, with some names and classified information blacked out, were released Wednesday

The nine officers, including retired Gen. Carter Ham, then the head of the military’s U.S. Africa Command, described making on-the-fly decisions with only sparse information about the crisis unfolding at a diplomatic post and the nearby CIA compound.

None of them was in Benghazi. The closest? Some were 600 miles away in Tripoli, the Libyan capital; others gave orders from command headquarters in Germany or Washington.

They did not witness what went on in the White House or at the State Department. Ex-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and others have testified about Benghazi. More hearings are coming.

The nine officers shed light on the nature of the attacks; speculation that the military was ordered to “stand down” from helping Americans; suggestions that the U.S. should have rushed jets or a special operations team to Benghazi; and early misperceptions that the attack began as a protest over an anti-Islam video.

Some lingering questions about the Benghazi attacks and what the officers told the House Armed Services Committee and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee this year:

Did military leaders initially believe the trouble resulted from street protest?

Some heard that, some didn’t; nothing was clear about events on the ground at first.

One of the earliest reports came from Ambassador Chris Stevens, who told his deputy in a phone call cut short: “We’re under attack.”

“We started calling it an attack from inception,” said Army Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson, who was at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. “We never referred to it as anything else.”

Another military official in Tripoli, whose name was withheld, said he wasn’t sure how to interpret that word — “attack” — at first.

He had heard about protesters who scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo earlier that night. “It could be, you know, vandals are attacking,” he said.

Retired Vice Adm. Charles “Joe” Leidig Jr., deputy commander of AFRICOM, said he was awoken in the night at his headquarters in Germany with word that “there had been protesters, and they had overrun the facility in Benghazi.”

But Ham, who was alerted while visiting the Pentagon, said he heard no mention of protesters.

So he’s sure he didn’t pass on anything like that when he informed Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of the attack. Dempsey and Panetta personally took word to President Barack Obama at the White House.

Speaking for the Obama administration, then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on Sunday talk shows five days later and suggested the attacks were born from regional protests against an anti-Islamic video. The administration later recanted that position but never thoroughly articulated what they believe happened. Republicans say Obama soft-pedaled a terrorist attack to protect his re-election.

Over the two days when the attacks were occurring, there was “very, very little discussion that I can recall about why did this happen.” Ham said. “There just wasn’t time for that, frankly.”

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