Obama, Panetta and Benghazi: No big deal?

February 8, 2013

(Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters)

Last October, CBS News investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson began pushing the White House to answer a whole bunch of questions about the U.S. response to the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi, Libya, attacks. This was among them:


Attkisson dumped the various questions on Twitter after officialdom stiffed her requests:


Tommy Vietor, a spokesman for the National Security Council, scoffs: “There has been considerable discussion of Benghazi in multiple hearings and in the [Accountability Review Board] report. I am puzzled why Sharyl refuses to look at those places for answers.”
Where Attkisson came up empty, Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) yesterday delivered some results, aided by the formalities of a Senate hearing. In an exchange with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Ayotte managed to produce a bit of Benghazi-related news: After a previously scheduled meeting with President Obama approximately one hour into the Benghazi attack, there was no direct communication between the commander-in-chief and Panetta. Ayotte coaxed these admissions out of Panetta:

AYOTTE: Did you have any other further communications? Did he ever call you that night to say how are things going, what’s going on, where is the consulate?
PANETTA: No.
AYOTTE: Did you communicate with anyone else at the White House that night?
PANETTA: No.
AYOTTE: No one else called you to say, what, how are things going?
PANETTA: No.

Fox News sees significance behind the revelations. Sean Hannity last night tilted at the possibility that the president had done “AWOL” on Benghazi. Today the network has produced various follow-ups on the story. The rest of the media? Not a lot there, if searches of Google and Nexis are any indication. The confirmation hearing of CIA director nominee John O. Brennan, the case of Christopher J. Dorner and a Northeastern snowstorm have buried the Panetta story.

There’s not a great deal of news value in the Ayotte-Panetta discussion, suggests Vietor: “[W]e told people at the time that the president met with the Panetta and [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.Martin E.] Dempsey that evening, ordered all assets moved into the region, called Secretary Clinton later that night, and was repeatedly briefed by his team on the situation in Benghazi.” That’s not quite as much detail as what emerged in yesterday’s Senate hearing.

The president’s failure to make direct phone calls to people like Panetta and Dempsey, said Mike Huckabee on Fox News Friday afternoon, summons a 2008 presidential campaign ad of Hillary Rodham Clinton — the one about that 3 a.m. phone call. “The phone rang, and it rang, and it rang, and nobody answered,” said Huckabee in a conversation with Fox News host Eric Bolling. “Who made the decision that you don’t engage the president or the secretary of state?”

A question: Did the president need to be on the line all night with Panetta et al.? That’s apparently what the critics would have preferred. In her questioning, Ayotte suggests that a jingle to Panetta would have enabled the president to figure out how things were going. Yet according to the official line from the White House, he was getting updates in any case. Also, the much-cited report of the Accountability Review Board (ARB), which consisted of members selected by the secretary of state and the director of national intelligence, found no fault with the cross-agency reaction on the night of Benghazi:

The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference. Senior-level interagency discussions were underway soon after Washington received initial word of the attacks and continued through the night. The Board found no evidence of any undue delays in decision making or denial of support from Washington or from the military combatant commanders.

The call for greater and greater detail on just what the president was doing on the night of Sept. 11 has strong footing: The United States, after all, lost an ambassador and three other personnel to terrorists on the anniversary of Sept. 11. Precisely who the president called and did not call on that night matters, not only to media critics and Fox News hosts, but also to the American public and the families of the Benghazi fallen. Even if the details may not expose a full-on scandal.

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.
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Erik Wemple | February 8, 2013