The story of the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi has been evolving for more than seven weeks now, in its many and oft conflicting variants, and the questions keep multiplying. Amid the official obfuscations and evasions, a patchwork picture has been emerging, by way of congressional questions, leaked emails, anonymous sources and documents discovered as recently as this week by reporters wandering through the still-unsecured, burned and looted diplomatic compound where Ambassador Chris Stevens apparently spent his final moments of consciousness choking on the smoke of a diesel-fueled conflagration.
Among the vital tools for clarifying what actually happened are the timelines, which are only slowly being filled in. Broadly, these stretch back months before the assault, as American personnel in Libya warned about deteriorating security, and a U.S. administration invested in the tale of al Qaeda-in-retreat, success in Libya, and a receding tide of war, chose to ignore the warnings. The timelines stretch forward as well, encompassing confusing and conflicting accounts put forth by various officials of the administration; the Sept. 16 televised blame-the-video-and-the-spontaneous-mob messages of the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, and the Sept. 25 denounce-the-video speech of President Obama at the UN; the reported inability of the FBI to reach the Benghazi sites until more than three weeks after the attack; the continuing controversy about reported calls for help and the alleged orders to stand down. The list goes on.
But of special interest, in getting a handle on the truth, are the timelines for the duration of the attack itself. There are at least two provided by the administration at this stage. One comes from the State Department, outlined in a teleconference background press briefing on Oct. 9. The other was provided this past Thursday by the CIA. They don’t quite match up. Both versions agree that the assault on the main diplomatic compound began at 9:40 PM Benghazi time, and that a rescue squad came from the annex about a mile away, was unable to find the ambassador, retrieved the body of diplomatic aide Sean Smith, and then returned, under fire, to the annex – which itself came under attack, and where, in the early morning hours, former SEALS Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were killed by a mortar strike.
But when the rescue squad returns to the annex that deadly night, accounts diverge. According to the State Department briefer, the attack on the annex continued, at least sporadically, for hours – from the time the rescue team returned, until the time the two agents were killed. The wording in the State Department Oct. 9 transcript , referring to the time the rescue team arrived back at the annex, is: “The annex is at this time also taking fire and does take fire intermittently, on and off, for the next several hours. The fire consists of AK-47s, but also RPGs, and it’s, at times, quite intense.”
The CIA version, as reported Nov. 1, by David Ignatius in the Washington Post, is different. According to the CIA, the attacks on the annex “stop at 1:01 A.M., and some assume the fight is over.” Then, more than four hours later, at 5:15 AM, “A new Libyan assault begins, this time with mortars.” That’s the attack in which Woods and Doherty are killed. It stops just 11 minutes later. At 6 AM, a large Libyan security escort finally shows up, takes the Americans to the airport, where some of them, including the wounded, fly out at 7 AM, and the rest depart at 10 AM, with the bodies of the four murdered Americans.
Plenty remains to be filled in and reconciled between these overlapping timelines. But the glaring omission to date is the timeline back in Washington for the commander-in-chief, the president himself. The critical interval in Benghazi spanned just over 12 hours, from the time the attack began, at 9:40 PM on Sept. 11, until the last contingent of Americans flew out, at 10 AM the next day, Benghazi is in a time zone six hours ahead of Washington. So, in Washington, that critical 12-hour interval ran from 3:40 PM, Sept. 11, until about 4 AM, Sept. 12.
What was the President doing during those 12 hours? The official White House schedule for Sept. 11 tells us he had been to a memorial service at the Pentagon that morning, then visited the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at 2:15 PM, returning at 4:50 PM to the White House for a previously scheduled meeting at 5:00 PM with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. The White House has said that Obama was informed at about 5 PM of the attack in Benghazi. Did no one on his staff try to inform him sooner? By then, the diplomatic post had already been under attack for well over an hour. It was 11 PM in Benghazi, where a rescue squad from the annex had arrived at the burning diplomatic compound and was trying, without success, to reach Ambassador Stevens amid the intense fire and smoke.
The White House schedule for that week shows nothing for the president after that 5 PM meeting on Sept. 11, at which time he reportedly got word of the attack. The next item for the president, as now recorded in the White House schedule, was his appearance at 10:35 the next morning, Sept. 12, when he delivered a statement in the Rose Garden, deploring the deaths of the four Americans, while implying that some sort of deliberate third-party offense (the video) had provoked the attack (“While the United States rejects efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others…”).
