The Benghazi debacle boils down to a single key factor — the granting or withholding of “cross-border authority.” This opinion is informed by my experience as a Navy SEAL officer who took a NavSpecWar Detachment to Beirut.
Once the alarm is sent — in this case, from the consulate in Benghazi — dozens of HQs are notified and are in the planning loop in real time, including AFRICOM and EURCOM, both located in Germany. Without waiting for specific orders from Washington, they begin planning and executing rescue operations, including moving personnel, ships, and aircraft forward toward the location of the crisis. However, there is one thing they can’t do without explicit orders from the president: cross an international border on a hostile mission.
That is the clear “red line” in this type of a crisis situation.
No administration wants to stumble into a war because a jet jockey in hot pursuit (or a mixed-up SEAL squad in a rubber boat) strays into hostile territory. Because of this, only the president can give the order for our military to cross a nation’s border without that nation’s permission. For the Osama bin Laden mission, President Obama granted CBA for our forces to enter Pakistani airspace.
On the other side of the CBA coin: in order to prevent a military rescue in Benghazi, all the POTUS has to do is not grant cross-border authority. If he does not, the entire rescue mission (already in progress) must stop in its tracks.
Ships can loiter on station, but airplanes fall out of the sky, so they must be redirected to an air base (Sigonella, in Sicily) to await the POTUS decision on granting CBA. If the decision to grant CBA never comes, the besieged diplomatic outpost in Benghazi can rely only on assets already “in country” in Libya — such as the Tripoli quick reaction force and the Predator drones. These assets can be put into action on the independent authority of the acting ambassador or CIA station chief in Tripoli. They are already “in country,” so CBA rules do not apply to them.
How might this process have played out in the White House?
If, at the 5:00 p.m. Oval Office meeting with Defense Secretary Panetta and Vice President Biden, President Obama said about Benghazi: “I think we should not go the military action route,” meaning that no CBA will be granted, then that is it. Case closed. Another possibility is that the president might have said: “We should do what we can to help them … but no military intervention from outside of Libya.” Those words then constitute “standing orders” all the way down the chain of command, via Panetta and General Dempsey to General Ham and the subordinate commanders who are already gearing up to rescue the besieged outpost.
When that meeting took place, it may have seemed as if the consulate attack was over, so President Obama might have thought the situation would stabilize on its own from that point forward. If he then goes upstairs to the family quarters, or otherwise makes himself “unavailable,” then his last standing orders will continue to stand until he changes them, even if he goes to sleep until the morning of September 12.
Nobody in the chain of command below President Obama can countermand his “standing orders” not to send outside military forces into Libyan air space. Nobody. Not Leon Panetta, not Hillary Clinton, not General Dempsey, and not General Ham in Stuttgart, Germany, who is in charge of the forces staging in Sigonella.
Perhaps the president left “no outside military intervention, no cross-border authority” standing orders, and then made himself scarce to those below him seeking further guidance, clarification, or modified orders. Or perhaps he was in the Situation Room watching the Predator videos in live time for all seven hours. We don’t yet know where the president was hour by hour.
But this is 100 percent sure: Panetta and Dempsey would have executed a rescue mission order if the president had given those orders.
And like the former SEALs in Benghazi, General Ham and all of the troops under him would have been straining forward in their harnesses, ready to go into battle to save American lives.
The execute orders would be given verbally to General Ham at AFRICOM in Stuttgart, but they would immediately be backed up in official message traffic for the official record. That is why cross-border authority is the King Arthur’s Sword for understanding Benghazi. The POTUS and only the POTUS can pull out that sword.
We can be 100% certain that cross-border authority was never given. How do I know this? Because if CBA was granted and the rescue mission execute orders were handed down, irrefutable records exist today in at least a dozen involved component commands, and probably many more. No general or admiral will risk being hung out to dry for undertaking a mission-gone-wrong that the POTUS later disavows ordering, and instead blames on “loose cannons” or “rogue officers” exceeding their authority. No general or admiral will order U.S. armed forces to cross an international border on a hostile mission unless and until he is certain that the National Command Authority, in the person of the POTUS and his chain of command, has clearly and explicitly given that order: verbally at the outset, but thereafter in written orders and official messages. If they exist, they could be produced today.
When it comes to granting cross-border authority, there are no presidential mumblings or musings to paraphrase or decipher. If you hear confusion over parsed statements given as an excuse for Benghazi, then you are hearing lies. I am sure that hundreds of active-duty military officers know all about the Benghazi execute orders (or the lack thereof), and I am impatiently waiting for one of them to come forward to risk his career and pension as a whistleblower.
Leon Panetta is falling on his sword for President Obama with his absurd-on-its-face, “the U.S. military doesn’t do risky things”-defense of his shameful no-rescue policy. Panetta is utterly destroying his reputation. General Dempsey joins Panetta on the same sword with his tacit agreement by silence. But why? How far does loyalty extend when it comes to covering up gross dereliction of duty by the president?
General Petraeus, however, has indirectly blown the whistle. He was probably “used” in some way early in the cover-up with the purported CIA intel link to the Mohammed video, and now he feels burned. So he conclusively said via his public affairs officer that the stand-down order did not come from the CIA. Well — what outranks the CIA? Only the national security team at the White House. That means President Obama, and nobody else. Petraeus is naming Obama without naming him. If that is not quite as courageous as blowing a whistle, it is far better than the disgraceful behavior of Panetta and Dempsey.
We do not know the facts for certain, but we do know that the rescue mission stand-down issue revolves around the granting or withholding of cross-border authority, which belongs only to President Obama. More than one hundred gung-ho Force Recon Marines were waiting on the tarmac in Sigonella, just two hours away for the launch order that never came.