The weekend brings new postings about the deadly firefight in Benghazi on 11 September 2012. Some of them appear to be going off the rails a bit; others will require vetting. Time to try to do a little sorting.
On Friday, Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin reported that requests for help from the CIA Annex in Benghazi, where dozens of Americans were holed up during the firefight at the US mission compound some distance away, were denied by the CIA chain of command.
In a local interview in Denver on Friday, President Obama declined to answer questions about this, stating that “We are finding out exactly what happened.” CIA’s spokeswoman told media that “no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need.” Whether you believe the CIA spokeswoman implicitly on this matter boils down to whether you are a Democrat and/or Obama voter, or not.
However, a retired Army Special Forces officer (a lieutenant colonel), who called the Rush Limbaugh show on Friday, pointed out that if the US ambassador was under attack, the president would have known everything that was going on. I can affirm from my own knowledge that this is correct. The Special Forces officer’s statements are valid in every particular. If a US mission is under attack, “flash”-precedence reports go directly to the White House and the president is notified immediately, regardless of what he is doing.
His relevant cabinet heads – e.g., Defense, State – are being notified by their people at the same time. Each one has a 24-hour watch, like the watch in the White House Situation Room, whose senior officers are charged precisely with ensuring that such notifications are made, that inter-agency coordination starts immediately, and that a running assessment of the situation is maintained for briefing and decision-making at the drop of a hat.
If that did not happen on 11 September, and if it really takes two months to reconstruct what did happen on 11 September (the administration’s investigative report is due to the Senate on 17 November), then that itself is a serious breach of national-security protocol. One would be driven to wonder how things could have gotten so bad. It is simply not the case that the chain of command falls apart and no one can tell what’s going on, or who’s giving orders, and that it all has to be sorted out later. (This is especially true, incidentally, in the era of instantaneous emails, voice communications, and live Predator video being fed to command centers in Europe and the Washington, DC area.)
One thing that is always known is what the president ordered – because it is recorded in logs and other official documents. And again, if it wasn’t, that is not an excuse but an indictment.
We can say for sure what Obama should have known; we can’t say for sure what he did know. But what he should have known is enough.
Other postings have generated much discussion in the last 24 hours. One is the suggestion, now widely reported, that there was, in fact, an AC-130U gunship over Benghazi during the attack. Lending credence to this supposition is Blackfive’s account of his discussion with a former Delta Force operator, who observes that if one of the ground personnel was “painting” a target near the CIA Annex in Benghazi – as Jennifer Griffin reported – then there must have been an aircraft or UCAV in the vicinity that could use the laser-designation information against a target.
On the other hand, two AC-130Us that were put in Libya for Operation Unified Protector would be gone now, at least as assets for that particular operation. NATO Operation Unified Protector was terminated on 31 October 2011. The US may have kept a pair of AC-130s in Libya, but there’s no public information available on that. Assuming that someone was, in fact, painting a target in Benghazi with a laser designator, it’s possible – and more likely, I think — that one of the Predators flying over Benghazi was an armed CIA Predator.
In either case, it is correct to say that if a target in Benghazi was laser-designated for attack by an air asset, the choice to hit it or not was the president’s. That doesn’t mean Obama was presented with a movie moment in which he was asked to give a thumbs up or down on that particular target. It probably means that he did not give a general authorization to engage targets on the ground. I doubt that he was presented, inside the White House, with any yes-or-no, “Shall we hit this, Mr. President?”-type choices. That’s probably not how his senior advisors were talking to him, partly because of who they are, and partly because of their experience with who he is. You learn how to talk to the boss.
A rumor flying around is that General Carter Ham, commander of US Africa Command (which is headquartered in Vaihingen, Germany, alongside US European Command), was summarily relieved the night of 11 September. Reportedly, he defied a stand-down order from the Pentagon and was planning to take military action in support of the Americans in Benghazi anyway – but was intercepted by his deputy, LTG David Rodriguez, and told he was relieved of command.
With a little internet sleuthing, Ace of Spades discovered the same thing I did: that General Ham continued to perform the duties of Commander, Africa Command, for weeks after being “relieved.” Ace also found that the strike group of a Navy commander who was relieved on Saturday – Read Admiral Charles Gaouette of the USS John C Stennis carrier strike group – was not in or near the Mediterranean Sea on 11 September, and that Gaouette’s removal from command was undoubtedly for some reason unrelated to Benghazi. (John C Stennis was in the South China Sea in mid-September, heading for the Persian Gulf from the West coast.)