Between 5 PM, when the president was informed of the attack, and 10:35 AM, when Obama delivered that public statement, there was an interval of more than 17 hours. When was he directly following the events in Benghazi, complete with the claim and appearance of the heavily armed terrorists of Ansar al-Sharia? When did he go to sleep? When was he informed of the death of the ambassador? During the first six-and-a-half of those hours, from 5 PM until about 11:30 PM Washington time, the American personnel on the ground in Benghazi were either under attack (intermittent, and at times intense, for hours, if you believe the State Department; or with a pause of about four hours – though with nothing definitively resolved, and the ambassador presumed dead but not yet back in American hands – if you believe the CIA). And during the first 11 of those hours, until 4 AM Washington time, there were still Americans, in peril, on the ground in Benghazi.
What was the president doing during those many hours? There are various accounts now circulating of what his staff did, or perhaps did not do. But for the president himself, there’s a big blank. The White House, which has released photos of Obama monitoring everything from the raid on Osama bin Laden to the natural disaster of Hurricane Sandy, has released no photos of Obama at his post on the evening of the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi.
In an interview weeks later, on Oct 27, with a Colorado TV reporter who pressed questions about Benghazi, Obama said, “The minute I found out what was happening, I gave three very clear directives.” These directives, he said, were to investigate what happened, to bring the perpetrators to justice, and – presumably the most urgent while the battle itself was still underway – “make sure we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to.” But that was about all he was willing to say.
Obama’s immediate dispensing of a directive (though, as Bing West has noted, we have yet to see any documentary evidence of it) accounts for the time just after 5 PM. What did Obama do for the rest of that evening, as Libyans found a dying ambassador in the ravaged diplomatic compound, and took him to a Benghazi hospital; as the outgunned Americans in Benghazi took up defensive positions at the annex?
By the CIA account, CIA reinforcements flew in on a hastily chartered plane from Tripoli, arriving at 1:15 AM at the Benghazi airport, but were then delayed till 4:30 AM- for more than three hours – over logistical problems that included having to negotiate with Libyan authorities for permission to leave the airport. The corresponding time in Washington was 7:15 – 10:30 PM. Given the urgency of the moment, including the torched diplomatic compound, the assault on the annex and the missing ambassador, was this not perhaps an interlude in which direct intervention by the president of the United States, perhaps a phone call to the right official in Libya, might have hastened things along? For that matter, wasn’t this a period during which greater firepower could have been dispatched to Benghazi from U.S. bases outside the country?
As it turned out, when the reinforcements finally got past the airport, they were unable to retrieve the body of Ambassador Stevens from the hospital, because, according to the CIA, the hospital was surrounded by the al-Qaeda-linked Ansar al-Sharia terrorists who – as the State Department informed the White House in an email sent at 6:07 PM that evening – had already taken credit, on Facebook, for the attack. Was the president, whose envoy had disappeared in a fiery battle in Benghazi, not available to follow these developments while they were playing out? For that matter, did no one brief him on it before his UN ambassador went on the TV talk shows five days later to blame the assault on a spontaneous mob enraged by a video?
And, as we now know, just before 11:30 PM (CIA timeline), Washington time, one of the CIA reinforcements, Glen Doherty, was killed, along with Woods, at the Benghazi annex. Following that strike, the survivors, with the bodies of three of the four American dead, then waited for another half hour before friendly Libyan forces finally arrived, in strength – midnight, Washington time – to escort them to the airport. If it now seems safe to record, with hindsight, that the attack stopped after that lethal bombardment, did anyone have reason to be sure at the time that it was really over?
Where exactly was President Obama during those seven hours, 5 PM till midnight in Washington, on Sept. 11? He had no further appointments scheduled. He has released no pictures, provided no specifics. Was he in the situation room throughout? After the 5 PM directive, was he there at all? There are many questions about what orders did or did not issue from the White House, and who gave them, or didn’t, during the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack. But they all lead back to the president. He’s the commander-in-chief, as he reminded the country on Thursday, while campaigning in his Air Force One bomber jacket.
On a normal evening, there may be no call for the American public to know exactly what their president does with his time. But this was no normal evening. This was a terrorist attack, on the anniversary of Sept. 11, in which an al Qaeda affiliate, claiming credit, was so visible on the ground as to deter CIA agents from approaching a hospital to retrieve the body of the first American ambassador to be murdered since the administration of President Jimmy Carter.
All we have of the timeline for Obama himself during these events is that he met with the Secretary of Defense and a number of other senior officials at 5 PM, Sept. 11. He gave a somewhat odd statement in the Rose Garden at 10:35 the next morning. He then dropped by the State Department. And at 2:05 he left he left the White House for a campaign trip to Las Vegas. When do we see the rest of the President Obama 9/11 timeline?