This column has been updated with the administration’s response.
The attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi has become a political football in the presidential campaign, with all the grandstanding and misinformation that entails. But Fox News has raised questions about the attack that deserve a clearer answer from the Obama administration.
Fox’s Jennifer Griffin reported Friday that CIA officers in Benghazi had been told to “stand down” when they wanted to deploy from their base at the annex to repel the attack on the consulate, about a mile away. Fox also reported that the officers requested military support when the annex came under fire that night but that their request had been denied.
The Benghazi tragedy was amplified by Charles Woods, the father of slain CIA contractor Tyrone Woods. He told Fox’s Sean Hannity that White House officials who didn’t authorize military strikes to save the embattled CIA annex were “cowards” and “are guilty of murdering my son.”
The Fox “stand down” story prompted a strong rebuttal from the CIA: “We can say with confidence that the agency reacted quickly to aid our colleagues during that terrible evening in Benghazi. Moreover, no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate.”
So what did happen on the night of Sept. 11, when Woods, Ambassador Christopher Stevens and two others were killed? The best way to establish the facts would be a detailed, unclassified timeline of events; officials say that they are preparing one and that it may be released this week. That’s a must, even in the campaign’s volatile final week. In the meantime, here’s a summary of some of the issues that need to be clarified.
First, on the question of whether Woods and others were made to wait when they asked permission to move out immediately to try to rescue those at the consulate. The answer seems to be yes, but not for very long. There was a brief, initial delay — two people said it was about 20 minutes — before Woods was allowed to leave. One official said that Woods and at least one other CIA colleague were “in the car revving the engine,” waiting for permission to go. Woods died about six hours later, after he returned to the annex.
The main reason for the delay, several sources said, was that CIA officials were making urgent contact with a Libyan militia, known as the February 17 Brigade, which was the closest thing to an organized security force in Benghazi. The United States depends on local security to protect U.S. diplomatic facilities everywhere, and officials wanted to coordinate any response to the consulate attack. After this delay, Woods and his colleague proceeded to the consulate.
Here’s my question: Was it wise to depend on a Libyan militia that clearly wasn’t up to the job? Could it have made a difference for those under attack at the consulate if Woods had moved out as soon as he was, in one official’s words, “saddled and ready”?
Second, why didn’t the United States send military assistance to Benghazi immediately? This one is harder to answer. The CIA did dispatch a quick-reaction force that night from Tripoli, with about eight people, but it had trouble at first reaching the compound. One of its members, Glen Doherty, died along with Woods when a mortar hit the roof of the annex about 4 a.m.