Benghazi Rescue Was Impossible, Pentagon Swears
- 2:50 PM
Despite the testimony of a top U.S. diplomat, Pentagon officials insisted there was just no way that a small team of special-operations forces could have saved four Americans in Benghazi during last September’s deadly attacks.
Gregory Hicks, the former chief of mission of the U.S. diplomatic mission to Libya, told the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday that a four-man special-operations team already in Tripoli was ordered not to go on to Benghazi as the crisis unfolded.
The team’s commander “Lt. Col. Gibson was furious,” Hicks said during an emotional hearing. “I had told him to go bring our people home. That’s what he wanted to do.”
“It’s the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than someone in the military,” Hicks quoted Gibson as saying.
And when congressmen came to investigate the Benghazi incident, Hicks said that an unnamed State Department lawyer tried to keep him from meeting with the representatives. When that didn’t work, the lawyer tried — and failed — to insert himself into the interview. Cheryl Mills, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff, angrily called for explanation, according to Hicks.
Before Hicks appeared before the committee, two senior Pentagon spokespeople, George Little and Marine Col. Dave Lapan, worked to blunt his testimony. They confirmed that the four-man team was in Tripoli before and at the time of the hours-long assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya began. According to them, the four-man team was not only not kitted for battle, but their path to Benghazi did not reach the city until after the fighting had ended.
The team had been vaguely referred to in the Pentagon’s official timeline (.PDF) of its mobilization for Benghazi, released in October. But Little and Lapan explained for the first time on the record that the U.S. Special Operations Command’s detachment in U.S Africa Command told the team not to head to Benghazi.
The team, in Tripoli already to train Libyan forces, requested to hop on a Libyan C-130 cargo plane to head to Benghazi. But Special Operations Command Africa told them not to go, because “there was nothing this team could do to assist,” Little said, opting to tell the team to stay in Tripoli to assist with consular staff’s evacuation from Benghazi.
According to Little and Lapan, the C-130 the team wanted to fly to Benghazi on had space for the men, but it didn’t arrive in the city until after the battle ended. “There’s no evidence they could have arrived in Benghazi before the end of the attack,” said Lapan, a spokesman for Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Dempsey and other top Pentagon officials have previously testified that they could not get commandos or fighter planes into Benghazi in time to save the lives of Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. There was an unarmed surveillance drone over Benghazi, but Air Force fighters in Italy’s Aviano air base lacked refueling tankers to allow them to get to the scene. Special-operations teams in the U.S. and Croatia were initially told to prepare for Benghazi, for a possible hostage-rescue mission, but they ultimately didn’t get closer than a staging base in Europe before the attacks ended.
The Pentagon’s timeline about what it did in response to Benghazi hasn’t satisfied key Congressional Republicans. “I find it insufficient, which is why I requested additional information from the Department of Defense,” Rep. Buck McKeon, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement today. McKeon wants the Pentagon to prepare a classified timeline for the committee to supplement the public one the Pentagon has released.
The Pentagon’s top legislative official, Elizabeth King, told the committee that the Defense Department never prepared any classified timeline, either internally or for the committee. Little and Lapan indicated they did not have a classified timeline to provide the committee. It’s unlikely that today’s hearing will end the controversy over what the Pentagon should have done — if it could have done anything — about the assault on Benghazi.
– additional reporting by Noah Shachtman