WASHINGTON — Maryland insurance executive Christopher Moody believes much of the news media is missing a major scandal in how the Obama administration responded to the attack in eastern Libya that killed four Americans.
Based on reports he's seen and heard on Fox News, talk radio and elsewhere, Moody is positive that officials watched a live video feed in the White House situation room from an overhead drone as the attack in Benghazi unfolded. He knows that a U.S. Special Operations team was available in Sicily to help rescue the besieged Americans, but wasn't sent. He is sure that President Obama or his aides refused requests to dispatch an AC-130 Spectre gunship that could have mowed down the attackers with its fearsome rotating cannons.
"The bottom line," emailed Moody, whose father was a Democratic U.S. senator from Michigan, "is that [Obama] had the ability to save those four Americans and didn't do it."
Officials in the Pentagon and the intelligence community contend that none of those assertions are true.
In an extraordinary effort to refute them, senior intelligence officials released a detailed timeline Thursday of CIA actions in Benghazi, after trying for weeks to keep the extent of the CIA's presence there a secret. Pentagon officials, meanwhile, disclosed details about military forces they set in motion after learning of the attack.
Senior intelligence and Defense officials say there was some coverage by unarmed surveillance drones during part of the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack, but no feed was available for the president. The Special Operations team arrived on the Italian island of Sicily hours after the attack was over. And "no AC-130 was within a continent's range of Benghazi," Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
Important questions remain about what exactly happened before, during and after the incident that led to the deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans, including whether warnings went unheeded, why facilities weren't better secured and why officials initially linked the attack to a street protest that never happened.
The new account of CIA actions, for example, shows that the agency's security officers did not appear to have the heavy weapons they needed to repel the attack, and it shows how deeply the U.S. was relying on Libyan security forces that melted away. Congress and a State Department accountability review board are investigating why the security was so inadequate, both for the ambassador and for a major CIA intelligence operation as Benghazi was growing more dangerous.
But in Washington, the pursuit of answers has been complicated by a fog of partisan-driven misinformation that is notable even by election-year standards. With just days to go before the presidential election, legitimate criticism over the incident has become entangled with conspiracy theories alleging that the president and his top national security advisors intentionally or recklessly allowed Americans to die.
On the issue of a military response, the Obama administration got an unusual boost Friday by former George W. Bush administration Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who wrote in a blog post that "the US did almost everything possible to protect our people once the attacks had started, though not in advance. … Decision makers in Washington appear to have been leaning forward, as they should have been. The military's most capable rescue force, based on the East Coast, was deployed immediately (something that is very rarely done), but — given the distances involved — arrived at Sigonella only after the crisis was over." Sigonella is the site of a U.S. military installation in Sicily.
But Wolfowitz was critical of the administration's handling of the incident in other respects, including what he said were its "persistent misleading comments about the motives of the attackers" and the "failure to do more in advance to respond to the evidence — including pleas by Ambassador [J. Christopher] Stevens himself — to provide better security for U.S. facilities in Benghazi or for the Embassy in Tripoli," the Libyan capital.
And the Wall Street Journal raised new questions Friday about the security arrangements in Benghazi, saying there was "confusion" between the State Department and the CIA about security arrangements for the Americans there.
Republican senators including John McCain of Arizona wrote an op-ed article, published Thursday in the conservative Washington Times, in which they called on the president to answer whether "any member of the U.S. government, including senior administration officials, reject[ed] requests for greater military and intelligence assistance for our personnel on the ground in Benghazi."
Pentagon officials say that didn't happen, and they say there was no viable military option to disrupt sporadic attacks in two separate areas of a city full of people sympathetic to the U.S.
Armed drones were not in the area, Special Operations teams couldn't get there in time, and airstrikes without intelligence about targets posed a huge risk of killing Americans and civilians, they said.
Last week, Fox News alleged that CIA managers told security officials at an agency facility known as the Annex — which was a mile from the State Department compound in Benghazi — not to go to the aid of their American counterparts when the diplomatic buildings first came under attack. Fox said the team was delayed an hour before going to help, in contravention of orders. Ambassador Stevens and computer technician Sean Smith were killed when attackers set fire to the compound.
The Fox report also alleged that, hours later, when the Annex itself was under attack, officials in the CIA chain of command refused to pass along requests for military assistance. And it said that one of the CIA security officers had laser sights pointed at some of the attackers that could have allowed them to be targeted by a precision bomb. Two CIA security officers, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, were killed when mortar rounds struck their position on the roof of the Annex.
In fact, CIA security officers responded to the attack on the State Department compound within 25 minutes, U.S. officials said, though it took them 50 minutes to arrive. CIA officers did not have laser targeting equipment, they said.
And Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta "ordered all appropriate forces to respond to the unfolding events in Benghazi, but the attack was over before those forces could be employed," said Little, the Pentagon spokesman.
"There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support," a senior intelligence official said.
Armed drones were not nearby. Even if they had been, it's not clear that they would have done any good, officials say.
"People think 'armed drones' are some sort of magical robot wizards that can materialize out of thin air and identify a terrorist through facial recognition software from 20,000 feet," a senior congressional official said. "It doesn't work like that."
One former Air Force general, who did not want to speak for the record when criticizing the Pentagon, questioned why warplanes were not sent to fly low over the attack sites as a show of force in an attempt to scare off the attackers. But he agreed with officials who said an airstrike was not appropriate, given the lack of awareness of what was happening on the ground.