Citing “sources who were on the ground” in Benghazi, Libya, Fox News is reporting that an urgent request for military help during last month’s terrorist attack on the US consulate there “was denied by the CIA chain of command.”
The attack, on the anniversary of 9/11, killed US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three embassy personnel, including two former Navy SEALs working as security contractors.
Among other things reported in some detail, Fox asserts that a Special Operations team had been moved to US military facilities in Sigonella, Italy – approximately two hours away – but were never told to deploy.
“The fighting at the CIA annex [in Benghazi] went on for more than four hours – enough time for any planes based in Sigonella Air base, just 480 miles away, to arrive. Fox News has also learned that two separate Tier One Special operations forces were told to wait, among them Delta Force operators.”
This latest report comes as the Obama administration continues to fend off criticism that it misunderstood (or deliberately misled in its public statements) what was happening in Benghazi, including the extent to which al Qaeda or its affiliates were involved in the attack.
Writing last week in the conservative National Review online, former Marine Corps officer and Reagan administration senior Pentagon official Francis “Bing” West outlined much the same scenario as Fox News, including a timeline of events in Benghazi.
“Fighter jets could have been at Benghazi in an hour; the commandos inside three hours,” Mr. West wrote. “If the attackers were a mob, as intelligence reported, then an F-18 [Navy fighter jet] in afterburner, roaring like a lion, would unnerve them. This procedure was applied often in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Conversely, if the attackers were terrorists, then the U.S. commandos would eliminate them. But no forces were dispatched from Sigonella.”
“For our top leadership, with all the technological and military tools at their disposal, to have done nothing for seven hours was a joint civilian and military failure of initiative and nerve,” writes West, a Vietnam combat veteran who has reported extensively on US combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Secretary of State Clinton has said the responsibility was hers. But there has been no assertion that the State Department overruled the Pentagon out of concern about the sovereignty of Libyan air space. Instead, it appears passive groupthink prevailed, with the assumption being that a spontaneous mob would quickly run out of steam.”
CIA and Obama administration officials have been quick to rebut such critical news reports.
CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood denied to Fox the claims that requests for support were turned down.
"We can say with confidence that the Agency reacted quickly to aid our colleagues during that terrible evening in Benghazi," she said. "Moreover, no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate. In fact, it is important to remember how many lives were saved by courageous Americans who put their own safety at risk that night – and that some of those selfless Americans gave their lives in the effort to rescue their comrades."
At a press conference this week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said the US military did not quickly intervene during the attack because military leaders did not have adequate intelligence information and felt they should not put American forces at risk, reports the Associated Press.
"The basic principle is that you don't deploy forces into harm's way without knowing what's going on; without having some real-time information about what's taking place," Mr. Panetta told Pentagon reporters. "And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, Gen. Ham, Gen. Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation."
Panetta was referring to Gen. Carter Ham, the head of US Africa Command, and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are pressing their case for more information.
In a letter to President Obama Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner questioned whether the White House considered military options during or immediately after the attack, and he questioned what the president knew about the security threats in the country. He said that the national debate over the incident shows that Americans are concerned and frustrated about the administration's response to the attack.
"Can you explain what options were presented to you or your staff, and why it appears assets were not allowed to be pre-positioned, let alone utilized? If these reports are accurate, the artificial constraint on the range of options at your disposal would be deeply troubling," Rep. Boehner wrote.