Elite U.S. troops were completely capable of saving Ambassador Chris Stevens during the Benghazi Consulate attacks on September 11, 2012. Elements of the highly specialized Combatant Commanders In-Extremis (CIF) units are always on alert, on forward deployment, ready to respond. Their job description is to hit the ground in 3 to 5 hours. CIF elements are ready to engage in active combat anywhere in their region, 3 to 5 hours after the call.
Leon Panetta, Secretary of Defense at the time, either misled the U.S. Congress or was incompetent. Panetta testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 7, 2013 that the U.S. military could not have responded in less than 9 to 12 hours.
Obama’s first secretary of defense, Robert Gates, told CBS’s Face the Nation on May 12, 2013 that “[w]e don’t have a ready force standing by” in that region.
But we absolutely do “have a ready force standing by” to reach any trouble spot in a few hours. Insider reports previously revealed that CIF elements were training in Croatia and could have been in Benghazi in three and a half hours.
Although rotating out of the United States, some CIF elements are always forward-deployed within each military command region, always on stand-by. Their training includes expertise within each local region. Some of each region’s unit is always ready. They don’t need to pack. Being ready to go — immediately — is their job description. It’s the reason they exist.
The U.S. military has developed a range of capabilities, from CIF teams to the Navy SEALs, to Rangers, to Green Berets. But now many in the special forces/special operators community feel betrayed. Commanders in Extremis units are so highly trained and expert that even elite Green Berets wash out of the highly demanding CIF training in large numbers.
Standard military doctrine is to activate all such resources immediately, even if they are ultimately not used. Military’s plans require getting such teams in the air and on the way, not waiting to see if they will be needed.
So Panetta’s and Gates’s statements to the public violate standard military protocol. Leon Panetta telegraphed to our enemies an image of incompetence of U.S. forces. Panetta’s testimony was an insult to the U.S. military. Elite forces go through constant, grueling training to be able to do what Panetta and Gates say they cannot do. One of the purposes of “special operators” is deterrence. Panetta and Gates undermined that deterrence.
The U.S. military perfected capabilities after the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, the 2008 U.S. Embassy bombing in Yemen, and similar events. Gates emphasized the need for planning; Commanders in Extremis forces plan constantly for all contingencies.
CIF units answer directly to the general for each regional command to eliminate delay. Therefore, if AFRICOM — the U.S. military’s regional command for matters involving Africa — had actually wanted to rescue Ambassador Stevens — and the classified secrets in the Consulate — the AFRICOM general would have communicated directly with the CIF team on forward deployment in the region.
Panetta testified that the U.S. military could not react because they didn’t know the situation on the ground in Benghazi. In fact, two unmanned drones were overhead, sending real-time video, including infrared and night-vision cameras, back to the national command authority. Everyone but Panetta seems to know how dumb Panetta’s statement was.
Panetta testified that we should not send in aircraft without knowing what is happening on the ground. Au contraire. You send in the correct aircraft to find out what is going on. It’s called reconnaissance. The U.S. Air Force has been conducting reconnaissance since World War I (then as part of the U.S. Army). Unless maybe our leaders don’t want to know.
In fact, it is reported that CIF elements assigned to AFRICOM were already mobilizing and preparing to respond in Southern Europe. But they were ordered to stand down. It is believed they were mobilizing at a U.S./NATO air base in Sigonella, Italy, near Naples.
Sigonella air base is only 475 miles from Benghazi. Fighter jets from Sigonella could have been above Benghazi in 20 minutes from takeoff at the F-16’s maximum speed of 1,500 miles per hour. Transports and gunships could have reached the Consulate in 90 minutes from take-off.
F-16s can carry fuel for a flight of 2,000 nautical miles. So the 475-mile flight from Sigonella would have left enough fuel for an hour of operations over the Consulate in Benghazi plus a flight to Andravida Air Base in Greece, only 405 miles away, to land and refuel. Greece is a NATO partner. Later waves could have refueled first in Andravida, 405 miles away.
Meanwhile, the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis and its battle group were within range to assist the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. Rear Admiral Charles Gaouette was relieved of command and flown back to the States on undisclosed allegations of inappropriate judgment, as reported in the military’s Stripes magazine. It is widely believed within the U.S. military that Admiral Gaouette was mobilizing a response to come to the aid of Ambassador Stevens but was ordered to stand down. The allegation of “inappropriate judgment” was that Admiral Gaoutte insisted on mounting a rescue, leading to sharp words being exchanged.
Gregory Hicks, Deputy Chief of Mission in Libya, immediately tasked his embassy defense attaché with calling for help from the U.S. military. According to Hicks’s testimony on May 8, AFRICOM told the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli that the U.S. airbase in Aviano, Italy could have F-16s over Benghazi in 2-3 hours but that there were no aerial tankers in the area to refuel the F-16s.
That excuse rings false. Throughout Europe, U.S.-compatible standard refueling tankers are always available. That’s why they exist. NATO exists so that all NATO countries will come to the aid of any of their fellows when attacked.
Furthermore, why Aviano? Sigonella was roughly half the distance. Sigonella’s F-16s could have reached Benghazi in 20 minutes from wheels up, conducted action above the Consulate, and returned to Italy or Greece with fuel to spare. Remember: a “spotter” from the Benghazi CIA annex was on the roof of the Consulate, “laser designating” the attackers’ mortar team and reporting by radio.
Gates also commented that U.S. F-16s could not have simply buzzed the Benghazi Consulate to scare away the attackers because of the risk of anti-aircraft missiles. Hogwash. For months the year before the U.S. Air Force and NATO jets had strafed and bombed the Libyan military and decimated its anti-aircraft weaponry. And since when are members of the U.S. military afraid to come to the defense of civilians because someone might hurt them?
Even liberal columnist Maureen Dowd commented: “The defense secretary at the time, Leon Panetta, insisted, ‘We quickly responded.’ But they responded that they would not respond.” Dowd sums it up: “All the factions wove their own mythologies at the expense of our deepest national mythology: that if there is anything, no matter how unlikely or difficult, that we can do to try to save the lives of Americans who have volunteered for dangerous assignments, we must do it.”