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.
New Jersey Rep. Rob Andrews asked Roberson if he thought the use of F-16s would have been appropriate. “Sir, in my personal opinion,” Roberson replied, “it was absolutely not.”
Others at the Pentagon backed him up during the hearings.
“Although there were threat warnings across the board, there were no specific indications of an imminent attack on facilities in Benghazi,” said Garry Reid, the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations/low intensity conflict. “Our posture on that day was based on a continuous evaluation of threats and priorities.”
“Given the time and distance factors involved, dispatching an armed aircraft to Benghazi was not an option available to us at the time,” Reid said.
“The department’s response to the attacks was timely and appropriate,” he added, “but there simply was not enough time, given the speed of the attacks, for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.”
Reid said that since the Benghazi attacks, the military has deployed “additional forces and positioned them for accelerated response options in North Africa and the Middle East, in particular.”
Rep. Jackie Speier asked Reid about drones that were put in operation over Benghazi, but the official said they provided little help.
“Frankly the asset overhead was of very little use to the folks on the ground,” Reid said. “It provided some awareness in the rear headquarters, but not where you could make any operational judgments or provide any real warnings.”
Those who briefed lawmakers also said it was clear very soon that the attacks were planned — and not the result of a spontaneous demonstration, as the Obama administration claimed at first.
“Initially it was somewhat uncertain to me,” said Gen. Carter Ham, the head of U.S. Africa Command.
He said that changes “as the events unfolded” and they “saw a rocket-propelled grenade attack” and “well-aimed small arms fire.”
“To me, it started to become clear pretty quickly that this was certainly a terrorist attack and not just not something sporadic,” he said.
“There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think about that night,” Ham added.
Not all lawmakers found the hearings as productive as the others.
At the beginning of one hearing, Democratic Rep. Adam Smith blasted Republicans: “Without question, the Department of Defense did everything they could on that night in question… I think there are responsibilities on behalf of all of us as members of Congress to not simply take what we see on the Internet or in the media and essentially charge people at the Department of Defense.”
Smith said he would be surprised if the hearings yielded new information: “It seems to me that it is just another redundant attempt to mine the Benghazi tragedy in a political way.”