The Obama Administration is struggling today to defend its public comments in the wake of the September 11 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, after the leak of several emails showed that both White House and State Department officials knew a militant faction had claimed credit for the attack just hours later.
At the time officials were downplaying the idea of a militant attack at all, suggesting for days that it was a spontaneous protest against the YouTube trailer for “Innocence of Muslims” gone wrong before conceding that it was possible that it was an attack.
The claim of spontaneity looks even tougher to swallow after revelations that two US sites, including a secret CIA annex, were hit that day, and that CIA agents traveling between the two sites were ambushed multiple times by fighters en route.
Officials are downplaying keeping the information in the emails from the public, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton saying that the emails regarding claims of credit on Facebook were “not hard evidence” and the White House saying there were many other sources of information beside the emails coming in.
Still, even as they try to downplay the significance, and claim that whoever released the emails “cherrypicked” them to make them look as damning as possible, the administration’s perplexing series of statements on the attack, which jumped from seeming certainty of its spontaneity to seeming certainty of it being a militant plot (and the jury still out on whether the YouTube trailer was involved either way) is going to leave a lot of questions being asked at a politically inopportune time.
Even the military’s response, or lack thereof, is a major issue, with former Assistant Defense Secretary Bing West saying it is inconceivable that the Pentagon wasn’t able to deploy anybody during the multiple hours that the attack was ongoing, adding “for the U.S. military to say they couldn’t move … one aircraft in eight hours, I say it’s time to relieve the people in chain of command.”
Hawkish Sens. John McCain (R – AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R – SC) even thought an air strike should have been called in, and expressed annoyance at the lack of warplanes available for such an attack. It has been pointed out, however, that there weren’t really masses of enemies on the ground to attack in the first place, and that strafing the streets at random wouldn’t have been very productive.
All in all, the bigger criticism for security isn’t the lack of additional forces when the attack was in progress, but the massive number of ignored warnings that security in Benghazi was falling apart, with Britain abandoning the city and leaving their weapons stored in the US Consulate for safe keeping because it was just too dangerous. Despite all the warnings, the US kept security at the consulate extremely limited in the months leading up to the attack, and the administration’s only reaction to that is that it “appeared to work as planned” on the days when the ambassador didn’t get assassinated.