“Goals : … To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy; … To reinforce the President and Administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.”
Sept. 14, 2012, e-mail from Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser, to coordinate White House messaging about a Sept. 11 attack on Americans in Libya.
This much we know: The besieged Americans suffered agonizing, lonely deaths. Thick smoke choked and then asphyxiated information officer Sean Smith and U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. Mortar rounds that security agents Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods had no prayer of escaping blew the breath out of them. Today, though, the names of Smith, Stevens, Doherty and Woods have been eclipsed by the name of the 2,500-year-old port city where militants killed them. In modern times it is known as Benghazi.
We’ll leave to others the verbal bombast that a mere mention of this once-obscure Libyan metropolis provokes in Washington — bombast that wouldn’t be so vicious if the Obama administration and its Republican opponents didn’t tacitly agree the political stakes are enormous. We’ve instead argued in six editorials, and reiterate today, that U.S. decisions made before, during and after assaults on two outposts in Benghazi have to be fully and honestly explained to the American people — the grieving families of Smith, Stevens, Doherty and Woods included.
Developments of recent days intensify those questions. They fall into three clusters: Did the U.S. State Department react negligently to early warnings about the increasing dangers to American personnel in Benghazi? During the overnight assault, should the U.S. have made a military attempt at a rescue? And did the administration, with a presidential election eight weeks nigh, knowingly mislead the nation rather than admit a successful terror assault against ill-protected Americans on the anniversary of 9/11?
We hope the likely formation of a select and bipartisan U.S. House committee, announced Friday, will produce that full and honest explanation. One precedent: In July 2004, the 9/11 Commission demonstrated that an investigation focused not on blame but on preventing future debacles could help Americans understand national security gaps and move forward.
The gaps in this case should alarm all of us, our personal politics be damned. In December 2012, a U.S. Senate committee documented how security warnings were “Flashing Red” — the committee report’s title — before the attack: “Despite the inability of the Libyan government to fulfill its duties to secure the facility, the increasingly dangerous threat assessments and a particularly vulnerable facility, the Department of State officials did not conclude the facility in Benghazi should be closed or temporarily shut down. That was a grievous mistake.” It was a devastating verdict from the Capitol chamber Democrats control.
Still unclear is whether U.S. officials erred by not mounting a military response. The deputy intelligence director of the U.S. Africa Command at the time of the attack testified last week that debating whether a rescue might have succeeded or failed to save American lives is misguided: “The point is we should have tried,” retired Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell told a House committee, adding that the U.S. military “could have made a response of some sort.” Lovell said military officials that night were awaiting a State Department request that never arrived.
Also unresolved: Whether the White House has been honest in insisting politics played no role in the U.S. response. The attack, in which the Central Intelligence Agency would quickly incriminate allies of Al-Qaida, certainly came at a politically inconvenient time. Five days earlier, President Obama had told the Democratic National Convention: “A new tower rises above the New York skyline, Al-Qaida is on the path to defeat and Osama bin Laden is dead.”