Asking the wrong questions about Libya

Bart Marcois Public Affairs Consultant
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Kerry Ladka is disappointed, and rightly so. The questioner from the Hofstra debate told a Washington Post blogger yesterday that President Obama didn’t answer the question he asked Tuesday night, “Who was it that denied enhanced security [to our embassy facilities] in Libya, and why?”

Rush Limbaugh was right also to compare the events in Libya to Watergate: “[T]his is almost indescribable, the scope of this. Watergate doesn’t approach this. … Nobody died in Watergate, let alone an ambassador. This is outrageous. It is unreal what has happened here.”

But there are several more questions we need to ask. Nobody is asking the follow-up questions, which may be far more important. How a president and his administration respond to a crisis is among the most important data voters need to know. Lost in the fog over the provenance of the attack were the details about exactly what the administration’s response was when administration officials learned of the crisis.

When it was apparent that the Benghazi compound was under attack from an overwhelming military force, did they request U.S. military aid?

If they requested assistance, from whom did they request it? Sending in a military force would have required what the Pentagon calls “National Command Authority,” which is a euphemism for the president.

What happened to the requests for help?

We know this much, from the background briefing provided by the Department of State to the news media: “[T]he agent from the top of this incident, or the very beginning of this incident, has been on the phone. He had called the quick reaction security team, he had called the Libyan authorities, he had called the Embassy in Tripoli, and he had called Washington. He had them all going to ask for help.”

Was there a live secure video conference held by the National Security Council (NSC), to evaluate the situation and the options for providing assistance?

That is standard operating procedure when there are serious breaches of diplomatic compounds. The national security system surely would have been on alert earlier in the day, when Egyptian protesters scaled the Cairo embassy’s walls.

If a video conference was held, who chaired it? Was it Tom Donilon, the national security advisor? Did he brief the president? If so, when? And if not, why not?

What did the president know, and when did he know it? What did he know before he prepped for his fundraiser in Las Vegas?

Here is more that we know. The attack commenced at around 9:40 p.m. Benghazi time — 3:40 p.m. Washington time — and Washington was notified immediately. Quoting again from the background briefing by the State Department, “The calls were made to Tripoli at the moment that the — at the same time the agent in the [Tactical Operations Center] sounded the alarm and then proceeded to make calls.” That is, shortly after 3:40 p.m. Washington time, urgent appeals for help were phoned to Washington. Whom did they telephone, what did they request, and who responded to the request? What was the response?

All foreign affairs departments and agencies have an office to facilitate immediate reaction to crises. Standard procedure in each of these offices is to notify the NSC immediately if there is a present danger to American personnel or facilities overseas. The NSC would have been notified within minutes of the attack — by 3:45 or 3:50 at the latest — according to the timeline provided in the background briefing.

We also know that administration officials knew instantly that there was no demonstration, no protest, just an attack.

Anne Gearan of The Washington Post asked a senior State Department official: “What did the agents inside think was happening when the first group of men gathered there and they first heard those explosions? Did they think it was a protest, or did they think it was something else?”

The official responded: “The agent in the [Tactical Operations Center] heard the noise, heard the firing. Firing is not unusual in Benghazi at 9:40 at night, but he immediately reacted and looked at his cameras and saw people coming in, hit the alarm.”

Why, then, did the White House, the State Department, and the entire administration act the next morning as if they didn’t know what had happened?

Why did we not rescue our personnel? And most important, what did the president know, and when did he know it?

Bart Marcois is a former career Foreign Service Officer who served in four Middle Eastern countries.