It’s now clear that the events surrounding the lethal Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, qualifies as a defining moment for the president, his administration and this election.
The most recent developments center on the assault itself. Last week, Reuters reported that diplomatic officers sent emails during the Benghazi attack and that officials at the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, intelligence agencies and the FBI were advised within two hours of the attack that an Islamic militant group, Ansar al-Sharia, had claimed credit for it.
This comes in the aftermath of the discovery that the CIA station chief in Libya told the State Department in a cable 24 hours after the attack that the evidence showed it was, in fact, a terrorist attack.
A second bombshell revelation comes to us courtesy of Jennifer Griffin of Fox News, who reports that she was told from sources on the ground that a small team housed at a CIA annex about a mile from the U.S. Consulate were twice told to “stand down” rather than help those under attack.
But former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods and at least two others disobeyed orders to come to the aid of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and his team, and while Ambassador Stevens and an aide were killed, others were saved by this extraordinary act of bravery.
What happened after this is even more outrageous. Returning to the CIA annex at about midnight, Woods and his colleagues were repeatedly denied armed backup and aerial support to defend them against attackers firing mortars at the annex.
Woods and another former Navy SEAL, Glen Doherty, were ultimately killed during the four-hour battle. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta confirmed that backup was not sent, and he justifies that decision by saying we didn’t have enough “real-time information” about what was taking place.
The problem with this explanation of the events is: We now know that the State Department had surveillance feeds and it was able to watch the attacks unfold in real-time. Two military surveillance drones had been redirected to Benghazi shortly after the attack on the consulate began and both were capable of sending real-time visuals back to officials in Washington, D.C.
Secretary Panetta’s statement also reveals a complete breakdown in decision-making at the presidential level. President Obama has said that he issued a directive immediately upon hearing of the attacks to “make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to.”
But a refusal to grant military assistance to the CIA officers on the ground means that either the president’s directive was ignored or the president did not, in fact, issue this directive immediately. Either scenario is unacceptable. These disturbing revelations need to be placed within a broader, and no less disturbing, context.
Top security officers testified before a House oversight committee in October that repeated requests for extra security agents for the American Consulate in Benghazi were denied in the months leading up to the attack.
This despite the fact that the consulate had been bombed on two separate occasions in the five months leading up to the Sept. 11 anniversary and by the end of June the British Consulate and the Red Cross closed their facilities in Benghazi after suffering repeated attacks against their facilities and personnel.
In addition, the Obama administration continued to insist that the lethal assault on the U.S. consulate was a spontaneous, unplanned mob attack that was the result of a 13-minute anti-Islamic video long after we had received information indicating that the assault was preplanned, organized and carried out by terrorists, and the video had nothing to do with the attack.
The president and his administration revealed information that was at best highly selective and at worst that they knew to be false. Why? A safe assumption is that they did not want the real story to get out, because it would shatter the narrative they have been relentlessly pushing throughout the campaign: That al-Qaida was on the verge of strategic defeat after the death of Osama bin Laden and other top leaders.
What we’re finding out instead is that Islamic terrorism is on the rise, and let’s not forget Iran, and that the Obama administration has been guilty of gross negligence prior to, during and after the murderous assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. This issue is far from over.
But based on what we know, the president and his administration failed in their elementary duty to protect American officials overseas, attempted to avoid responsibility for its failures, intentionally downplayed an on-going global threat and forfeited the trust of the public on this vital issue.
Americans, regardless of political affiliation, need a complete and candid accounting, and only the president can provide it. Hopefully he will before Election Day.
This originally appeared in the November 2, 2012 edition of The Harrisburg Patriot-News.
Guest Columnist Tom Ridge is the former Republican governor of Pennsylvania and secretary of the Department of Homeland Security.
The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.