In closed-door briefings, lawmakers express disbelief about military inaction in Benghazi

Over the last year, lawmakers repeatedly expressed disbelief during closed-door briefings with Pentagon and military officials over why the armed forces was ill-equipped to respond to the terrorist attacks on Americans in Benghazi in 2012.

During a May 21 hearing convened by the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Darryl Roberson, the vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, simply explained that the military had no realistic options available that day to respond to the multiple attacks that left four Americans dead, including Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya.

“It is not like a fire station,” Roberson said of the military during the May hearing. “We don’t have assets to respond like a fire call, jump down the pole and respond for any American that is under fire anywhere in the world.”

Roberson explained that when it comes to protecting diplomats, the Department of Defense’s role is to support the State Department, which has the “primary responsibility for the security” of its people.

But lawmakers expressed bewilderment. “It is embarrassing that you can’t get a plane over there and do a low flyover and drop a sonic boom,” Utah Rep. Jason Chaffetz said. “It is embarrassing.”

Ohio Rep. Mike Turner asked Roberson how in the “post-Qadafi” world that “we just send Americans and put them on the ground [in Libya] and don’t have any assets to back up?”

“It was a war zone,” Turner said. “I mean this is not like what is happening in Austria or some other place. You went in and took out [Moammar] Gadhafi. This is a war zone. I mean this is months after a war zone.”

On Monday, the Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations — chaired last year by Alabama Rep. Martha Roby — released hundreds of pages of transcripts from briefings that took place over the course of several months on Benghazi. Many pages — containing classified material — were redacted.

The committee aimed to learn about the actions of the military chain of command before, during, and after the attacks.

“It does not appear that U.S. military forces, units, aircrafts, drones, or specific personnel that could have been readily deployed in the course of the attack in Benghazi were unduly held back, or told to stand down, or refused permission to enter the fight,” Roby said at one hearing. “Rather, we were so badly postured, they could not have made a difference or we were desperately needed elsewhere.”

Roby said she hoped to learn in the hearings that the military is “far better prepared to face a similar attack this Sept. 11, and today, than we were a year ago.”

The military officials who briefed lawmakers outlined why the military could not have done more.

“We had no way of contacting the people on the ground from the airplane, from the pilots’ perspective… We didn’t know who was friendly and who was enemy. There was no way that we would have been able to drop weapons in that environment, from a drone or from an airplane,” Roberson said.

The vice director of operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff also explained that the Benghazi attack was the first to happen on the anniversary of 9/11.

“Prior to that event at Benghazi, there had not been an attack on 9/11 that [the Department of Defense] had to respond to in any way,” he said.