The Republican-led House Armed Services Committee concluded its review of the 2012 attack in Benghazi. In short: The most feverish of conspiracy theories have no basis in fact. As we knew — but maybe with prominent Republicans saying it, it will stick.
Prepared by the committee's Republican majority under the direction of committee chair Rep. Buck McKeon, the 30-page report (which focuses only on the actions of the Department of Defense) levels significant critique at the Obama administration. Findings include:
- After being told that there were significant security threats in the region, the White House indicated that it had prepared sufficiently in response.
- While not necessarily an intentional misrepresentation, defenses at the compound in Benghazi were clearly lacking, though.
- Defense never indicated the attack was a protest that got out of hand.
- And in the run-up to the attack the State Department — against Defense's wishes — had moved security staff away from Benghazi.
As for those other conspiracies:
There was no order to "stand down." One of the most pernicious rumors about the attack is that there was an order — perhaps from President Obama himself! — that soldiers not respond in assistance. There was no order, and the report explains how that misunderstanding came about.
Mr. Hicks, the DCM, described Lieutenant Colonel Gibson’s distress to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform in May 2013 and he did not object during the hearing when the soldier’s instructions were categorized as orders to “stand down.” This led some to conclude erroneously that inaction rather than an alternative warfighting posture was ordered for Lieutenant Colonel Gibson’s four men.
These were four soldiers that were stationed in Tripoli. Earlier, a contingent of six soldiers had deployed from that city to Benghazi once reports of the attack began. Lt. Col. Gibson clarified in subsequent testimony:
I was not ordered to stand down. I was ordered to remain in place. “Stand down” implies that we cease all operations, cease all activities. We continued to support the team that was in Tripoli. We continued to maintain visibility of the events as they unfolded.
What's more, Joint Chiefs chair Gen. Marin Dempsey testified that "the President instructed us to use all available assets to respond to the attacks to ensure the safety of U.S. personnel in Libya and to protect U.S. personnel and interests throughout the region." While the attack and response was underway, the report notes, Pentagon and White House officials were engaged, but "these staffers appear to have placed no limitations on the military’s immediate reaction to the attack."
There were no troops that could have gotten to the compound in time. A corollary to the "stand down" theory is that there were nearby troops, beyond those in Tripoli, who could have made it to Benghazi to prevent or repel the attack.
No such troops were in place. The closest platoons appear to have been in Rota, Spain, and were deployed to Benghazi and Tripoli "approximately two to four hours after the initial attack" by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. At the same time, a special operations unit training in Croatia was moved to an air station in Italy to be deployed.
The forces that could get there quickly were those six that had been stationed in Tripoli. According to the report, "they performed heroically" — though it's not clear when they arrived.
An overhead drone didn't convey important information to the military. Another rumor is that Obama watched the entire attack unfold from the Situation Room. There's no evidence to suggest that he did, and, while there was a drone overhead, it provided little useful information to guide response.
The drone wasn't there when the attack first got underway, but as soon as the situation on the ground became apparent, it was flown in from Darnah at the direction of the African Command. It took about an hour to get there.
Once at the scene, its utility was limited:
As the committee was told, the first drone (and one that replaced it later) was able to provide information to “rear headquarters,” but personnel there believed the data was insufficient to guide the development of “operational judgments.”
Flying a jet overhead wouldn't have done any good. Some critics of the Benghazi response have argued that a jet should have been scrambled to fly over the scene as a show of force. Even if a fighter could have made it to Benghazi while the attack was underway, veteran F-16 pilot Major General Roberson told the committee it wouldn't do much good.
Would it have changed anything? Certainly, we couldn’t have gotten there before the ambassador [and a State Department colleague were] dead. We know that. But even if we had gotten there before the annex attack [which killed two more Americans] in my experience it [would not] necessarily stop the fighting, especially if [the enemy were] conditioned to it.
Experienced fighters "know what it means" to have a plane fly overhead. "It means there [are] no bombs dropping. It just means you are trying to let them know you are there."
The committee summarizes its findings: "Given the military’s preparations on September 11, 2012, majority members have not yet discerned any response alternatives that could have likely changed the outcome of the Benghazi attack." The Benghazi attack was a tragedy, and one that could have unfolded differently given different decisions in the weeks prior. But, as the report states, "ensuring that preparations exist for some likely possibilities is not to be confused with the ability to anticipate all prospective circumstances, especially in highly volatile regions."
Not that this will convince the conspiracists.