CBS' 60 Minutes is trying to revive the long-answered “lingering question” about why no U.S. military forces from outside Libya came to the aid of U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi during the September 11, 2012 attacks.
Last night the program ran a segment reporting out the results of correspondent Lara Logan and producer Max McClellan's year-long investigation of the Benghazi attacks. The segment has caused a feeding frenzy on the right, with hosts and contributors at Fox News claiming that the reporting justifies their 13-month effort to turn the tragic attacks into a phony political scandal for the Obama administration.
During an interview with former deputy chief of mission Greg Hicks, Logan echoed long-running conservative claims that more military aid should have been sent to help the Americans under attack in Benghazi.
LOGAN (VOICEOVER): [T]he lingering question is why no larger military response ever crossed the border into Libya -- something Greg Hicks realized wasn't going to happen just an hour into the attack.
LOGAN: You have this conversation with the defense attaché. You ask him what military assets are on their way. And he says--
HICKS: Effectively, they're not. And I -- for a moment, I just felt lost. I just couldn't believe the answer. And then I made the call to the annex chief, and I told him, “Listen, you've got to tell those guys there may not be any help coming.”
LOGAN: That's a tough thing to understand. Why?
HICKS: It just is. We--for us, for the people that go out-- onto the edge, to represent our country, we believe that if we get in trouble, they're coming to get us. That our back is covered. To hear that it's not, it's a terrible, terrible experience.
Contrary to Hicks' claims, military assets were on their way. Shortly after the attack began, a Marine anti-terrorist team in Spain and special operations teams in Croatia and the United States were ordered to deploy. But the Marines arrived in Tripoli, Libya, roughly 11 hours after the last Americans had been successfully evacuated from Benghazi, while the special operations teams reached a staging base in Italy at around that same time.
Here are four senior military experts who have answered Logan's “lingering question” by pointing out that help was sent, but due to logistical issues, none arrived until hours after the attack concluded:
Admiral (ret.) Mike Mullen, Former Joint Chiefs Chairman. During a September congressional hearing, Mullen, who co-chaired the State Department's independent investigation of Benghazi, said that he had repeatedly reviewed the military's response that night and determined that in spite of the “questions being raised about it,”“The military did everything they possibly could that night. They just couldn't get there in time.” He explained:
MULLEN: It goes to our core, when people are in trouble, to do everything we possibly can to help them out. And there were many forces that moved that night, including a special operation force in Europe that ended up in a base in southern Europe, a large special operations force from the United States which moved under direction as soon as -- as soon as they were given orders. A group of Marines that essentially were sent in from Spain into Tripoli the next day. It literally became -- this is not something you can just wish to happen instantly. There's a lot of planning, preparation, as rapidly -- to do it as rapidly as one can do it.
Former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. During February 7 congressional testimony[accessed via Nexis], Panetta said that the Department of Defense was “prepared for a wide range of contingencies” that night, but since there was no specific intelligence warning of an imminent attack in Benghazi, “there was not enough time, given the speed of the attack, for armed military assets to respond”:
And frankly, without an adequate warning, there was not enough time, given the speed of the attack, for armed military assets to respond. That's not just my view or General Dempsey's view; it was the view of the Accountability Review Board that studied what happened on that day.
In the months since the tragedy at the temporary mission facility and the nearby annex in Benghazi, we've learned that there were actually two short-duration attacks that occurred some six hours apart. And again, there was no specific intelligence that indicated that a second attack would occur at the annex, which was located some two miles away.
The bottom line is this: that we were not dealing with a prolonged or continuous assault which could have been brought to an end by a U.S. military response. Very simply, although we had forces deployed to the region, time, distance, the lack of an adequate warning, events that moved very quickly on the ground prevented a more immediate response.
Despite the uncertainty at the time, the Department of Defense and the rest of the United States government spared no effort to do everything we could to try to save American lives. Before, during and after the attack, every request the Department of Defense received, we did, we accomplished. But again, four Americans' lives were lost, and we all have a responsibility to make sure that that does not happen again.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates. During a May interview, Gates said that the idea that military assets should have been able to get to Benghazi during the attack was based on a “sort of a cartoonish impression of military capabilities”:
GATES: I think the one place where I might be able to say something useful has to do with some of the talk of the military response. And I listened to the testimony of both Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey, and frankly had I been in the job at the time, I think that my decisions would have been just as theirs were. We don't have a ready force standing by in the Middle East, despite all the turmoil that's going on with planes on strip alert, troops ready to deploy at a moment's notice. And so getting someone there in a timely way would have been very difficult if not impossible....
And with respect to sending in Special Forces or a small group of people to try and provide help, based on everything I've read people really didn't know what was going on in Benghazi contemporaneously, and to send some small number of Special Forces or other troops in without knowing what the environment is, without knowing what the threat is, without having any intelligence in terms of what is actually going on on the ground, I think would have been very dangerous and personally I would not have approved that because we just don't -- it's sort of a cartoonish impression of military capabilities and military forces. The one thing our forces are noted for is planning and preparation before we send people in harm's way, and there just wasn't time.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, Joint Chiefs Chairman. In February written congressional testimony, Dempsey said:
Our military was appropriately responsive. We acted quickly once notified of the attacks on the Temporary Mission Facility. ... We also repositioned forces based on direction from the President of the United States and Secretary of Defense. We deployed a Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team to Tripoli while a second team prepared to deploy. We directed the deployment of a special operations force in the United States and one already in Europe to intermediate staging bases. We also provided C-17 airlift for medical evacuation. We did what our posture and capabilities allowed.
This is not the first time Hicks has criticized the military response to the Benghazi attacks, raising the “lingering question” of why CBS News permitted him to do so in this case without noting that such charges have been vigorously rebutted by military experts. It was Hicks who, in congressional testimony that was leaked to and published by CBS in May, claimed that Special Forces based in Tripoli had been told to stand down rather than flying to aid Americans in Benghazi.
That claim, which was vigorously promoted by the right-wing media, was false. Since Hicks offered his claim, the commander of the Special Forces team, his commander, and Dempsey have all said that no such order was given. After the commander of the Special Forces team testified before a closed House Armed Services Committee hearing in June, the committee issued a statement that “contrary to news reports,” the commander “was not ordered to 'stand down' by higher command authorities in response to his understandable desire to lead a group of three other Special Forces soldiers to Benghazi. Rather, he was ordered to remain in Tripoli to defend Americans there in anticipation of possible additional attacks, and to assist the survivors as they returned from Benghazi.”
For more on conservative media myths about the September 2012 attack, read The Benghazi Hoax, the new e-book by Media Matters' David Brock and Ari Rabin-Havt.