On Wednesday, at least three State Department employees will testify before the House Government Oversight and Reform Committee on Benghazi. They are expected to say that yes, there was a stand-down order during the battle. They may also testify that the State Department itself has tried to bully them into silence. What else they may say is not yet known.
As the Benghazi story has unfolded, many mysteries have persisted. Why wasn’t the Benghazi mission’s security enhanced? Where was President Obama? What role, if any, did Obama campaign officials play in crafting the government’s communications after the attack? Perhaps Wednesday’s witnesses can help shed some light on them.
1. Who gave the stand-down order, and why? Fox and CBS have both reported that there was a stand-down order issued during the battle in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. Four Americans died, while as many as 30 survived. Assistance could have come in from U.S. bases in Italy or possibly from bases in the Middle East. There was a drone, unarmed, overhead, and there have been reports that an AC-130 gunship was also overhead at some point during the prolonged battle. The question is not, now, whether there was a stand-down order issued. Fox and CBS have independently reported that there was. The question is, how far up in the U.S. chain of command was that decision made, and why was it made? Additionally, how did U.S. forces react to that order? Was anyone relieved of command for considering or attempting to disobey that order, as has been rumored for months?
2. Where was President Obama and what was he doing? As commander-in-chief, the president is ultimately responsible for any U.S. response to attacks on our missions and personnel overseas. According to official schedules and White House answers after the fact, President Obama held a regularly scheduled meeting at 5 pm Washington time with his then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, around the time that the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi began. No photos from that meeting have been released. The American people have been told very little about the president’s activities that night. He held the meeting, the attack began and would unfold for several hours, and the president reportedly went to bed that night in the White House. By the time he went to bed, news had already broken that U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens was missing. Obama went to bed not knowing his ambassador’s fate, and reportedly learned the next morning that Stevens had been killed. No photos of the president being present or in command during the attack have ever been released by the White House. This in itself is strange behavior from a White House that even released a photo of the president, by himself, holding a moment of silence for the victims of the Boston bombing. In February, Panetta testified that he had no communication with Obama after their September 11 meeting, and in fact had no communication with anyone at the White House at all during the attack, raising the question of whether anyone was in the White House Situation Room monitoring the attack. It’s implausible that the secretary of Defense and president of the United States would not communicate at all during an attack on a U.S. facility overseas, but that is Panetta’s testimony. That mystery deepens when we consider then Secretary of State Clinton’s actions during the attack.
3. Where was Secretary of State Clinton and what was she doing? How much did Clinton know about the security situation in Benghazi before the attack? Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s whereabouts and activities during the attack in Benghazi are similarly mysterious. Clinton’s State Department repeatedly rejected requests for enhancing security at Benghazi, even as Ansar al-Sharia’s power in the area grew over the summer of 2012. Why did State not beef up the Benghazi mission’s security? The Benghazi attack was focused on the U.S. consulate, which belongs to the U.S. State Department. Why Stevens was in Benghazi that night, and what the consulate may have been used for, remains unknown. One of the Wednesday whistleblowers, veteran counterterrorism officer Mark I. Thompson, is expected to testify that Secretary of State Clinton sought to cut the State Department’s counterterrorism bureau out of the chain of reporting and decision-making during the attack. Thompson also claims that the State Department suppressed his account after the attack. Another unnamed State official corroborates Thompson’s account. But Daniel Benjamin, head of the counterterrorism unit at the time, says Clinton never tried to cut his group out during the attack. All of this brings to mind the question, exactly what was Clinton’s role on the night of the attack? Secretary of Defense Panetta testified that he and Clinton never communicated during the attack. All three of the nation’s top national security and diplomatic officials — President Obama, Defense Secretary Panetta and Secretary of State Clinton — were in Washington that night. Panetta and Clinton were evidently engaged in responding to the attack, independently. Yet according to Panetta, they never talked to each other during the attack. Why would they not communicate during an ongoing attack on a U.S. facility overseas, if indeed they did not? Both Defense and State would surely be involved in any effective response to an attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission overseas.