Rep. Jason Chaffetz finally choked up. When his turn came at today’s House Oversight hearings on “Benghazi”—the catchall name for the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the consulate in that Libyan city, and its aftermath—the Utah congressman got to prod Gregory Hicks, former deputy chief of mission in Libya, on the timeline. Hicks had already told Republican investigators about the seven-person rescue team, including four U.S. Special Forces, that was delayed in heading from Tripoli (where Hicks was) to the consulate, after it was under attack.
“How did the personnel react,” asked Chaffetz, “at being told to stand down?”
Hicks remembered them being furious. “I will quote Lt. Col. Gibson,” said Hicks, referring to the commander at the Special Operations Command Africa who’d expected to join the mission. “He said, ‘This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than someone in the military.’ ”
Chaffetz bit his lip. “So the military is told to stand down, not engage in the fight,” he said. “These are the kind of people”—he sharply drew back his breath—“willing to engage.”
This wasn’t the first time cojones had been singled out in the controversy and roundabout investigation of Benghazi. Charles Woods, whose son (and former Navy SEAL) Tyrone died rescuing Americans from the consulate, met Vice President Biden at the memorial service. The elder Woods, horrified, revealed what Biden told him: “Did your son always have balls the size of cue balls?” Undeniably crude and unmistakenly Biden, it cut to the most horrifying question about Benghazi: Some people had wanted to rush in when the consulate, and a small rescue team, was under attack. They didn’t get there. Why?
Call it the “stand down” question. It started in October 2012, when Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin reported that Tyrone Woods et al., stationed a mile from the consulate, “informed their higher-ups … to tell them what they were hearing and requested permission to go to the consulate and help out,” but were told to “stand down” (Griffin’s quotes) twice. At the time, the CIA denied the story—“no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need.”
More interesting than that was the explanation—not denial—from outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “We quickly responded, as [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] General Dempsey said, in terms of deploying forces to the region,” said Panetta.
“We had FAST platoons in the region. We had ships that we had deployed off of Libya. And we were prepared to respond to any contingency and certainly had forces in place to do that. But the basic principle here… is that you don't deploy forces into harm's way without knowing what's going on; without having some real-time information about what's taking place. And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, [Africa Command] General [Carter F.] Ham, General Dempsey, and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation.”
That grim assessment has been buried under new Benghazi files and blown whistles. And if you break the Benghazi story into a few components, you can understand why. The outrage over the government’s post-attack talking points might be used to implicate Obama administration bureaucrats or political appointees in a pointless cover-up—and it doesn’t hurt that one of those appointees is named Hillary Clinton.
There’s disbelief at the low amount of security in Benghazi and Libya before the attack, and at requests for more aid and security—some from Ambassador Chris Stevens, before he was killed. But that doesn’t change the reality of Sept. 11 and Sept. 12, 2012. The Americans in Libya had to work with the tools on hand. That’s what makes the “stand down” question so ugly, even as it’s been altered. That October story about the CIA telling Tyrone Woods and Glenn Doherty to “stand down” and let terrorists attack the Benghazi compound has petered out, and didn’t appear in today’s hearing. The new “stand down” story, as told by Charles Woods, concerns that delay of a seven-man team that ended up arriving a little later, able to evacuate Americans but unable to join the younger Woods and Doherty at the front.
In his early interviews, and in his testimony, Hicks resisted several Republican attempts to get him to agree that a “stand down” order occurred. He never used those two words together. The closest he got today came when Ohio Rep. Mike Turner asked him whether he was telling the truth and DOD was lying.
“Turner: Just as early as last Monday, Maj. Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman, said the account hasn’t changed. “There was never any kind of stand-down order to anybody.” Now that’s a pretty broad statement, “anybody.” What’s your reaction to the quote by Mr. Firman?
I can only again repeat that Lt. Col. Gibson said he was not to proceed to board the airplane.
Turner: So your first-hand experience being on the site, standing next to Colonel Gibson, who was on his way on that C-130 transport and being told not to go, contradicts what Mr. Firman is saying on behalf of the Pentagon?
Hicks: Yes sir.”
But the “stand down” quote is the only bit of this contradicted by the Pentagon. Panetta made his comments in October 2012, when Benghazi was still roiling the election. On May 1, 2013, the Pentagon sent a timeline of its actions to the House Armed Services Committee. And according to that, Panetta had OK’d the movement of FAST platoons and a special operations force before 3 a.m. local time, but no aid arrived before the mortar attack that killed Woods and Doherty. According to Hicks, the team wanted to get to Benghazi as quickly as possible. According to Panetta, if it had, it wouldn’t have helped.
That’s why the “stand down” question burns. The people who ask it imagine what might have been had a seven-member team rushed to Benghazi and, maybe, some airpower had flown over the city. Panetta and his successors claim, without being too explicit, that none of this would have helped. The die was cast long before the attack, by the weak security at the consulate, and commanders may have decided to cut their losses rather than risking more casualties. And that isn’t a story anyone prefers to tell.
Correction, May 9, 2013: This article originally misspelled Fox News reporter Jennifer Griffin's last name.
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