— exchange on Fox News, May 22, 2014
This conversation was prompted by an ABC News report last week concerning a White House e-mail that was sent to YouTube at 9:11 p.m. Eastern time on Sept. 11, 2012, during the first of a series of attacks that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans. While the White House communication to YouTube concerning an anti-Islamic video had been previously reported, during the week of the attacks, the timing of the e-mail struck some analysts as curious, given that internally some U.S. officials were already convinced that the diplomatic post in Benghazi was the target of a terrorist attack.
But, despite the apparent clarity of today, it’s worth remembering that the video did prompt violent protests that same day against the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, as well as in other Muslim countries. Indeed, the initial reporting on the Benghazi attack even cited Libyan officials as saying there initially were protests concerning the video.
For instance, the day after the attack on the diplomatic post, The Washington Post reported that the attackers “joined protesters outside the consulate who were demonstrating against an American movie that they believed denigrated the prophet Muhammad. But according to one witness, the new arrivals neither chanted slogans nor carried banners.” Who was one of the sources? Wanis al-Sharif, the deputy Libyan interior minister.
But after exhaustive investigation, it now appears the attacks took place without any initial protests. The link to the video is tangential. “Some intelligence suggests the attacks were likely put together in short order, following that day’s violent protests in Cairo against an inflammatory video, suggesting that these and other terrorist groups could conduct similar attacks with little advance warning,” said a bipartisan report of the Senate Intelligence Committee issued in January.
In any case, Paul’s comments are noteworthy because he asserted that the White House “couldn’t find a plane” for Special Operations forces. “Instead of calling to get a plane or to try to make arrangements to get a plane, they’re on the phone trying to create spin to say that, ‘You know what? This is about a video, which never had anything to do with this attack,’” he said.
At first glance, one might think that Paul was suggesting the White House could not do two things at once — reach out to YouTube and monitor a military response. But a Paul aide said that was not the case.
“Senator Paul’s suggestion is clear,” the aide said. “The Obama administration was effective in getting the video pulled down and used resources to contact YouTube, yet was ineffective in deploying resources to defend American personnel in Benghazi.”
One may criticize the effectiveness of the deployment, but there is ample evidence that U.S. officials were actively engaged. Here are some snippets from various testimony during committee hearings this year:
Feb. 7 testimony:
DEFENSE SECRETARY LEON PANETTA: “Soon after the initial reports about the attack in Benghazi were received, General Dempsey and I met with President Obama and he ordered all available DOD assets to respond to the attack in Libya and to protect U.S. personnel and interests in the region. It’s important to remember that in addition to responding to the situation in Benghazi, we were also concerned about potential threats to U.S. personnel in Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo, Sana’a, and elsewhere that could potentially require a military response. In consultation with General Dempsey and AFRICOM Commander General Ham, I directed several specific actions. First, we ordered a Marine fleet anti-terrorism secure team, a FAST team, stationed in Spain to prepare to deploy to Benghazi. A second FAST platoon was ordered to prepare to deploy to the embassy in Tripoli. A special operations force, which was training in central Europe, was ordered to prepare to deploy to an intermediate staging base in southern Europe, Sigonella. And a special operations force based in the United States was ordered to deploy to an intermediate staging base in southern Europe as well at Sigonella.”
GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY (chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff): “I wouldn’t say there was no follow-up from the White House. There was no follow-up, to my knowledge, with the president. But his staff was engaged with the National Military Command Center and kept pretty constantly through the period, which is — which is the way it would normally work.”
Feb. 12 testimony:
FORMER WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF JACK LEW: “Well, Senator, I did speak with the president that evening. The national security staff was working on the issue on a nonstop basis…. The intelligence community was in close touch with the White House, with the national security team, on a near constant basis.”
The White House obviously has a large staff — and the Defense Department, the State Department and the intelligence community are vast and sprawling. Clearly many people were involved in analyzing the situation and then trying to coordinate a response. Aircraft and troops were dispatched by the appropriate personnel — at the Defense Department — even as someone at the White House sent an e-mail to YouTube.
