Media critic

With the presidential election behind us, it’s now time for the 10th in a series about Fox News’s Oct. 26 story on Benghazi, Libya.

On Oct. 26, Fox News published a big story on the U.S. response to the Sept. 11 attacks on a diplomatic installation in Benghazi. Beset by incompetence and slow-footedness, the Central Intelligence Agency failed to capably defend U.S. personnel against the Libyan attackers, alleged the piece by Fox’s Jennifer Griffin. Four U.S. personnel died in the clashes.

The U.S. military had surveillance technology in place to capture a portion of the conflict. Griffin’s story explains:

Fox News has learned that there were two military surveillance drones redirected to Benghazi shortly after the attack on the consulate began. They were already in the vicinity. The second surveillance craft was sent to relieve the first drone, perhaps due to fuel issues. Both were capable of sending real time visuals back to U.S. officials in Washington, D.C. Any U.S. official or agency with the proper clearance, including the White House Situation Room, State Department, CIA, Pentagon and others, could call up that video in real time on their computers.

That’s from the Web story published on Notice how carefully Griffin articulates her reporting; she doesn’t make any representations about who was watching these “visuals,” but rather reports only that the video was available.

There are two Fox Newses, however. One is the Fox News that Griffin inhabits. The other is the one that Sean Hannity inhabits.

On “Hannity,” Griffin’s reporting on video surveillance has gotten the elastic treatment. On the night of Oct. 29, right around the time Superstorm Sandy was greeting the Jersey shore, Hannity was interviewing Charles Woods, the father of fallen Benghazi defender Tyrone Woods. He said to Hannity:

CHARLES WOODS: Let’s say I don’t want to point any fingers, but obviously people in the White House were watching this happen real-time. Someone in the White House or many people in the White House watched the events unfolding and knew that if they gave the order to stand down that my son would die. They watched my son die.

Tommy Vietor, spokesman for the National Security Council, tells the Erik Wemple Blog, “No one at the White House watched live footage of the Benghazi attacks from the situation room or anywhere else in the White House.”

Hannity himself has tuned his video attacks to a different channel. On Wednesday night, in a chat with author Bob Woodward, Hannity began inveighing against the Obama administration’s handling of Benghazi:

HANNITY: But let me ask you this: We don’t know where the president was on the night of 9/11, when this happened. We don’t know what he knew. He denied for two weeks what was — what we know our State Department watched in real-time, according to this woman [State Department official Charlene] Lamb, who testified [before Congress on Oct. 10].

Bolded text added to highlight Hannity’s version of a campaign theme. On Friday, Nov. 2, with Liz Cheney, he said:

HANNITY: There is no food in some places. And [the president] is gone. He is out back to Vegas. He seems but not a photo op of what he did with Benghazi. Was he in the situation room? Was he aware that the State Department was watching this in real time?

On Oct. 31, with Newt Gingrich, he said:

HANNITY: Well, there are three aspects to this from my perspective, before during and after the ambassador requested extra security. He was denied. They reduced the force at one point so who made that decision?

Then it’s during this entire episode, we know that according to Charlene Lamb, our government, our State Department was watching this in real-time. Where was president?

And on Oct. 30, with Fred Thompson, he said:

HANNITY: Why two weeks after the attack were you still denying it was a terrorist attack when we now know that our State Department and intelligence knew and were watching this in real-time? So you’re offended, Mr. President?

When asked whether the State Department was indeed watching the Benghazi attacks in real time, a State official responded, “Nobody at the Department had the ability to watch either of the attacks in real time.”

According to official accounts, the assault on the large U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi started around 9:40 p.m. on the night of Sept. 11. The assailants barged through the facility’s pedestrian gate, torched some security barracks with diesel fuel and then turned their attention to the compound’s main building, according to Lamb’s testimony before Congress.

Just who was doing all that storming; what they were doing before the attack; whether there were protesters in their midst — all of that is a matter of intense dispute with political implications. Administration official said after the attacks that they may have been associated with protests over an anti-Muslim video; critics responded that no, this was strictly a terrorist attack.

There was never any real-time video of this early portion of the Benghazi hostilities. No one in Washington — State Department, White House, whatever — was watching live feeds of the gate-crashing.

An administration official explains: “The Benghazi compound had a CCTV [closed-circuit television] system. Meaning, a system of cameras on the compound. Those cameras could be monitored from the [Tactical Operations Center, TOC], which is one of the structures on the compound.. . . Those images could not be seen anywhere outside the TOC, let alone outside Benghazi. The footage from those cameras is recorded and stored for a period. The footage from the attack was not in USG [U.S. government] hands until later in September.”

Other officials confirmed this account, and Lamb’s testimony before Congress indicated that she was getting updates ”almost in real time.” By telephone, not video. According to an administration official, a security agent stationed in the operations center was providing Lamb phone updates on the hostilities. “She was on the phone with one of the agents for much of the attack,” notes the administration official via e-mail. “That agent was literally juggling 3 phones, a radio, and his weapon. So she had an ‘open line’ to him and could hear what he said.”

So: No real-time video was available at the time of the initial attack on the compound. Technical capabilities, however, changed later in the night — just after 11:00 p.m. — when a Predator drone took position over the area, minutes before U.S. personnel vacated the compound for a CIA annex about a mile away.

That drone had video-sending capacity, though the footage was of limited use to folks back in Washington. It “didn’t provide resolute clarity on what was happening on the ground — no,” says a Defense Department official. “It later provided us with analysis on the timing of the attacks and the facilities that were impacted, but was not providing real-time information to senior department leaders.”

Drone assets were in the sky through the second major clash of the Benghazi episode, when two security officials protecting the CIA annex were killed engaging with the enemy. That happened over 11 minutes, starting at 5:15 a.m.

Precision on the real-time video question matters. Loose talk about how government officials were sitting around watching Benghazi TV carries the implication that they knew everything about the attack in real time and did nothing to assist in thwarting it. Benghazi furnishes plenty of Obama administration missteps/scandals — including why security problems didn’t get more attention and why officials made repeated references to a YouTube video in the aftermath of the attacks. Use of real-time video, though, doesn’t appear to be one of them.