Right-Wing Benghazi Myths Come Under Fire

As the anniversary of the attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya approaches, the conservative media seems to be salivating over the release of Under Fire, the new book by former diplomatic security agent Fred Burton and journalist Samuel M. Katz that details the assault, minute-by-minute. It's the latest salvo in conservatives' year-long campaign to politicize and demagogue the tragedy. But conservatives may want to read the book first. The authors discredit the narratives conservative media figures have perpetuated about the attack in order to criticize the Obama administration, most notably the claims that there could have been a larger and faster military response or that resources were intentionally withheld from those under fire in Libya.  

The lack of a timely military response was never an issue of lack of resolve or determination to help Americans in danger, Burton and Katz write. It all came down to logistics:

There was never a question concerning U.S. resolve or the overall capabilities of the U.S. military to respond to Benghazi. There was, however, nothing immediate about an immediate response. There were logistics and host-nation approvals to consider. An immediate response was hampered by the equation of geography and logistics.

The authors go into great detail describing the various factors that prevented additional military response teams from arriving in Benghazi in time, and in the process completely dismantle the notion that available military assets could have made a difference but were held back for political reasons.

On page 138, Burton and Katz discuss the availability and response time of the Marine Corps' Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team (FAST), which was ordered by the Pentagon to get to Libya “as fast as you can”:

“The FAST unit closer to Benghazi was FAST Company Europe, which reported to the Marine Corps Security Force Regiment, II Marine Expeditionary Force. Based at the Naval Station Rota, Spain, FAST Company Europe was no stranger to crisis and response work in the Mediterranean. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ordered that appropriate forces respond. A task order flowed from the Pentagon to NAVSTA Rota, Spain: ”Lean forward and get there as fast as you can." The marines mustered into their transport aircraft on the tarmac in their combat fatigues and full battle kit. However, logistical challenges such as airspace and overflight clearances are not easily sorted out, especially involving a nation like Libya. Sending armed U.S. Marines into a sovereign nation became a complex foreign policy decision with multiple moving pieces between Libyan Foreign Ministry, the Pentagon, and the State Department. The marines waited on the tarmac for their orders. The FAST platoon wouldn't make it to Libya, to augment security at the embassy in Tripoli, until the next evening.

With regard to the Joint Special Operations Command's counterterrorism response teams (Navy SEALs and Delta Force) Burton and Katz write on page 137: “These units were designed to react, respond, and remedy critical situations -- situations that were clearly defined. These units were not designed to participate in a rapidly flowing incident that could, like Mogadishu twenty years earlier, result in disaster.... Anyway, deploying one of the JSOC units from the continental United States would take hours.”

Contrary to conservative reports that AC-130 gunships were available to respond to the attack but not utilized, Bruton and Katz write on page 139: “There was no U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship anywhere near the African continent that could have been diverted to fly close air support and aid rescue efforts.” According to the authors, “the fastest response boiled down to an unarmed drone that AFRICON diverted from a mission 'somewhere' over the continent.”

There have also been questions about the State Department's Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST) and why those capabilities were not deployed to Benghazi. Burton and Katz make it clear that such forces are usually deployed only “where local security arrangements can be coordinated and generally assured” and that State Department officials were concerned that the possibility of another attack -- and the fact that local Libyan security forces were in no position to prevent another attack -- would expose FEST personnel to danger and put additional American lives at risk. “A FEST response to Benghazi,” the authors write, “was possible only when thinking of life inside the bubble of a perfect world.” [page 142]

“FEST assets could not have gotten to Benghazi in time to do anything for Ambassador Stevens or the DS agents under fire,” Burton and Katz concluded. “It was doubtful, even in a perfect world, if the package could have arrived in Benghazi by mid-morning (local time) the following day.”

This puts a dagger through the heart of the conservative myth -- expounded everywhere from fringe right-wing blogs to the Wall Street Journal opinion page ­-- that military assets were available to rescue Americans in Benghazi but were deliberately withheld by the Obama administration. As the authors write on page 170: “The response from Washington was monolithically unified: get our people out.”