As Ed Morrissey points out, the administration took advantage of the early Friday evening lull in news gathering to dump a Pentagon Benghazi timeline on the press.
Yesterday, more than two months after the terrorist attack on our consulate in Benghazi left four Americans dead and the American response a confused mess, the Pentagon finally got around to releasing its version of the timeline of military response to the crisis to the Associated Press — when most newspapers and broadcast networks had closed up shop for the day. Small wonder, too, because the timeline showed that it took 19 hours for military assistance to arrive.
The way this Reuters story describes it, there was an almost surreal quality to the Pentagon’s response:
According to the Pentagon’s timeline, the military’s Africa Command, based in Europe, ordered an unmanned, unarmed surveillance drone diverted to the city in eastern Libya just 17 minutes after the attack on the consulate began about 9:42 p.m. local time (3:42 p.m. EDT), the first military action in response to the incident. It took the drone more than an hour to arrive at the scene.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s office was notified of the attack 50 minutes after it began, and Panetta learned of it shortly thereafter as he and the military’s top general headed to a previously scheduled meeting with President Barack Obama at the White House.
Obama, Panetta and Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, discussed potential responses to the unfolding events in Benghazi during their meeting, which began 78 minutes after the start of the Libya attack, according to the timeline.
Panetta and Dempsey then returned to the Pentagon and began a two-hour series of meetings with General Carter Ham, head of Africa Command, and other senior military leaders from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. EDT (12 a.m. to 2 a.m. Libya time) to organize responses to the attack.
But as they arrived at the Pentagon, the surviving personnel from the consulate in Benghazi were being evacuated by a CIA team that arrived from a nearby base, about two hours after the start of the attack. Ambassador Christopher Stevens was missing.
Stevens’ body was found at a local hospital. He apparently died of asphyxiation in the smoke-filled diplomatic compound after it was set ablaze by the attackers. Stevens and three other U.S. personnel died in the attack on the consulate and a nearby CIA annex.
“When initial reports came in, we knew the ambassador could not be reached,” a senior defense official told reporters. “We were looking at the possibility of a potential hostage-rescue scenario, for instance. So we didn’t know if this was going to be an hours-long event or a days-long even or longer.”
During the meetings, the group formulated a response to the attack and gave verbal orders to prepare to deploy two teams of Marine anti-terrorism troops, used for providing security, and two special forces units, one based in Europe and the other in the United States.
To my eyes, there is a curious lack of urgency in the planning. Clearly, we were unprepared for any attack, despite the date of September 11 and the well known dangers in Benghazi for western diplomatic personnel.
There were “verbal orders to prepare to deploy” assets. In other words, inaction. That’s like telling a waiter in a restaurant that you’ll be ordering soon. It is meaningless when the Pentagon should have known that minutes counted.
The Pentagon explained to AP what the problem was:
But there have been persistent questions about whether the Pentagon should have moved more rapidly to get troops into Libya or had units closer to the area as the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on America approached. In particular, there was at least a 19-hour gap between the time when Panetta first ordered military units to prepare to deploy – between midnight and 2 a.m. local time in Tripoli – and the time a Marine anti-terrorism team landed in Tripoli, which as just before 9 p.m.
A senior defense official on Friday said forces were at the ready around the globe, but it took time to assess the murky situation, evaluate the threats, put plans in place and get the teams there. With the situation on the ground rapidly evolving, military officials have said there were a number of potential scenarios that had to be evaluated, including concerns that the violence could continue for some time or there could be a hostage situation to which commandos might have to respond.
Hindsight is always 20-20 but the more one gets into this story, the more one is struck by the critical lack of foresight in anticipating threats and then not having contingency plans to deal with them. Isn’t that what we pay these guys to do?