What was the president doing during those many hours? There are various accounts now circulating of what his staff did, or perhaps did not do. But for the president himself, there’s a big blank. The White House, which has released photos of Obama monitoring everything from the raid on Osama bin Laden to the natural disaster of Hurricane Sandy, has released no photos of Obama at his post on the evening of the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi.
In an interview weeks later, on Oct 27, with a Colorado TV reporter who pressed questions about Benghazi, Obama said, “The minute I found out what was happening, I gave three very clear directives.” These directives, he said, were to investigate what happened, to bring the perpetrators to justice, and — presumably the most urgent while the battle itself was still underway — “make sure we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to.” But that was about all he was willing to say.
Obama’s immediate dispensing of a directive (though, as Bing West has noted, we have yet to see any documentary evidence of it) accounts for the time just after 5 PM. What did Obama do for the rest of that evening, as Libyans found a dying ambassador in the ravaged diplomatic compound, and took him to a Benghazi hospital; as the outgunned Americans in Benghazi took up defensive positions at the annex?
By the CIA account, CIA reinforcements flew in on a hastily chartered plane from Tripoli, arriving at 1:15 AM at the Benghazi airport, but were then delayed till 4:30 AM– for more than three hours — over logistical problems that included having to negotiate with Libyan authorities for permission to leave the airport. The corresponding time in Washington was 7:15 – 10:30 PM. Given the urgency of the moment, including the torched diplomatic compound, the assault on the annex and the missing ambassador, was this not perhaps an interlude in which direct intervention by the president of the United States, perhaps a phone call to the right official in Libya, might have hastened things along? For that matter, wasn’t this a period during which greater firepower could have been dispatched to Benghazi from U.S. bases outside the country?
As it turned out, when the reinforcements finally got past the airport, they were unable to retrieve the body of Ambassador Stevens from the hospital, because, according to the CIA, the hospital was surrounded by the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia terrorists who — as the State Department informed the White House in an email sent at 6:07 PM that evening — had already taken credit, on Facebook, for the attack. Was the president, whose envoy had disappeared in a fiery battle in Benghazi, not available to follow these developments while they were playing out? For that matter, did no one brief him on it before his UN ambassador went on the TV talk shows five days later to blame the assault on a spontaneous mob enraged by a video?