As for whether or not there was plane, the Majority Interim Report of the House Armed Services Committee, issued in February, makes it clear that there was not a shortage of aircraft for Special Ops forces. (There is a separate issue about whether there were combat aircraft or whether personnel were correctly deployed to deal with such an emergency.) Here are key excerpts:
After the Benghazi attack began, six U.S. security personnel left the embassy in Tripoli on a chartered Libyan aircraft to lend assistance. Two of these individuals were U.S. soldiers on a specialized assignment who took orders in such circumstances from authorities outside of AFRICOM and Special Operations Command-Africa (SOCAFRICA). These were the only U.S. military personnel who got to Benghazi before survivors arrived in Tripoli on a chartered plane, and they performed heroically….
However, after the diplomatic staff had been moved to what Lieutenant Colonel [S.E.] Gibson considered a “secure” location in Tripoli, he informed AFRICOM that he was about to take his three special operators to Benghazi on a Libyan transport plane. At that time, Rear Admiral Brian L. Losey, SOCAFRICA’s commander, conveyed an order to Lieutenant Colonel Gibson to remain in Tripoli to defend Americans there. Rear Admiral Losey said he was concerned about the possibility of follow-on attacks in Tripoli or a potential for attempts at hostage taking….
Lieutenant Colonel Gibson made it clear to the committee that “in hindsight” he believes remaining in Tripoli was appropriate. “The decision by my higher headquarters to not get on that plane [to Benghazi] was the correct decision,” he told the committee. Indeed, he noted that had his unit left Tripoli as he originally intended, the medic would not have been available to treat the wounded when they arrived there later from Benghazi.
In other words, there was another plane available for Special Ops forces, but officials on the ground decided not to send additional personnel — a decision that in hindsight was considered the “correct decision.” The Paul aide did not respond to queries after the material from the House Republican report was e-mailed to Paul’s office. (See update below.)
The Pinocchio Test
There are certainly a number of outstanding questions about the Benghazi incident, but it’s important to get the facts straight when asking such questions. Paul asserted that a plane could not be found for Special Operations forces in Tripoli, but that’s clearly incorrect. Moreover, it’s a bit ridiculous to assume that such a level of detail would be left to White House staff, or even the president, rather than the commanders on the ground. (For more fact checks on Benghazi, check out our comprehensive round-up.)
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Update, 4:30 PM, May 28: The Rand Paul aide responded with a lengthy statement, which we reprint below. Based on the information provided, The Fact Checker sees no reason to adjust the Pinocchio rating. As a reminder, here is what Paul said: “We had some more Special Operations forces in Tripoli. They couldn’t find a plane for them. So instead of calling to get a plane or to try to make arrangements to get a plane, they’re on the phone trying to create spin.”
There was literally no American plane available to transport troops. First six guys went on Libyan plane
There are reports that negotiating for the first Libyan plane to take the first six out of Benghazi took time. Had Hillary Clinton’s State Department approved the DC-3 airplane request on May 3, 2012 this likely would not have happened. According to a spokesman for the House Oversight Committee, the documents provided to the Committee multiple security requests were “turned down by Washington based officials.” This speaks to the idea that the State Department and the Obama Administration did not prepare for the situation at hand. Furthermore, you state that “there is a separate issue about whether there were combat aircraft or whether personnel were correctly deployed to deal with such an emergency.” That is the central issue, not a separate issue.
There are reports from the House Oversight Committee that Lt. Col. Gibson did have difficulty negotiating for another “Libyan” plane to take the next special ops team. Interestingly, the plane was a C-130, an American plane likely given or sold to Libyans, but for which we had to beg to use in an emergency.
Lt. Col. Gibson did complain in his testimony about not being allowed to go to Benghazi with second contingent of special ops. His exact term was that he was “visibly upset” at the time. [Note from The Fact Checker: As stated above, Gibson said the decision was correct in hindsight.]
The point you miss is this one. From CBS News, “no assistance arrived from the U.S. military outside of Libya during the hours that Americans were under attack or trapped inside compounds by hostile forces armed with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and AK-47 rifles. That is the central point.
Four Pinocchios for what Sen. Rand Paul said on Fox seems very political and not supported by the facts. Clearly, some of the facts are in dispute, but you seem to have taken the Administration’s spin at face value and you devalue the testimony of Gregory Hicks, a deputy of slain U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens. [Note from The Fact Checker: We were quoting from a House Republican report that made clear there was no “stand down" order.]