A version of this column is scheduled for publication in worldtribune.com, Monday, May 13, 2013.
Despite the distractions of a continuing unemployment crisis and the media’s concentration on stories of human depravity, the scandal of the death of four Americans including an ambassador in Bengazhi — “a long time ago” according to the Administration’s spokesman — will not be put down.
Three sets of issues follow the testimony of three whistleblowers from the Department of State appearing before the early May meeting of the House Committee of Oversight and Government Reform:
Why were proper preparations not made to defend American personnel and territory [the embassies and consulates] in the chaos of newly liberated Libya, especially on the anniversary of 9/11?
Why did the Obama Administration feed explanations of the origins of the event which were boldfaced lies – a “cover-up” for which we now have confirmation from U.S. government documents?
Why were American military forces in the region ordered not to go to the aid of the embattled American ambassador and his handful of ad hoc defenders, even including that additional small Special Forces group available in Tripoli?
It is, of course, the second set of these questions which has gained what little media attention there has been, largely until this past week reported only by Fox News. That is the nature of the American political process. For quite correctly, if the party in power has made extraordinary efforts to mask failures in strategy and tactics, it assumes an even wider political significance than the very events themselves. To lie in covering mistakes is seen in the American political culture as a greater sin and violation of the voters’ mandate than the act itself.
But in the long run of history, it may well be that the third of this group of questions is the most meaningful, that is, the role of the American military.
Despite their magnificent performance as the most skilled warriors in modern history, the American military have been bogged down in continuous war for more than a decade. Huge mistakes in strategy – the decision not to finish off Iraq’s Saddam Hussein in the First Persian Gulf War and the notorious articles of engagement in Afghanistan have prevented conclusive victories.
But there are almost no critics of substance of the performance of American soldiers, sailors and marines themselves. Not only is their valor self-evident, but their honor in pursuing the brutal demands of extended conflict are also a cardinal aspect of this past decade. [I would be one of those who argue that pinpointing in so far as that is possible in any armed engagement of terrorist leadership with unmanned aerial vehicles is as humane a pursuit as war permits against an enemy which boasts of its own attacks against civilian targets.]
Sacrifice is, of course, the name of the game for every man and woman enlisted in the U.S. armed forces. The possibility of losing life and limb in defense of American national interest is of course implicit in their service contract with their country. Yet one of the time-honored traditions of the U.S. military, paid for with countless lives over the two hundred years of the Republic, is that embattled comrades are never voluntarily left on their own to face an enemy no matter the prospects for an outcome. “Just as you have a responsibility to your country under the Code of Conduct, the United States government has an equal responsibility—to keep faith with you and stand by you as you fight for your country”, says The Code of the U.S. Fighting Force.
But in his testimony before the House Committee, Gregory Hicks, in command in the Tripoli embassy in the absence [and later death] of Amb. Chris Stevens in Bengazhi, claims the remnant of a Special Forces security force — already shredded by orders from Washington — was ordered to “stand down”. Hicks told investigators that SOCAFRICA commander Lt. Col. Gibson and his team were on their way to board a C-130 from Tripoli for Benghazi prior to an attack on a second U.S. compound “when [Col. Gibson] got a phone call from SOCAFRICA which said, ‘you can’t go now, you don’t have the authority to go now.’ And so they missed the flight … They were told not to board the flight, so they missed it.”
Nor did assistance arrive from the U.S. military outside Libya during the eight hours that Americans were under attack, trapped inside compounds by hostile forces armed with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and AK-47 rifles. Obama administration officials have insisted that no military resources could have made it in time. This has been refuted categorically by former military and CIA officials.
A White House official told CBS that, at the start of the attack, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “looked at available options, and the ones we exercised had our military forces arrive in less than 24 hours, well ahead of timelines laid out in established policies.”
Hicks has testified: “…I talked with the Defense Attaché, Lt. Col. Keith Phillips, and I asked him, ‘Is there anything coming?’ And he said that the nearest fighter planes were Aviano [Italy], that he had been told that it would take two to three hours to get them airborne, but that there were no tanker assets near enough to support a flight from Aviano. [Fighters were routinely refueled in NATO bases in nearby Sicily during the overthrow of Qadaffi.]
“…And for the second time that night [before 5:15 AM attack], I asked the Defense Attaché, is there anything coming, is there anything out there to help our people from, you know, big military? …The answer was, it’s too far away, there are no tankers, there is nothing, there is nothing that could respond.” [A Delta Special Forces strike force was on exercises in Croatia, not more than four hours away.]
“…The second team — the Defense Attaché worked assiduously all night long to try to get the Libyan military to respond in some way. Early in the morning — sorry, after we were formally notified by the Prime Minister, who called me, that Chris had passed, the Libyan military agreed to fly their C-130 to Benghazi and carry additional personnel to Benghazi as reinforcements. Because we at that time — at that time, the third attack, the mortar attack at 5:15, had not yet occurred, if I remember correctly. …I still remember Colonel Gibson, he said, ‘I have never been so embarrassed in my life that a State Department officer has bigger balls than somebody in the military.’ A nice compliment. “
Members of the Committee – except for Democratic Rep. Carolyn Maloney of New York’s 14th Congressional District who immediately charged critics of trashing the military – have tiptoed around this issue. Apparently they fear further accusations such as Ms. Maloney’s.
Yet at the heart of the Bengazhi unknown is Gen. Carter N. Ham, commander of the Africa Command, who, suspiciously, was removed within a month of the events ahead of the usual end of his command and then given early retirement. The Committee and the country need to hear from him where the order to stand down came from, whether it was, indeed, his decision, his superiors at the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, or with the Commander-in-chief in the White House where constitutionally it should have been. At least according to official statements, the President went to bed and departed on Air Force One the next day for a fundraiser only seven weeks before the election.
The honor, the integrity and the reputation of the American military hangs on the legitimate answers from the participants to these questions, the military as well as the civilians.