Day by day we learn more about why U.S. officials and security forces failed to protect Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans killed during Sept. 11 attacks in the strife-torn Libyan city of Benghazi. Congressional testimony by former security officials, expansive news accounts and a trove of emails and diplomatic cables from Stevens have begun to illuminate what went wrong.
This unfolding inquest is about more than assessing blame. The U.S. stations diplomats around the globe, often in hostile locales. We expect Washington to protect those diplomats — and, when they need help, to be ready to mount a prompt and muscular rescue. Americans and their elected representatives need to understand what went wrong in order to keep other diplomats from suffering the same fate.
Among the fresh and disturbing details on dangerous prelude, the attacks and the U.S. response:
• The system was blinking red: In the months before the attacks, Stevens and his security staff fired off a series of diplomatic messages to the Obama administration warning that security in Benghazi was deteriorating. In an Aug. 15 “emergency meeting” at the U.S. consulate, the State Department’s regional security officer warned of al-Qaida training camps in Benghazi and expressed doubts about “the ability to defend Post in the event of a coordinated attack due to limited manpower, security measures, weapons capabilities, host nation support and the overall size of the compound,” according to a classified cable reviewed by Fox News (and not disputed by the administration).
Chillingly, on Sept. 11, hours before the first attack, Stevens wrote to Washington specifically of “growing problems with security” in Benghazi. He described his “growing frustration” that security forces and Libyan police were too weak to protect the consulate or keep Libya secure. The response from Washington to all of these warnings? We don’t yet know.
• There evidently was confusion between the Central Intelligence Agency, which had a nearby outpost, and the State Department about who was in charge of consulate security. That may have delayed an effective response. The Wall Street Journal reported: A seven-man CIA security team was dispatched within 25 minutes of the first attack at 9:40 p.m. Benghazi time. When they arrived, the consulate was on fire. The CIA team evacuated most American officials before midnight, but Stevens and another State employee were already dead. Congressional investigators told the Journal that the CIA and State Department “weren’t on the same page about their respective roles on security, underlining the rift between agencies over taking responsibility and raising questions about whether the security arrangement in Benghazi was flawed.”
Judging by the outcome, there is no question: Despite warnings from Stevens and others, the consulate was poorly protected. Given that this was the anniversary of the 2001 terror attacks on the U.S., that’s especially perplexing.
• The U.S. didn’t have military rapid-reaction teams — Special Forces or armed drones — close enough to help thwart the terrorists, The New York Times has reported: A quick-strike force had to be scrambled from the U.S. regional command in Europe because U.S. Africa Command forces were still being trained. Africa Command, established in 2007, had no heavily armed ground-attack aircraft or armed drones readily available, the Times reported. The Pentagon also took the extraordinary step of dispatching elite Delta Force commandos from their base at Fort Bragg, N.C. None of the American forces arrived in time to thwart the attacks — either at the consulate or, a few hours later, when the CIA outpost was attacked. The Los Angeles Times quoted a former Air Force general suggesting that thundering, low-flying U.S. warplanes — had they been dispatched — could have scared off the attackers, even without firing into the neighborhood.
From the start, the administration’s accounts of what happened in Benghazi have been muddled and inconsistent. State Department officials have distanced themselves from the White House account, which initially blamed an anti-Muslim video for provoking the attacks. Inexplicably, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice was still parroting that line days later, despite growing U.S. intelligence to the contrary.
In congressional testimony, the U.S. security commander in Libya, Lt. Col. Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard, said the attacks were “instantly recognizable” as terrorism, not a protest over insults to Islam. The State Department’s regional security officer, Eric Nordstrom, reiterated what his cables had warned: State was withdrawing U.S. security too quickly from Benghazi and replacing it with untested Libyan guards. Congress had slightly reduced the administration’s request for protecting U.S. diplomatic sites worldwide. But it’s unclear whether budget constraints contributed to this epic failure.
Many questions remain. The Benghazi debacle demands answers, not political maneuvering or bureaucratic finger-pointing. Chris Stevens and three other Americans are dead. The Obama administration and those that succeed it need to make sure there is no sequel to Benghazi at a U.S. diplomatic outpost on some future Sept. 11 — or any other day.