The story of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi has been evolving for more than seven weeks now, in its many and oft conflicting variants, and the questions keep multiplying. Amid the official obfuscations and evasions, a patchwork picture has been emerging, by way of congressional questions, leaked emails, anonymous sources and documents discovered as recently as this week by reporters wandering through the still-unsecured, burned and looted diplomatic compound where Ambassador Chris Stevens apparently spent his final moments of consciousness choking on the smoke of a diesel-fueled conflagration.
Among the vital tools for clarifying what actually happened are the timelines, which are only slowly being filled in. Broadly, these stretch back months before the assault, as American personnel in Libya warned about deteriorating security, and a U.S. administration invested in the tale of al Qaeda-in-retreat, success in Libya, and a receding tide of war, chose to ignore the warnings. The timelines stretch forward as well, encompassing confusing and conflicting accounts put forth by various officials of the administration; the Sept. 16 televised blame-the-video-and-the-spontaneous-mob messages of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, and the Sept. 25 denounce-the-video speech of President Obama at the UN; the reported inability of the FBI to reach the Benghazi sites until more than three weeks after the attack; the continuing controversy about reported calls for help and the alleged orders to stand down. The list goes on.
But of special interest, in getting a handle on the truth, are the timelines for the duration of the attack itself. There are at least two provided by the administration at this stage. One comes from the State Department, outlined in a teleconference background press briefing on Oct. 9. The other was provided this past Thursday by the CIA. They don’t quite match up. Both versions agree that the assault on the main diplomatic compound began at 9:40 PM Benghazi time, and that a rescue squad came from the annex about a mile away, was unable to find the ambassador, retrieved the body of diplomatic aide Sean Smith, and then returned, under fire, to the annex — which itself came under attack, and where, in the early morning hours, former SEALS Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were killed by a mortar strike.
But when the rescue squad returns to the annex that deadly night, accounts diverge. According to the State Department briefer, the attack on the annex continued, at least sporadically, for hours — from the time the rescue team returned, until the time the two agents were killed. The wording in the State Department Oct. 9 transcript , referring to the time the rescue team arrived back at the annex, is: “The annex is at this time also taking fire and does take fire intermittently, on and off, for the next several hours. The fire consists of AK-47s, but also RPGs, and it’s, at times, quite intense.”
The CIA version, as reported Nov. 1, by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, is different. According to the CIA, the attacks on the annex “stop at 1:01 A.M., and some assume the fight is over.” Then, more than four hours later, at 5:15 AM, “A new Libyan assault begins, this time with mortars.” That’s the attack in which Woods and Doherty are killed. It stops just 11 minutes later. At 6 AM, a large Libyan security escort finally shows up, takes the Americans to the airport, where some of them, including the wounded, fly out at 7 AM, and the rest depart at 10 AM, with the bodies of the four murdered Americans.
Plenty remains to be filled in and reconciled between these overlapping timelines. But the glaring omission to date is the timeline back in Washington for the commander-in-chief, the president himself. The critical interval in Benghazi spanned just over 12 hours, from the time the attack began, at 9:40 PM on Sept. 11, until the last contingent of Americans flew out, at 10 AM the next day, Benghazi is in a time zone six hours ahead of Washington. So, in Washington, that critical 12-hour interval ran from 3:40 PM, Sept. 11, until about 4 AM, Sept. 12.
What was the president doing during those 12 hours? The official White House schedule for Sept. 11 tells us he had been to a memorial service at the Pentagon that morning, then visited the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at 2:15 PM, returning at 4:50 PM to the White House for a previously scheduled meeting at 5:00 PM with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. The White House has said that Obama was informed at about 5 PM of the attack in Benghazi. Did no one on his staff try to inform him sooner? By then, the diplomatic post had already been under attack for well over an hour. It was 11 PM in Benghazi, where a rescue squad from the annex had arrived at the burning diplomatic compound and was trying, without success, to reach Ambassador Stevens amid the intense fire and smoke.
The White House schedule for that week shows nothing for the president after that 5 PM meeting on Sept. 11, at which time he reportedly got word of the attack. The next item for the president, as now recorded in the White House schedule, was his appearance at 10:35 the next morning, Sept. 12, when he delivered a statement in the Rose Garden, deploring the deaths of the four Americans, while implying that some sort of deliberate third-party offense (the video) had provoked the attack (“While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others…”).
Between 5 PM, when the president was informed of the attack, and 10:35 AM, when Obama delivered that public statement, there was an interval of more than 17 hours. When was he directly following the events in Benghazi, complete with the claim and appearance of the heavily armed terrorists of Ansar al-Sharia? When did he go to sleep? When was he informed of the death of the ambassador? During the first six-and-a-half of those hours, from 5 PM until about 11:30 PM Washington time, the American personnel on the ground in Benghazi were either under attack (intermittent, and at times intense, for hours, if you believe the State Department; or with a pause of about four hours — though with nothing definitively resolved, and the ambassador presumed dead but not yet back in American hands — if you believe the CIA). And during the first 11 of those hours, until 4 AM Washington time, there were still Americans, in peril, on the ground in Benghazi.