As Congress laboriously extracts eyewitness accounts of the Benghazi terrorist attack, unexplained aspects of the tragedy are becoming clearer.
Important case in point: the reports of an “order to stand down,” which prevented or at least delayed CIA security personnel from coming to the rescue of the diplomats at the besieged U.S. diplomatic facility. With Americans under attack, such an order would be just about incomprehensible. It has understandably been the object of much speculation.
Over the past several weeks, members of the House Select Committee on Intelligence have finally heard firsthand from CIA contractors who were on the ground in Benghazi on that fateful night. These were among the CIA staff who, at great personal risk, rushed to the burning consulate, fought off attackers, rescued several members of the diplomatic staff, retrieved the body of communications specialist Sean Smith, and attempted to locate and save U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
According to Lynn Westmoreland (R–GA), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, who gave an interview to the Associated Press, the picture that has emerged from their testimony is one of confusion and disagreement locally over the best course of action—rather than a directive from Washington “to stand down.”
Some members of the team wanted to leave immediately after they received the distress calls from the diplomats soon after the attack began at 9.40 p.m. Others tried unsuccessfully to rally local support for the rescue, which did not materialize. “The team leader knew he was on his own,” said Westmoreland, and he was concerned about sending his people into an ambush without support.
In the end, the CIA security contractors arrived 25 minutes after the attack began at the consulate, by which time Smith and Stevens were beyond help. Stevens could not even be found. None of the CIA eyewitnesses thought Stevens could have been saved, as smoke and flames had engulfed the consulate when the attackers doused it with gasoline.
In the end, only firsthand accounts can give us a true picture of what happened in Benghazi. In the absence of information, speculation has accumulated, and the truth may in some cases turn out to be less damaging. Yet the Obama White House has from day one shown a knee-jerk inclination to clamp down on reliable information and instead peddled false narratives and sought to muzzle witnesses. This approach has not served and will not serve the Administration well.