Newt Gingrich appeared on Greta Van Susteren’s show last night and dropped a bombshell. According to Gingrich, two networks may have emails in which the National Security Adviser’s office told counterterrorism forces mobilizing to relieve and rescue American personnel in Benghazi to stand down.
GINGRICH: “There is a rumor — I want to be clear, it’s a rumor — that at least two networks have emails from the National Security Adviser’s office telling a counterterrorism group to stand down. But they were a group in real-time trying to mobilize marines and C-130s and the fighter aircraft, and they were told explicitly by the White House stand down and do nothing. ‘This is not a terrorist action.’ If that is true, and I’ve been told this by a fairly reliable U.S. senator, if that is true and comes out, I think it raises enormous questions about the president’s role, and Tom Donilon, the National Security Adviser’s role, the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who has taken it on his own shoulders, that he said don’t go. And that is, I think, very dubious, given that the president said he had instructions they are supposed to do everything they could to secure American personnel.”
CNS reports that President Obama was meeting in the White House with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden at the time of the attack. The meeting, which had been scheduled before the attack, began just 55 minutes after the assault was initiated. Neither the White House nor the Defense Department are commenting on what was discussed, but the meeting definitively fixes both the president’s and Panetta’s position at the White House during the attack.
During the attack, the White House Situation Room was among the recipients of emails from the field, in which US personnel described the attack as it transpired. One of those emails came in from Benghazi at 4:05 PM Eastern, less than an hour before the president’s White House meeting. By that time, the attack had been underway for about 25 minutes. The US drone known to have been capturing video from overhead during most of the battle, was feeding video to various US commands likely including the Situation Room.
The question of whether any stand down order was given, and by whom, has been the subject of intense scrutiny since Fox’s Jennifer Griffing reported on Oct. 26 that the CIA’s agents in Benghazi requested help but were denied three times. If Gingrich is correct, the finger now points at National Security Adviser Tom Donilon.
But with the president, vice president and defense secretary meeting in the White House as the attack unfolded, the buck has to stop higher than Donilon even if he gave the order. The three men were meeting in the White House as Americans were fighting for their lives. President Obama has previously said that as soon as he learned of the attack he gave out three orders: “Number one, make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to. Number two, we’re going to investigate exactly what happened so that it doesn’t happen again. Number three, find out who did this so we can bring them to justice.”
Is any of that actually true? There is no concrete evidence that the president gave any such orders to secure anyone, but there is evidence that someone high up ordered a stand down, and Panetta suggested that that was the proper course in his “Monday morning quarterbacking” comments. Declaring an intent to investigate an attack as it transpires seems awfully convenient, given the administration’s attempt to spin the attack as a protest against a movie after the fact. Bringing terrorists to justice implies capture and trial. That would be out of character for a president who has itched to close Gitmo for years, turning away the opportunity to interrogate terrorists captured in future battles, and who prefers drone kills to capture and interrogation.
The question now is the same it has been for weeks: What did the president know, and when did he know it?