As he left his Marine One helicopter Wednesday evening and walked to the residence of the White House, President Obama did not respond to a question shouted out by ABC News’s Mary Bruce about when he would begin to provide answers to the numerous questions building up about what exactly what went wrong in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012.
The president smiled and continued walking.
Perhaps he couldn’t hear the question over the din of the chopper’s blades, but either way the smile and wave – almost Reagan-esque in style – underline the apparent strategy the president specifically and his administration in general have seemed to adopt when it comes to the myriad inquiries about the decisions that led to the deaths of four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens: they are deferring detailed answers to the investigation and – critics say –running out the clock until Election Day.
As of now, the White House has disclosed that President Obama was informed about the attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi at roughly 5pm by his National Security Adviser Tom Donilon as he was in a pre-scheduled meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. At that meeting, senior administration officials say, the President ordered that the U.S. begin moving military assets into the region to prepare for a range of contingencies.
But beyond that, the White House has punted, saying the Accountability Review Board established by the State Department is investigating the matter and what went wrong. No detailed tick-tock, no information about the president’s involvement in decision-making. In addition, they’re preparing for a closed-door hearing of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence on November 15.
Without question in this hyper-partisan environment, Republicans operatives are fanning flames and creating suspicions where there’s no evidence of wrongdoing, trafficking in false rumors and idle speculation. The White House has felt the necessity to pop its head up to shoot down stories it says are false.
For instance, Tommy Vietor, the spokesman for the National Security Council, has said that despite some claims, there was no real-time video of the attack being watched in the Situation Room.
As for recent stories suggesting otherwise, Vietor says, “the White House didn’t deny any requests for assistance. Period. Moreover, what the entire government did – the White House, State Department, Intelligence Community, Department of Defense included – was to work to mobilize all available assets and move them into the region as quickly as possible. That’s what the President ordered the Secretary of Defense and Chairman to do the first time he was briefed about these issues. Many of those assets were later used to reinforce embassies in places like Yemen, Libya and Egypt.”
But that doesn’t mean the myriad questions stacking up are all political in nature, nor that those interested in answers about the Benghazi tragedy are motivated by partisan and nefarious aims.
The Washington Post’s respected foreign policy columnist David Ignatius just yesterday posed “Lingering Questions about Benghazi.” One of them, pointedly, was “At a time when al-Qaeda was strengthening its presence in Libya and across North Africa, why didn’t the United States have more military hardware nearby?”
In the place of a detailed description from the Obama administration about what happened more than six weeks ago comes the drip-drip-drip of stories about the failures of the Obama administration to provide those Americans on the ground in Libya with all the security assets they needed.
ABC News broke some stories on this, ranging from a security team being denied continued use of an airplane its commander wanted to keep in country to better do his job; to the security team leaving Libya before Ambassador Stevens wanted it to.
Fox News Channel’s Catherine Herridge last night reported on a newly discovered cable indicating that in August, less than a month before the attack, the diplomatic post in Benghazi convened an “emergency meeting” concerned about local Al Qaeda training camps. Said the cable: “RSO (Regional Security Officer) expressed concerns with the ability to defend Post in the event of a coordinated attack due to limited manpower, security measures, weapons capabilities, host nation support, and the overall size of the compound.”
The cable stated that “In light of the uncertain security environment, US Mission Benghazi will submit specific requests to US Embassy Tripoli for additional physical security upgrades and staffing needs by separate cover.”
The State Department’s comment to Fox: “An independent board is conducting a thorough review of the assault on our post in Benghazi. Once we have the board’s comprehensive account of what happened, findings and recommendations, we can fully address these matters.”
It was the exact same statement given to ABC News earlier in the month about a different revelation.
This afternoon, journalists Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa in Foreign Policy Magazine reported that when they arrived at the compound in Benghazi on October 26 they found “several ash-strewn documents beneath rubble in the looted Tactical Operations Center, one of the four main buildings of the partially destroyed compound. Some of the documents — such as an email from Stevens to his political officer in Benghazi and a flight itinerary sent to Sean Smith, a U.S. diplomat slain in the attack — are clearly marked as State Department correspondence. Others are unsigned printouts of messages to local and national Libyan authorities. The two unsigned draft letters are both dated Sept. 11 and express strong fears about the security situation at the compound on what would turn out to be a tragic day. They also indicate that Stevens and his team had officially requested additional security at the Benghazi compound for his visit — and that they apparently did not feel it was being provided.”
A Sept. 11 missive to the head of the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs notes that on that morning, “one of our diligent guards made a troubling report. Near our main gate, a member of the police force was seen in the upper level of a building across from our compound. It is reported that this person was photographing the inside of the U.S. special mission and furthermore that this person was part of the police unit sent to protect the mission. The police car stationed where this event occurred was number 322.”
On Air Force One today, White House press secretary Jay Carney was asked by ABC News how closely the President is reading and following the media reports about what went wrong in Benghazi.
“Is he engaged in the investigation and receiving updates on the investigation, or is he waiting until it’s complete?” ABC News’ Devin Dwyer asked.
Carney noted that since the “investigations are being conducted by both the FBI and the Accountability Review Board” the president himself “is not participating in the investigation. He is anticipating results that show us exactly what happened, who was responsible and what lessons we can learn from it in terms of how we ensure that it never happens again.”
The White House press secretary – who has not held a full-fledged briefing with the White House press corps since October 12 – said that the president “expects the investigations to be rigorous. He is extremely focused on making sure that we find exactly what happened and who was responsible, and tracking down those who were responsible and bringing them to justice.”
-Jake Tapper, Mary Bruce, Devin Dwyer and Dana Hughes