U.S. should have reacted more aggressively to Benghazi attack, ex-general testifies

A retired Air Force general said Thursday the military should have reacted more aggressively to the September 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, bolstering Republicans’ efforts to portray the administration’s response to the assault as feckless.

Testifying before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, retired brigadier general Robert Lovell, who was the deputy head of intelligence at the Africa Command when the attack occurred, said he felt that military assets could have been deployed more adroitly to aid American personnel under siege in the eastern Libyan city.

“There are accounts of time, space and capability discussions of the question: Could we have gotten there in time to make a difference,” Lowell said, becoming the first senior military officer to offer a dissenting view on the plausibility of a U.S. military response to the fatal attack. “The discussion is not in the could or could not in relation to time, space and capability — the point is we should have tried.”

He added: “As another saying goes: Always move to the sound of the guns.’”

The testimony added to the voluminous record on the attacks that Republicans have built over the past two years in an effort to detail what they describe as the administration’s failures to protect American personnel in Libya and to respond appropriately on the night of Sept. 11, 2012. But it yielded little substantive information about the events of that night.

During a House Government and Oversight committee hearing on Thursday, Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) slammed the White House for their response to the Sept. 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi, while panelists discussed what must be done to address Libya's current problems. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Republicans have persistently sought new information about the attack that killed J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three of his colleagues, a pursuit many Democrats see as an effort to undermine a potential presidential bid by Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time.

In response to leading questions by Republican members of Congress, Lovell suggested that a quicker and more assertive military response that night was stymied by indecision by officials at the State Department. But the general, who was not working in an operational capacity at the time, did not describe specific military responses that could have saved lives.

As officials discussed a military response, considerations about “deference” to the State Department and to the Libyan government prevented a quicker response, the general said.

Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified last year that the Pentagon authorized the deployment of troops to Benghazi but that none of the teams activated was close enough to get there in time to make a difference. A State Department spokeswoman pushed back on Lovell’s testimony Thursday afternoon, noting that he was “a couple of levels” below the chairman.

“I think there’s a false premise out there that some have used for political purposes,” said the spokeswoman, Marie Harf. “There’s a notion that anywhere in the world, military assets should be less than an hour away. Our military is the best in the world, but that just isn’t how the world works.”

Suggesting the State Department failed to do more to help its people that night, Harf added, “is just disgusting, quite frankly.”

Ernesto Londoño covers the Pentagon for the Washington Post.
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