The Benghazi terrorist attack was a debacle in three distinct stages. The fatal mistakes occurred in the first two — the failure to provide adequate security before the attack and the failure to provide help once it started. Those mistakes were tragic, but the Obama administration’s explanations are coherent, though hardly defensible.
The mystery always has been the third stage — the aftermath, or more accurately, the coverup. Even before the bodies of the four Americans came home, the White House was eager to tell any story except the real one.
Aides twisted and turned to create the false narrative that a protest over an anti-Muslim video was spontaneously hijacked by radicals. But two problems quickly emerged: There was no video protest in Benghazi, and the attack, which used heavy weaponry, was well planned.
So, why did the White House spin the web of deceit? Don’t they know the cover up is worse than the crime?
Finally, we have the answer, thanks to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. In his reluctant Senate testimony, he provided the missing piece of the puzzle: The commander in chief was MIA. The coverup was created to protect his absence.
According to Panetta, President Obama checked in with his military team early on during the attack, then checked out for the rest of the night. The next day, we already knew, he blamed the video maker and flew to Las Vegas for a campaign event.
Meanwhile, half a world away, Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans had been slaughtered by Islamists. Their murders on the 11th anniversary of 9/11 gave the incident extra gravity and led the White House to conceal the facts. An honest chronology would have revealed the president’s shocking behavior during the most successful attack against Americans by foreigners since 9/11.
Imagine the questions that would have come: What did Obama do through the long, bloody night? Whom did he talk to? When did he learn that Stevens was dead?
There is still much we don’t know, but Panetta, under persistent Senate probing, revealed that Obama simply wasn’t involved. Did he just go to sleep?
That question, like other good ones, was asked by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Panetta and the chairman of the joint chiefs, Martin Dempsey, told Graham they didn’t sleep, but said they didn’t know if Obama did.
You would think a presidential conscience would keep him awake and engaged until he knew what had happened in Benghazi. You would be wrong.
Instead, the two officials said they had only one, 30-minute conversation with Obama. It began at around 5 p.m. Washington time, 90 minutes after the first attack started, and they never spoke to him again that night.
The president’s only instructions, Panetta said, were, “Do whatever you need to do,” though he left the details “up to us.”
The president never asked what military assets could be used, where they were and when they would get to Benghazi. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton never spoke to them at all, Panetta said.
By the time the meeting with Obama ended, one American was dead, Stevens was missing and the survivors had retreated to a nearby villa.
At 2 a.m. in Benghazi (8 p.m. in DC), the villa also came under mortar and gunfire attack in what witnesses called a planned, sophisticated ambush. Two more Americans died there.
About four hours later, at dawn in Libya, officials retrieved Stevens’ body from a hospital. He had been alive when he was taken there by Libyans who converged on the burned-out consulate after the first attack; they found him unconscious in an interior room, and a doctor could not revive him.
More than two hours after that, after 8 a.m. in Libya and 2 a.m. in Washington, a State Department plane left with the last group of survivors and four bodies.
It would be nice to know what Obama did during the nearly 11 hours from the start of the first attack until that plane left Libya, but in truth, we know enough to understand the meaning. His detachment during a terrorist attack was a shameful dereliction of duty.
Had he been a military officer, he would face charges. If he were George Bush, he would face ridicule and condemnation, at the least.
But this is Barack Obama, the president who went missing during a terrorist attack against America and escapes without a scratch.
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Michael Goodwin is a Fox News contributor and New York Post columnist.