13 Hours in Benghazi, and the Still-Missing White House Timeline

It's almost two weeks since the release of "13 Hours," the movie about the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. In the modern news cycle, that's time enough for the importance of this movie to be buried by news of the blizzard from which the East Coast is now digging out. But I found this movie so good that I went to see it twice.

Both times, I came away wondering the same thing. What, precisely, was President Obama doing during the hours -- all those many hours -- in which the Americans in Benghazi, abandoned by their leaders in Washington, fought for their lives?

What was Obama doing, amid the comforts and command centers of the White House, while State Department officer Sean Smith and Ambassador Chris Stevens were choking on the smoke of a diesel-fueled inferno at the poorly secured U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi? What was Obama doing during the hours in which the assault targeted the CIA annex near the compound? What was he doing when al Qaeda-linked terrorists fired mortars at the Americans defending the annex, killing former SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods?

Benghazi in that season was six hours ahead of Washington. The attacks began about 9:45 P.M. in Benghazi, and went on intermittently all night, with the deadly mortar assault coming at about 5:15 A.M. It took another five hours, and then some, before the last of the survivors, assembled at the airport, along with the bodies of the four dead Americans, were flown out of Benghazi -- not by American forces, but aboard a Libyan C-130 military cargo plane. Thus the roughly 13 hours referred to in the title of the movie, from approximately 9:45 PM on the evening of Sept. 11, until about 10:30 A.M on the morning of Sept. 12.

In Washington, six hours behind, that timing corresponded to roughly 3:45 P.M. on Sept. 11 until 4:30 A.M., Sept. 12, with Americans killed during the first eight hours of this terrible span. When mortar fire killed Doherty and Woods, about 5:15 A.M. in Libya, it was about 11:15 P.M., Sept. 11, in Washington. In other words, on the White House clock, the assault in Benghazi began mid-afternoon, Washington time, and went on for the rest of the afternoon and the entire evening. It was close to midnight, Washington time, when the mortar onslaught killed Woods, who was based in Benghazi, and Doherty, who had flown in that night from Tripoli as part of a small rescue squad. They died as part of a small group of warriors defending the other Americans under attack.

What was America's president doing, during all those hours? No one expects the U.S. president to involve himself directly in every firefight that might endanger Americans in far away places. But he is the commander-in-chief, the executive at whose desk the buck is supposed to stop. And there was nothing ordinary about what happened in Benghazi. The symbolically loaded date was Sept. 11. The first target was an American diplomatic compound, which was hit with AK-47 fire and rocket propelled grenades, invaded, plundered and torched with diesel fuel -- killing the ambassador and one of his staff. The next target was a nearby "secret" CIA annex, housing Americans. While far from U.S. shores, what took place in Benghazi was a brazen, heavily armed, terrorist assault on America and its citizens. It was the first time in 33 years that an American ambassador had been murdered.