Two revelatory pieces of news hit Washington last week. The first was a Justice Department “White Paper” that outlined which people the Executive Branch can kill without recourse to courts or review by Congress. The second was Leon Panetta’s “exit interview” with the Senate Armed Services Committee, in which he shed light on management — or lack thereof — in the Benghazi debacle. One presents a president killing — including American citizens — to dispense justice as he sees fit, the other a president absent while someone else was killing Americans abroad.
Keep in mind President Obama’s normal self-referential posture. His 2009 West Point speech, outlining the surge of American forces into Afghanistan, used the word “I” 321 times in a total of 3,507 words. He placed himself in the center of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. He inserted himself into an argument between Harvard professor Henry Lewis Gates and Cambridge police officer James Crowley. He inserted himself into the killing of Trayvon Martin by neighborhood watch participant George Zimmerman. He called Sandra Fluke, a law student who made a case for free birth control, to ensure that she had survived caustic mention by a radio host.
The “White Paper,” then, is not a surprise. It posits conditions under which the Executive can kill people relying solely on its own view. Acknowledging that these rules apply to American citizens as well as foreign operatives, the paper discusses the 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution, finding them subordinate to the president’s decision-making. While “no private interest is more weighty than a person’s interest in his life”…that has to be balanced with the “U.S. interest in forestalling the threat of violence or death to other Americans.” An October Washington Post article placed the president is in the middle of the balancing act.
Secretary Panetta’s testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee, however, paints an absent President Obama. Was it to spare himself the political liability of a threat unconsidered and a mission unanticipated and, in the end, poorly executed?
Panetta said he briefed the president about the 9/11 Benghazi attack late in the afternoon and then didn’t speak to him until the battle was over. He said the president told him to “do whatever you need to do to be able to protect our people there” and then “left it up to us.” Sen. Kelly Ayotte asked whether the president wanted specifics, like “how long it would take to deploy assets, including armed aviation, to the area[.]” Panetta said the president never called him back, nor did he call the president to update him.
Looking at Panetta’s and JCS Chairman General Martin Dempsey’s testimony, it is easy to understand why the president might prefer letting the outgoing secretaries of defense and state be responsible instead of letting responsibility rise to the top.
Panetta and Dempsey said there was no reason to believe that there would be any particular problem in Benghazi on 9/11. Dempsey told Sen. John McCain that “we never received” a request from the State Department to be prepared to respond to a potential attack on the facility. Sen. McCain wasn’t buying it. “It was almost predictable” that “bad things were going to happen in Libya.”
Dempsey and Panetta declined to discuss the most direct sign of trouble to come — the 16 August memo advising Washington that the Benghazi facility could not be defended “in the event of a coordinated attack, due to limited manpower, security measures, weapons capabilities, host nation support, and the overall size of the compound.” The same memo mentioned “the location of approximately ten Islamist militias and AQ training camps within Benghazi,” two of which were later named in the attack.
They failed to mention the DC-3 aircraft Ambassador Stevens had requested remain assigned to the Security Support Team (16 Special Forces troops) in Tripoli, but which the State Department terminated in May. “Post’s request to continue use of the plane in support of the SST was considered. However, it was decided that, if needed, NEA will charter a special flight for their departure.” It was without apparent irony that Mr. Panetta did mention the delays reaching Benghazi because the special charter plane was delayed in Tripoli’s airport for lack of Libyan government approval to move.
Dempsey admitted that no planes were ever sent during the fighting and that none could have arrived for 12 to 15 hours in the best case. He pointed out that defending the facility wasn’t a Pentagon obligation in any event, as it “belonged” to the State Department, which hadn’t ordered up any special security. But he declined to blame the State Department. “They have their own assessments,” he said.
We know more now about the decision-making by the State Department, the Pentagon, and the president. We heard “it wasn’t my responsibility” and “it wasn’t his fault” and “we didn’t know it was coming” and “we didn’t have assets.” The secretary, the general, and the senators threw around phrases like “fog of war,” “20-20 hindsight,” and “intelligence gap” (not a “failure,” Dempsey said — a “gap.”) We know that no one was fired and that the only person who paid for the fiasco was Nakoulah Basseley Nakoulah.
…And Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty.
It is understandable that the president would rather worry about who is on the kill list than be close to anything that happened in Benghazi.