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Three key questions on the Benghazi scandal

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Sept. 12, 2012: This file photo shows a man walking through a room in the gutted U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. (AP)

Washington is still reeling from the resignation of General David Petraeus as head of the CIA just days before he was supposed to testify on Capitol Hill about what the CIA knew about the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi on September 11, and when it knew it. 

The many questions surrounding that scandal–including why the FBI was reading the CIA director’s emails and Petraeus’s mistress’s bizarre claims about a secret prison in the Benghazi CIA annex -- just add to the picture of an Obama administration out of control on national security—and the conclusion that someone knowingly put an American ambassador at risk to his life; left him there to die; and then lied about it afterwards.

As Congressional hearings on Benghazi start up again this week, three key issues demand answers.

First, why did the Obama administration ignore repeated pleas to strengthen security for our people in Libya, not only from State Department security chief Andrew Wood and the man on the ground in charge of security, Greg Nordstrom; but from Ambassador Christopher Stevens himself, who sent a memo on June 25 headlined “fragile security deteriorating, “ noting the rise of pro-Al Qaeda sentiment across Libya–and why it refuse Stevens additional security for his trip to Benghazi, knowing it might cost him his life?  

Second, when did the president and/or his national security staff become aware that an attack was underway at the Benghazi compound, and why was their response so lax?  We now know that warning of an imminent attack reached the compound a full hour before it happened.
We also have the compound’s email calling for help reaching the State Department and White House Situation Room just twenty-five minutes after the attack began–an attack that would go on for the next seven and a half hours while jet fighters, armed drones, and Specter AC 130 gunships could have been over Benghazi in matter of minutes, and a Special Ops team in Italy in less than two hours.    

We know from Fox News’s Jennifer Griffin that the security staff at the Benghazi CIA annex,  including ex-Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, offered twice to go to the ambassador’s aid, but were twice ordered to do nothing (orders they finally disobeyed). We also know that at 5:15 Washington time, less than an hour and a half into the attack, an unmanned drone was providing live video feed of the scene, including to the White House Situation Room. A NSC official has said the president never saw it.  If not, why not?  

The president has said on October 25 that the minute he heard what was happening he ordered the CIA and military to “make sure we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to do.”  Yet the general in charge of Africa Command has said he received no such directive.    
Indeed, it was not until the attack spread to the CIA annex Defense Secretary that Leon Panetta finally stirred into action at 8 pm Washington time (4 am Benghazi time)–four hours into the fight.  Panetta, however, ordered deployments for a hostage rescue mission only, rather than using missile-equipped drones or C-130 gunships to clear out the attackers.  Yet Tyrone Woods died painting the attackers’ mortar position with a laser for guiding precisely that kind of armed response, while radioing target coordinates.  Why would he deliberately expose his position this way, if he didn’t believe air support was on its way?  

Third, who first concocted “the spontaneous reaction” to a YouTube  video explanation for the attack, ignoring both the Libya CIA station chief’s assessment and that of State’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research in the first 24 hours, that this was a planned and coordinated terrorist operation–and claims on Facebook and Twitter by an Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist cell that it was responsible? Was it the same person or persons who decided to stick to that explanation and have UN ambassador Susan Rice repeat the same lie on national television and six times in the president’s speech at the United Nations–even, most chillingly of all, have Secretary of State Hillary Clinton repeat it to Tyrone Woods’ parents over the coffin of their dead son at Andrews Air Force Base, saying she would “make sure the person who made the film is arrested.”

Mitt Romney chose not to shine the light of truth on this sordid, tragic mess.  That might have cost him the election.  Now it’s up to Congress.  If they do their job, they will earn the gratitude not just of the families of the dead, but the entire nation.

Historian Arthur Herman is author "The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization" (Random House 2013).