Chain-of-command failure? Benghazi and the ghost of “Black Hawk Down”; Obama’s credibility (Updated November 15)

Updated November 15, 2012

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said, with respect to the American responses to the attacks in Benghazi, that you don’t want to send forces in until you have reliable intelligence about what is taking place on the ground.

Excerpts from press conference with Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin E. Dempsey, October 25, 2012.

GEN. DEMPSEY: So on the events in Libya, clearly the American people deserve to understand what happened in Benghazi. As you know, there are reviews under way both here and in the Department of State so we’ll better understand what happened.

It’s not helpful, in my view, to provide partial answers. I can tell you, however, sitting here today, that I feel confident that our forces were alert and responsive to what was a very fluid situation.

Q: Can I follow up on that? One of the reasons we’ve heard that there wasn’t a more robust response right away is that there wasn’t a clear intelligence picture over Benghazi, to give you the idea of where to put what forces.

But when there was, in fact, a drone over the CIA annex and there were intelligence officials fighting inside the annex, I guess the big question is, with those two combined assets, why there wasn’t a clear intelligence picture that would have given you what you needed to make some moves, for instance, flying, you know, F-16s over the area to disperse fighters or — or dropping more special forces in.

SEC. PANETTA: You know, let me — let me speak to that, because I’m sure there’s going to be — there’s a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on here.

We — we quickly responded, as General Dempsey said, in terms of deploying forces to the region. We had FAST platoons in the region. We had ships that we had deployed off of Libya. And we were prepared to respond to any contingency and certainly had forces in place to do that.

But — but the basic principle here — basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on; without having some real-time information about what’s taking place. And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, General Ham, General Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation.

Q: So the drone, then, and the forces inside the annex weren’t giving enough of a clear picture is what you’re saying.

SEC. PANETTA: This — this happened within a few hours and it was really over before, you know, we had the opportunity to really know what was happening (emphasis added).

In Panetta’s statement, one can hear the echo of the searing experience in Mogadishu, Somalia in 1993, which has been captured in the book and the movie entitled, “Black Hawk Down” (1999 and 2001, respectively).

One can also hear the echo of modern drone warfare of the kind Panetta was directly involved in, personally involved in, when he was the Director of the CIA. In drone warfare, of course, to act without good intelligence is the height of folly.

Yet there are older traditions in the U.S. military, in which in a wartime situation it was often necessary to act, even with partial information and in the fog of war.

In Benghazi, it may have been reasonable to think of “Black Hawk Down” and the risk of losing the very soldiers being sent to defend and rescue those under attack. Other options, however, if they were available, might not have entailed the risks of being outmatched on the ground. If a C-130 gunship could have been brought into the battle, as some have suggested, the attackers might have been persuaded to desist. Panetta stated the U.S. had warships on station in the area, but did not explain why they were not called into action.

Moreover, the British reportedly had more robust forces nearby that might have been brought to bear. It would be interesting to know if anyone in Benghazi or in Washington thought to ask for their help.


Adam Housley, “Exclusive: Security officials on the ground in Libya challenge CIA account,” Fox News, November 3, 2012.

Jennifer Rubin, “Obama’s legacy: The blunder in Benghazi,” Washington Post, November 5, 2012 (12:20 ET).

The Trenchant Observer, “Benghazi update: New questions raised on intelligence, decision-making failures,” November 5, 2012 (Updated November 6, 2012).

On September 11, U.S. decision-makers may have been more worried about the demonstrations in Cairo and Sana’a than about any warning signs from Benghazi.

One thing is striking about the U.S. responses to the attacks in Benghazi. They all seemed to be orchestrated from Washington. But in a fast-moving situation, might it not have made greater sense to allow the military and security forces in the region to react quickly based on local contacts and intelligence, than to incur the delays and second-guessing involved in consulting the White House, the Pentagon and the CIA?

After the storming of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979, it is hard to believe U.S. contingency plans did not take such attacks as occurred in Benghazi into account.

The deepest mystery is why the administration insisted for so long on putting forth the story that the attacks grew out of a demonstration against the anti-Muslim film, “The Innocence of Muslims”. When President Obama insists, as he did at his press conference on November 14, that Susan Rice was sent by the White House to the Sunday morning talk shows to speak to the talking points prepared for her, is he not also implying that the best intelligence five days after the attack affirmed that there was a demonstration against the film?

If so, does not that fact alone reveal how utterly incompetent our intelligence agencies have become in converting information and data into meaningful analyses and conclusions?  The world moves quickly, and the government should be able to reach conclusions about what occurred five days after the event.

Or was someone somewhere putting out the false story in order to divert criticism from Obama for the obvious failures at Benghazi? The events in Benghazi did not fit the Obama campaign’s narrative of how the president had vanquished Bin Laden and Al Queda. Whose interests were served by suggesting that the attacks on the consulate grew out of a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim film?

Yet another possibility, suggested by the transcript of Panetta’s and Dempsey’s news conference on October 25, is that the obfuscation of what happened at Benghazi on September 11-12 was intended to cover over the fact that Panetta and Dempsey were caught by surprise, caught flatfooted as it were, and had not brought to bear the military forces they might have had they been paying closer attention. The failure that was being covered up, under this scenario, would have been a failure in the military chain-of-command, including its coordination with the CIA, the Navy, and the White House. In Panetta’s words, “This — this happened within a few hours and it was really over before, you know, we had the opportunity to really know what was happening.”

Moreover, why was the civilian Secretary of Defense making military decisions on how best to protect the lives of the Americans in Benghazi? Were political considerations involved?

No one wants a crippled second term for Obama. He would do well to ponder the lessons of Watergate: Get the facts out. Get all of the facts out. Get all of the facts out right away.

Otherwise the drip, drip, drip of new revelations will undermine your credibility.

Failures occurred in relation to Benghazi. Otherwise, we would not have four Americans dead, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya. Yet an endemic weakness in the Obama White House has been that it eschews the admission of failures. This weakness now threatens the president’s ability to command respect during his second term.

President Obama would do well to bring in an experienced hand, someone like David Gergen, to help him manage his communication strategy relating to the Petraeus and Benghazi affairs, if not more.

He needs to grasp the utmost seriousness of these two related matters.  His credibility, whether people trust him or not, hangs in the balance.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

James Rowles
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by James Rowles (aka "The Observer"), an author and international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. Dr. Rowles is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) of the Organization of American States OAS), in Wasington, D.C., , where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, Dr. Rowles has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. Dr. Rowles speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.=LL.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, Dr. Rowles has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on some the best articles that have appeared in the blog.