The White House’s less than optimal effort to defend against the Benghazi attack

The Benghazi fiasco has led to many questions, all of which cast the Obama administration in a bad light. For example: why was the U.S. consulate in Benghazi still open, given how dangerous the place had become; why, given that the consulate was still open, wasn’t there more protection; why, after the attack, was the White House so dishonest about what had transpired; and what is the U.S. going to do in response to the attack.

Now, another pressing question has emerged: Could our military have helped those under assault during the attack? CBS News raises this question in an article that suggests the answer is “yes.”

Keep in mind that the assault extended over a period of seven hours. And a White House official told CBS News that, at the start of the attack, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta “looked at available options.” Thus, as things turned out, the administration had almost seven hours within which to send in forces to aid the besieged Americans and defeat their attackers.

The White House told CBS News that it did send a force to Benghazi that arrived within 24 hours. And it boasted that this was “well ahead of timelines laid out in established policies.” But the fact that the White House met some bureaucratic timetable provides no consolation to the victims of the terrorist attacks and their families, and should provide none to the American public. As retired CIA officer Gary Berntsen, who commanded CIA counter-terrorism missions targeting Osama bin Laden and led the team that responded after bombings of the U.S. Embassy in East Africa, told CBS:

You find a way to make this happen. There isn’t a plan for every single engagement. Sometimes you have to be able to make adjustments.

The relevant question, then, isn’t the “timetables laid out in established policies,” but rather how quickly an effective fighting force could have been deployed. According to Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense, fighter jets (from our military base in Sigonella, Sicily) could have been in Benghazi in an hour, and special operations forces (from Central Europe) could have arrived within three hours. But neither the fighters nor the commandos were deployed.

A White House official told CBS News that a “small group of reinforcements” was sent from Tripoli to Benghazi, but declined to say how many were deployed or what time they arrived. West says that the force from Tripoli consisted of 22 people and that it arrived in Benghzai in time to assist in fighting around an annex about a mile away from the consulate. However, this force was no substitute for fighter jets and commandos.

Why didn’t the administration do more to protect our people? West believes that “passive groupthink prevailed, with the assumption being that a spontaneous mob would quickly run out of steam.”

But where was President Obama when this “passive groupthink” was carrying the day? Or was he a party to that groupthink?

Whatever the answers, the U.S. response in Benghazi was far from “optimal.” As West explains:

Firefights wax and wane from dusk to dawn. You cannot predict ahead of time when they will stop. Therefore a combat commander will take immediate action, presuming reinforcements will be needed.

Gary Berntsen, the retired CIA officer, is even more critical:

[The adminstration] made zero adjustments in this. They stood and they watched and our people died.

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