The “stand down” line resonated. On this year’s presidential campaign trail, Sen. John McCain said he was hearing from “veterans all over the world” about how the commander-in-chief had left men behind. “Four brave Americans lost their lives, and they didn’t have to!” said McCain at an Oct. 30 Ohio rally for Mitt Romney. “Beginning, during, and ending that terrible period in Benghazi, the United States president was AWOL.” This made it sound like Obama, atop the chain of command, allowed yellow-bellied bureaucrats to let men die.
That’s not backed up by the report. At 9:50 p.m., the main American embassy in Tripoli was talking to Stevens, who said the consulate was under attack “before the call was cut off.” The Americans scrambled to send a security team from Tripoli to Benghazi. In the intervening hours, Stevens was killed, pronounced dead at around 2 a.m. “by apparent smoke inhalation.” Three hours later, the security team arrived, and “less than fifteen minutes later, the Annex came under mortar and RPG attack, with five mortar rounds impacting close together in under 90 seconds. Three rounds hit the roof of an Annex building, killing security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.” They weren’t denied help. The help came too late. That doesn’t alter the tragedy, but it alters the context.
Back to the death of Stevens—the murder committed by “smoke inhalation.” The report describes the start of the clash as a rampaging mob of “armed intruders” who “used filled fuel cans that were stored next to new, uninstalled generators at the February 17 living quarters near the C1 entrance to burn that building,” and “lit on fire vehicles that were parked nearby.” Stevens had been requesting more security, but on the ground, that day, things were quiet until the mob arrived.
As Erik Wemple points out, this contradicts the other damaging accusation from the scandal known as “Benghazi-gate.” The Obama administration’s first fumbling attempts to explain the killings put them in the context of “protests” against a viral anti-Muhammad movie. On Sept. 16, UN Ambassador Susan Rice probably talked her way out of a promotion by sticking to talking points on the event and saying a “spontaneous” protest was hijacked by an armed “clusters of extremists.” McCain and other critics scoffed at the gullibility on display. “Most people don’t bring rocket-propelled grenades and heavy weapons to a demonstration,” said McCain on CBS News, speaking immediately after Rice.
The truth lay in between the talking points and the snark. The mob that crashed the consulate was attacking diplomats. But they were able to kill our ambassador, and sow confusion, by setting fires. The heavy weapons came later.
So far, three State Department officials have fallen on their swords in response to this report. That was what investigators asked for, basically, blaming the circumstances in Benghazi on “senior State Department officials” who “demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability.” They failed to provide security before Sept. 11. On Tuesday, describing the video he’d been able to watch of the attack, Sen. Bob Corker told reporters that the compound was so wanly protected that “you or I could have walked right in.”
That doesn’t suggest a real-time campaign of cowardice. It doesn’t suggest a cover-up, either. It suggests that the neglected budget for embassy security needs a harder look in 2013. When that happens—or when it doesn’t happen—we’ll know what politicians learned from Benghazi.