Today’s hearing in the Senate Armed Services Committee about the September 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, was bizarrely divided.
One line of questions drew a devastating picture of an Administration shamefully unprepared to defend its beleaguered personnel in Libya. The bemused facial expressions of Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta showed this at times.
The other half was an utter and complete waste of time. Accolades and soft-ball questions from committee Democrats allowed Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Martin Dempsey to get away with moaning about sequestration, the national debt, budget constraints, aircraft carriers, cyber warfare, and on and on.
To borrow a quip from a frustrated tweeter: “Nixon should have been so lucky to face a hearing like this.”
The portion of the hearing actually devoted to Benghazi, however, was damning.
Senator John McCain (R–AZ) challenged General Dempsey on his opening statement justifying the absence of a military response to Benghazi. “We did what our posture and capabilities allowed,” Dempsey said. McCain called this “one of the most bizarre statements I’ve ever seen in my years here at the committee.”
Probing further on the question of posture and abilities, Senator Lindsay Graham (R–SC) asked pointedly, “Was any [defense] asset ever deployed to help these people before the end of the attack?” Panetta’s very reluctant answer was “No.” (Special forces from a Sigonella Naval Air Station in Sicily did subsequently arrive in the Libyan capital of Tripoli after the Benghazi facility had been evacuated.)
Equally shocking was the admission elicited by Graham that neither Dempsey nor Panetta had any further contact with President Obama after 5 p.m. on September 11, when they gave him the first news of the attack during a 30-minute scheduled meeting. The attack had been going on for over an hour at that time and would continue for another six.
The President at that meeting directed the two generally to do whatever could be done to assist and protect Americans in harm’s way. Graham further asked, “Did you ever call the President to tell him we had no assets to come to their help?” “No.” “Did the President ever call you to ask, ‘How is it going?’” Again the answer was “No.”
Panetta and Dempsey repeatedly blamed an “intelligence failure” or an “intelligence gap” for the lack of preemptive action to strengthen security in Benghazi. But Dempsey had to admit that he was well aware of Ambassador Christopher Stevens’s repeated cables regarding the dangerous environment in Benghazi and his requests for more security. All of these circumstances had been faithfully briefed to him by United States Africa Command commander General Carter Ham. So why did he take no action? Because there was no formal request from the State Department to do so.
And on and on it went. Senator Ted Cruz (R–TX) wanted to know if at least the special forces having arrived in Tripoli could have secured the blood-stained facility in Benghazi, which lay unsecured for 23 days, allowing terrorists, reporters, and anyone else to search through the critical evidence in the building. Panetta’s answer was “Yes.” Well, why didn’t they? Because no one asked.
Even though half of today’s hearing was a disgraceful waste of time, the other half painted a damning picture of massive bureaucratic failures and a general lack of initiative and sense of responsibility among top leaders in the Obama Administration. And still, no heads have rolled.