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The Benghazi hearing — during the attack

Yesterday’s Benghazi hearing tended to confirm my view that, looking back, the four Americans who died during the attack (which occurred in two distinct phases) were doomed due to the inadequate security provided by the State Department. In other words, there probably was nothing we could have done once the attack commenced that would have saved them.

However, the hearing also confirmed that the U.S. declined to take actions that, at the time they were options, should have been taken in order to maximize the possibility of saving lives.

The hearing highlighted three possible options, each of which was rejected. The first option was sending in fighter planes from Europe. Gregory Hicks, State’s number two man in Libya, testified that when he asked about such assistance he was told it could be provided in two or three hours, but would not be forthcoming.

Evidence from earlier hearings, plus a sense of how things work in the real world, convinces me that the two-to-three hour estimates were highly unrealistic. The better view, I think, is that even if everything had worked perfectly, it’s unlikely that planes from Southern Europe would have arrived in time to make a difference.

But we don’t know this for sure, even now. And at the time of the attack, no one knew how long it would last or whether it would spread to Tripoli. Moreover, yesterday’s testimony made clear just how impressed Libyan fighters are by U.S. air presence — after all, it played a big role in turning their rebellion into a success. Thus, I believe the planes should have been sent.

A second option was to send in the Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST), a rapid response unit designed for just the sort of situation that was unfolding in Libya. Mark Thompson, the acting deputy assistant secretary of state for counterterrorism, testified that he requested that a FEST team be deployed to Libya, but the request was denied. As I understand his testimony, Thompson was the Bureau of Counterterrorism Leader for the FEST Team at State. He was not given a reason for the decision to sideline FEST.

Had a team been deployed, it would not have reached Libya in time to help. But again, no one knew this when the attack began.

Finally, a Lieutenant Colonel Gibson was in Tripoli at the time of the attack. As the night went on and developments unfolded, he persuaded Gregory Hicks that he should deploy to Benghazi to join the beleaguered force that had already been sent there from Tripoli.

Gibson was to reach Benghazi on a flight transporting some Libyans. But at the last minute, he received orders to “stand down.” According to Hicks, Gibson was furious and expressed dismay that the State Department had shown more “balls” than the Defense Department, from which the order to “stand down” came.

Gibson would not have arrived in Benghazi in time to help. And the Defense Department now says he was needed in Tripoli in case of an attack there.

The latter point reminds us that the security issues in Libya weren’t confined to Benghazi. It therefore reinforces the case for sending the FEST team to Libya.

Yesterday’s hearing raises questions about who made the various decisions to reject options for coming to the aid of our personnel in Benghazi. The bigger question, though, pertains to the role of President Obama.

Was he engaged at all during this crisis? Did he inquire about the options for responding? If so, what was he told and why did he concur in rejecting them? If not, why didn’t he inquire?

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