Following a pair of denials by the CIA and the National Security Council to a Fox News story published Friday, the Pentagon has come under scrutiny for its response to the assault on the U.S. compound in Benghazi. However, in a statement to The Atlantic Wire, a senior defense official says the Pentagon never rejected requests for military intervention in Benghazi. Not only that, the official said no such requests were ever made.
"The Pentagon took action by moving personnel and assets in the region shortly after it learned of the attack on the Benghazi consulate," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity. "There was no request made for military intervention in Benghazi. To be successful, such an operation, if requested, would have required solid information about what was happening on the ground. Such clarity just wasn't available as the attack was unfolding."
The statement follows a loud outcry from conservative critics in wake of a report by Fox News that armed CIA operatives near the U.S. compound in Benghazi were repeatedly told to "stand down" after asking for permission to assist on the night of Sept. 11. According to Fox News national security reporter Jennifer Griffin, former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods was part of a CIA outfit one mile away from the U.S. compound housing Ambassador Chris Stevens. "When he and others heard the shots fired, they informed their higher-ups at the annex to tell them what they were hearing and requested permission to go to the consulate and help out," reported Griffin. "They were told to 'stand down,' ... Soon after, they were again told to 'stand down.'" The report also said that repeated requests for outside military backup were denied.
But the report did not say who denied those requests. Was it the CIA? The Pentagon? The White House? Critics of the administration want to know in their efforts to assign blame for the tragedy. On Monday morning, MSNBC's Joe Scarborough asked that very question to President Obama who said the matter was still under investigation and he couldn't give further comment. "If we find out we that there was a big breakdown, and somebody didn't do their job, they'll be held accountable," he said. Meanwhile, the agencies involved with the Benghazi attack have been issuing independent denials.
On Friday, the CIA was the first agency to issue a denial. "No one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate," said CIA spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood.
That denial led some to allege that the White House itself denied the requests for backup. On Saturday, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor dismissed those accusations in an e-mail to Yahoo News' Oliver Knox. "Neither the president nor anyone in the White House denied any requests for assistance in Benghazi," he said.
With the CIA and White House denials in place, speculation shifted to the Pentagon. "So, since the the CIA says it wasn't any of their guys, and since the White House is trying to eliminate any blame on themselves, does this mean the order not to help those Americans under siege in Benghazi came from the military?" wrote The Weekly Standard's Daniel Halper. "The White House, it would seem, is trying to shift blame in that direction."
Now, with the addition of the Pentagon's denial to The Atlantic Wire, all three major players in the government's national security apparatus have weighed in the Fox News report. Each of them used slightly different language to describe their agency or department's role in the attack. But the CIA, Pentagon, and National Security Council each used guarded language to describe their involvement, and it can be difficult to divine what exactly they're saying. As such, we asked a pair of national security lawyers to look into the various statements.
It's important to remember that the CIA and the Pentagon often work together but that the operational relationship between the agencies can be fluid and ambiguous. That's why it's so difficult to infer who may have given the order to "stand down" and under what circumstances that request was denied. What can we learn from the denials?
Kel McClanahan, the executive director of the National Security Counselors and an attorney who specializes in national security law, said he didn't detect any false or misleading statements in any of the denials but noticed a few things about the words the CIA and the Pentagon used that raise questions. With regard to Jennifer Youngblood's statement, he said "all she said was that nobody told Woods 'not to help those in need.'"
"Helping those in need is a very broad term," said McClanahan. "It ranges from fire-bombing the attackers to providing medical assistance. I have complete confidence that nobody at CIA told their field office not to provide any help to those in need. However, she did not say 'no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to attack.'" As such, there's a little bit of wiggle room in how the CIA is defining its terminology. We don't know exactly what the agency told its operators on the ground. How about the Pentagon?
"DOD, for their part, is probably telling the truth as well, while not telling the whole story," said McClanahan. He homed in on the Pentagon's assertion that "There was no request made for military intervention.”
"That doesn’t say to whom or what constitutes a 'request for military intervention,'" he said. According to the Fox News story, the opportunity to intervene was in the form of a Special Forces team at an air base in Signonella, Italy, which is about two hours from Benghazi. The suggestion in Griffin's report is that the Special Forces unit could've intervened to help Amb. Stevens and the other Americans in a timely manner. (It's worth noting that U.S. officials told CBS News last week that a fast intervention wasn't possible because of State Department concerns about violating Libyan sovereignty.)
In sum, the CIA and Pentagon statements are a little bit slippery, but that doesn't mean they're untruthful. To help give a sense of this, McClanahan laid out two interesting hypotheticals that could've played out on Sept. 11 without belying the Pentagon's or CIA's statements. We should emphasize, these are just hypotheticals, but they're helpful to think about when absorbing news reports about Benghazi. Remember: According to the Fox News report, former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods heard gunfire at 9:40 p.m. the night of the assault. At the time, Woods was at a CIA annex one mile away from Amb. Stevens:
a) Woods calls CIA HQ and asks for backup.
b) CIA HQ calls the Pentagon and asks, “Are you handling this?”
c) The Pentagon says, “We’re moving personnel and assets in the region. Do you need something else?
d) CIA HQ says, “Nope, sounds like you’ve got it in hand.”
With that scenario, nothing either CIA or the Pentagon said would've been untruthful. Clearly, the compound didn't have the support it needed, but not everything in the world of national security pans out neat and clean.
Another possible scenario exists as well that would be in line with CIA and Pentagon remarks:
a) Woods calls CIA HQ and asks for backup.
b) CIA HQ calls the Pentagon and asks for backup for Woods.
c) The Pentagon responds, “To be successful, such an operation would require solid information about what is happening on the ground. Do you have that?”
d) CIA HQ says, “No.”
e) The Pentagon says, “Well then, what do you want us to do?”
f) CIA HQ says, “I’ll get back to you.”
That scenario speaks to the Pentagon's statement that a lot of information needs to be available to call up a Special Forces team. To rewind, here's the quote we received from a senior defense official: "To be successful, such an operation, if requested, would have required solid information about what was happening on the ground. Such clarity just wasn't available as the attack was unfolding."
It's certainly plausible that U.S. officials simply didn't have enough information to order backup with the speed and force that the situation required. Critics of the administration may not be satisfied with that answer, but it would comport with statements from U.S. officials.
One thing that vocal administration critics should keep in mind is that much remains unknown about what exactly happened in Benghazi. While the Fox News report raises interesting details, the report alone doesn't amount to an indictment of the Obama administration. "This story has so many moving parts as to be beyond dangerous, based on the current reporting, for anyone to conclude what did or did not happen," says Mark Zaid, an attorney and executive director of the James Madison Project, a DC-based group that focuses on education the public on intelligence and national security issues. "My experience tells me that each of the agencies, as well as the White House, is desperately trying to reconstruct what took place, who did what and why, and that would include the extent to which the descriptions 'leaked' to FoxNews hold substantive merit."
To Zaid, it's perfectly plausible that the vagueness of the Pentagon and CIA denials is a result of still not knowing the whole of what happened in Benghazi. "When the fog of war surrounds an event it is not at all unusual for individual agencies, such as the CIA or DoD, or the White House to limit their statements to the knowledge they possess at the time rather than something all-encompassing for the entire Executive Branch," he said. "Simply put, none of these entities likely fully know what the other did or did not know at the time."
While Zaid's remarks shouldn't discourage conservatives and members of the press from seeking answers about what happened in Benghazi, they should not encourage loudmouth bloggers from proclaiming that President Obama is a "coward" and a "liar," and that Fox News has the evidence to prove it. At this point: They don't.
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