What does the public know about the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya? Clearly not enough. A Fox News poll from June 12 showed that 73% of Americans – including 58% of Democrats – think Congress should continue to investigate the administration’s handling of the terrorist attack, including the intelligence failure before the assault, the lack of response while it was underway, and the continuing cover-up after the fact.
There is increasing interest in Congress to get to the bottom of Benghazi. In January, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) introduced H. Res 36, which would establish a select committee to investigate and report on the attack. The committee would be empowered to investigate, among other things, intelligence relating to the impending attack; requests for additional security, or actions taken by Federal agencies to improve security at the consulate before the attack; a definitive attack timeline; the response (or lack thereof) of executive branch agencies; and any improper conduct by American officials relating to the attack. The Benghazi resolution currently has 157 cosponsors; it needs 218 signatures to be enacted.
Retired Army Lieutenant General William G. “Jerry” Boykin believes that finding out what happened in Benghazi is a matter of sacred duty. Gen. Boykin is a former commander of the elite Delta Force, and former United States Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence. He has a distinguished, unparalleled record in special operations and unconventional warfare. Among the Benghazi scandal’s various aspects – failed diplomacy, absent leadership, self-interested politics — what stands out most to him is the administration’s moral failing. For Gen. Boykin, the mishandling of Benghazi was a betrayal of the warrior ethos.
“We left Americans behind,” Gen. Boykin told Rare. “The message that sends to every member of the military or diplomat is not a good one.” He quotes the Ranger creed: “I will never leave a fallen comrade to fall into the hands of the enemy, and under no circumstances will I ever embarrass my country.” At Benghazi, America came up short on both counts.
Gen. Boykin has seen the country face other tough situations, but with very different responses. He was there with Delta Force at Desert One in 1980, during the failed mission to rescue American hostages being held in Tehran. “We lost 8 trying to rescue 52,” he said. “We knew the odds were against us, but it didn’t make a difference, because Americans were being held hostage.” During the journey home, while the rescue team was passing through a British air base on MasirahIsland near Oman, someone had written on a crate, “Thanks for having the guts to try.”
Thirteen years later Gen. Boykin was commanding forces in the Battle of Mogadishu, better known as Black Hawk Down. “We fought for 18 hours over two dead bodies,” he said. This effort was an expression of the creed, and also of the implicit bargain our country makes with the people who voluntarily go into harms way on our behalf. “I always knew, no matter where I was,” Gen. Boykin said of his days as a special operator, “if I got into trouble, someone was going to come and get me, or make an effort, or bring my body home.” It is simply what a great nation does.
Gen. Boykin is not impressed by the Obama administration’s public rationales for failing to take action during the Benghazi attack. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army General Martin E. Dempsey testified that forces were not committed because they could not have gotten to the scene in time. “That’s embarrassing,” Gen. Boykin said. There was no idea how determined the attackers were, or how long the defenders could hang on. Saying forces could not get there in time when no-one knew how long the battle would last was “just ridiculous.”
A relief effort could have been attempted. AFRICOM combatant commander General Carter F. Ham had dedicated in extremis forces available, in particular a SEAL team. AC-130 gunships could have flown from Italy to provide fire support to the defenders. Armed drones could have disrupted the attack. Aircraft from the Mediterranean-based 6th Fleet could have counter-attacked or even done low-level passes to deter the terrorist assault force. Marine Corps Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams (FAST) or an interagency Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST) could have been activated.
Some troops tried to respond to the urgent need in Benghazi. There is strong indication that SEALS and aviation units were preparing to launch. In Tripoli, after the first wave of the terrorist assault, Lieutenant Colonel Gibson of Special Operations Command Africa tried to board a C-130 headed to Benghazi with a relief force. But, according to Deputy Chief of Mission Gregory Hicks, these men were told to stand down. “They were told not to board the flight,” Hick’s said, “so they missed it.”
Who gave this order? The White House won’t say, and LTC Gibson has not been able – or perhaps not been allowed — to tell his story. This needs to change. Gen. Boykin believes that H. Res. 36 will empower Congressional investigators with robust subpoena power to reach the military witnesses and Benghazi survivors who thus far have either not been questioned, or been told not to discuss what they know.
The AFRICOM staff was stymied during the attack. General Ham was in Washington, and among the officers at headquarters there was a general sense of caution. “At AFRICOM there was a huge effort to do nothing the State Department would not approve of,” Gen. Boykin said. They refused to take initiative. “Staff officers kept asking, ‘What does State want?’”
The answer was, State wanted nothing. Foggy Bottom argued that no attack was underway, and what was going on in Benghazi was just a mob scene like the one that had taken place earlier in the day outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. They blamed the chaos on a Youtube video no-one had seen until the Embassy started tweeting apologies for it. But AFRICOM and the Intelligence Community disagreed. They believed there was a major terrorist assault underway in Benghazi. And they were right.
The State Department also feared that even if an attack was underway, taking military action such as deploying troops or penetrating Libyan airspace without permission would sour relations between the two countries. But the excuse of deference to Tripoli does not hold water. “When you have people being killed you don’t care what the local government thinks,” Gen. Boykin said, “especially a government we helped put in power.” Stronger leaders would have tried to get to the scene as fast as possible and worry about ramifications later. Any competent diplomat would make the case that the urgency of the situation dictated the response.
Yet there was also the matter of domestic American politics. The 2012 election was seven weeks away, and the Obama administration did not want to admit that a major terrorist attack was taking place on their watch. As well there was the risk that a rescue effort might fail, that it could be another Desert One or Blackhawk Down, and doom the re-election effort. In the June Fox News poll, 56% believed that troops were told to stand down because Mr. Obama “didn’t want to risk something going wrong that could cost him the election.”
“There’s only one person who can order those troops into combat, and that’s the president,” Gen. Boykin said. “If the president didn’t issue that order, he either said no, or he never got the request.” There is no evidence yet that Mr. Obama convened his national security staff in the situation room. There is also no public knowledge where he was or what he was doing. The White House maintains that Mr. Obama’s whereabouts when the attack was happening are irrelevant, but they are as relevant as he is.
When asked Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical question – “What difference at this point does it make?” – Boykin’s eyes flashed. “It makes a lot of difference,” he said. “We breached an ethos.” This is the moral case for a thorough investigation of Benghazi. The men who were left at the consulate to die should have been able to count on their government to do everything in its power to save them. Beyond diplomatic niceties, heedless of the risk to an election campaign, they were owed this much. “We didn’t respond to the moral imperative to save those people,” Gen. Boykin said. “The imperative is to try.” And now the imperative is to find out why the government didn’t, and see who lacked the guts.
James S. Robbins is Deputy Editor of Rare and author of Native Americans: Patriotism, Exceptionalism, and the New American Identity. Follow him on Twitter @James_Robbins
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