Another aspect of the Libya debacle is not so easily dismissed. While I believe the case is somewhat overstated here, the Canada Free Press author, Doug Hagmann, is following up on information previously reported by Business Insider: that Ambassador Stevens met with a Turkish official at the US mission in Benghazi the evening of the attack, and was discussing the shipment of Libyan arms to the Syrian rebels.
The suggestion in the CFP piece that Syrian rebels or their terrorist henchmen were being instructed in the use of Libyan chemical weapons, in order to perpetrate a “false flag” attack and pin it on Bashar al-Assad, is pure speculation. There’s nothing very useful to do with that proposition.
But Hagmann reports, as information from his source, that at the meeting in Benghazi, the Turkish official showed Stevens “overhead satellite images, taken by the Russians, of nefarious activities taking place in Turkey.” Hagmann correctly points out that Russia considers it a national security issue that the US may be arming Assad’s opponents. Whether the meeting in Benghazi unfolded as described or not, that point is valid, and the concern of the Russians is fully credible. The Russians would, In fact, strenuously oppose a massive transfer of arms from Libya to the Syrian insurgents. They wouldn’t leave their fingerprints on an attack against Americans. But we ought not to dismiss the possibility that the Iranians would.
I stress at the outset that Hagmann’s reasoning is deductive and not based on direct evidence. It’s also important to note that we need not add complexity to our assessment of the Benghazi attack: we know al Qaeda and at least one affiliated Sunni group were involved. It doesn’t necessarily aid the analysis or our immediate purpose of clarification for the American people to add the factor of Iranian shenanigans to the mix.
But that factor is not to be dismissed. Iran is at least as concerned about US support to the Syrian rebels as Russia is. Iran also has more than one way into Libya. In September of 2011, the US Telegraph reported that Iran’s paramilitary Qods Force had smuggled former-Soviet surface-to-air missiles out of Libya through Sudan.
And in September 2012, Claudia Rosett summarized the activities of a suspect Iranian commercial ship – one on the US Treasury Department’s blacklist – which had visited Benghazi on 30 August and operated up and down the Libyan coast in the days following. As Rosett reported in October, M/V Parmis is one of three Iranian cargo ships that have been making a regular circuit between Iran, Egypt, and Libya in the last year. It’s also one of several dozen Iranian ships that appear to be faking Tanzanian registry, although the Tanzanian authorities state categorically that these ships are not registered with them.
Several points must be made. First, the evidence is growing that the Russians and Iranians have reason to believe the US has been sponsoring the shipment of Libyan arms to the Syrian insurgents. It appears the US has been colluding with Turkey on this. It would be too much to call this arms trade “secret” at this point, but it would not be too much to call it backhanded. Why do things this way? There has been support in Congress for options that would entail a more open US posture. I don’t favor a no-fly zone for Syria myself, but that alternative, as well as directly arming certain rebel factions, have both had support in Congress and in some of the media.
Why state in public that the US would not arm the rebels, and then broker the shipment of arms to them from Muammar Qadhafi’s stash? The credibility and good faith of the United States are eroded by adopting this posture.
Another point is that the Russians, as I have written on several occasions now, do regard Syria as a national security issue. They aren’t going to stand by passively and let other outside powers tilt conditions – even by proxy – against their client Assad. Neither are the Iranians. Regardless of whether the attack in Benghazi was related to Syria, we surely don’t think we can arm the rebels with Libyan weapons without provoking some kind of reaction from Iran or Russia.
Better to lead outright in these situations than act behind the scenes, without political bona fides, and incur the same bitter opposition.
The point must also be made that Iran has had lots and lots of opportunities to supply any clients she may have ashore in Libya – or, for that matter, introduce her own operatives there. Incident to a separate issue, I had occasion to locate the Iranian ships in question back in May, and sure enough, M/V Tandis was anchored off Misrata, Libya, on 20 May. On 19 October 2012, Tandis was sitting off Benghazi, her last known port listed as Misrata. These ships are spending an awful lot of time going back and forth along the Libyan coast.
Libya’s poorly patrolled coastline may be a convenience for the Iranian ships, which would find no welcome in most other parts of the Mediterranean. But they are cargo ships, and Iran wants to operate them in the Med, and has kept them offshore from Libya’s major coast cities on a near-constant basis. It would be very foolish to dismiss these facts.
We could call for more intelligence here, but what is needed is leadership. Five minutes’ worth of geopolitical leadership can obviate the need for five years’ worth of intelligence.
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