The events of 11 September 2012 are damning for the Presidential legacy of Barack Obama because of his failure to do basic crisis management. Thanks to testimony from SecDef Leon Panetta, Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey and CIA nominee John Brennan, the record of Obama’s failure to exercise his duty as Commander-in-Chief is shocking.
When a U.S. diplomat or U.S. Government facility comes under attack, regardless of the motive of the attackers, there is an U.S. Government warning and notification system that kicks into high gear. Advances in communication technology have enabled the U.S. Government bureaucracy to quickly identify attacks within moments of the first shot or bomb blast and, more importantly, monitor in real time what is happening halfway around the world.
In the old days we relied heavily on cable news. For example, I was working in the CIA operations center in September 1986 when we got word of the end of the hijacking drama surrounding Pan Am flight 73. Even though we were talking by phone with the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, our actual understanding of what was happening came courtesy of CNN. (There was no FOX or MSNBC back in those days.)
Today we have the gift and the curse of instantaneous communication. Hell, commanders sitting in the cozy comfort of a Washington office can (and do) watch video feed of an attack as it unfolds. When you understand what Obama had at his disposal and failed to utilize, then you will understand the outrage felt by many in the intelligence and military community.
When the attack started on the U.S. “special diplomatic” facility in Benghazi around 4pm Washington time, Diplomatic Security officers on scene immediately notified the Diplomatic Security Command Center (which, is located in an Annex across the street from Main State). That command center immediately issued a NOIWON.
A NOIWON aka:
National Operational Intelligence Watch Officer’s Network (‘NOIWON) is a secure telephone conference-call system between major Washington national security watch centers:
National Military Command Center
National Military Joint Intelligence Center
State Department Operations Center
State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research
CIA Operations Center
NSA Operations Center
The White House Situation Room
U.S. Navy Multiple Threat Alert Center
FBI (also multiple centers)
The dedicated phone line in each of the operations centers starts ringing–a steady, jarring jangle–and does not stop until the phone is picked up. In this case the Diplomatic Service ops center “convened” the NOIWON and informed the other Ops Centers about the events unfolding. That call then unleashes a flood of bureaucratic attention. Watch centers in every critical agency turned their focus, in this case, to Benghazi. The crisis management procedures for each department and agency vary.
For example, State Department is supposed to start evaluating whether or not to activate and deploy the FEST. Per the State Department’s own website:
The Foreign Emergency Support Team is the United States Government’s only interagency, on-call, short-notice team poised to respond to terrorist incidents worldwide. Led and trained by the Operations Directorate of the Office of the Coordinator for Counterterrorism, it assists U.S. missions and host governments in responding quickly and effectively to terrorist attacks. The FEST, which has deployed to over 20 countries since its inception in 1986, leaves for an incident site within four hours of notification, providing the fastest assistance possible.
The FEST provides round-the-clock advice and assistance to Ambassadors and foreign governments facing crisis. The Team is comprised of seasoned experts from the Department of State, FBI, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, and the Intelligence Community. Once on the scene, FEST members help Ambassadors assess the emergency, advise on how best to respond, and assist in managing consequent operations. FEST provides:
Seasoned crisis management expertise
Time-sensitive information and intelligence
Planning for contingency operations
Hostage negotiating expertise
Reach-back to Washington agencies
While the FEST would have been of no use in repelling the attack or helping arrange a rescue, it certainly would have helped facilitate the arrival of the FBI on the scene to investigate and managed the recovery of critical intelligence and diplomatic papers left in the ruins at both sites. But the FEST was not alerted nor activated. That was the decision of Hillary Clinton and her deputy, Pat Kennedy. They did not want to initiate a response to a terrorist incident while the Obama campaign was busy touting the end of terrorism. They also had no interest in highlighting the “off-the-books” intelligence activity being carried out at the Annex. That activity involved the shipment of weapons recovered/obtained in Libya (with the help of Saudi money) to Turkey for the ultimate benefit of Syria rebels.
Over at DOD the wheels too were spinning. Command centers for Africom and Eucom, both based in Stuttgart, Germany, were monitoring and prepping response options. The CIF-aka Counter Terrorist In Extremist Force–was still a part of EUCOM and was shared by Africom. (Note, AFRICOM now has its own CIF). The CIF at the time was in Croatia doing completing a previously planned counter terrorism exercise. They could have been re-directed to Benghazi and could have secured the compounds. The CIF probably would not have arrived in time to help beat back the attackers, but it sure as hell could have secured the perimeter at both sites and prevented the looting/disappearance of classified docs that subsequently ensued.
The CIA, the FBI and NSA also were scrambling. My point is simple–the rest of the U.S. Government recognized this was a serious event and were prepared to respond if called on by the President. But President Obama was asleep at the switch.
We know now, thanks to testimony by Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey that Obama had mentally checked out. Senator Ayotte elicited these key tidbits:
Secretary Panetta, you said you were in a briefing with the president of the United States, I believe it was about 5:00 our time. And you had just learned about the incident on the consulate.
What conversation did you have with the president? What did he ask you to do as a result of this attack? And throughout the night what communications were you having with him?
AYOTTE: And can you tell us on a — on a timeline as to who was calling the shots there, if it wasn’t him, another
member of the White House?
PANETTA: At the time we had — we were concerned about Cairo and demonstrations in Cairo, and then we had just picked up the information that — that something was happening, there was an apparent attack going on in Benghazi. And I informed the president of — of that fact. And he at that point directed both myself and General Dempsey to do everything we needed to do to try to protect lives there.
AYOTTE: Did he ask you how long it would take to deploy
assets, including armed…
PANETTA: No, he just…
AYOTTE: … aviation to the area?
PANETTA: He basically said do whatever — do whatever you need to do to be able to protect our people there.
AYOTTE: Did you have any — so he didn’t ask you what ability we had in the area and what we could do?
PANETTA: No. I think — I mean he — he relied on — on both myself as secretary and on General Dempsey’s capabilities. He knows generally what we’ve deployed into the region. We’ve presented that to him in other briefings. So he knew generally what was deployed out there. But as to specifics about time, et cetera, et cetera, no, he just left that up to us.
AYOTTE: Did you have any further communications with him that night?
AYOTTE: Did you have any other further communications? Did he ever call you that night to say, “How are things going? What’s going on? Where’s the consulate?”
PANETTA: No, but we were — we were aware that as we were getting information on what was taking place there, particularly when we got information that the ambassador, his life had been lost, we — we were aware that that information went to the White House.
AYOTTE: Did you communicate with anyone else at the White House that night?
AYOTTE: No one else called you to say, “What — How are things going?”
A competent Commander-in-Chief would have insisted on regular updates. An Ambassador was missing. Ambassador Stevens was possibly kidnapped by jihadists. And what did Obama do? Nothing. He left the bureaucracy to itself. He provided no direct guidance. He did not ask for a specific options brief. And, he did not press on being informed about what actually could be done to secure the site in Benghazi. He had more important fish to fry–a fundraiser in Las Vegas.
We received fuller insight yesterday into the complete absence of Obama during the Benghazi crisis in response to persistent questions from Senator Burr, who pressed Treasury nomineed and current Obama Chief of Staff to explain what the President was doing.
SEN. BURR: But who was — who was actually briefing the president? Were you?
MR. LEW: I was not — I was in the room when the president was briefed, but I was not briefing the president.
SEN. BURR: OK, because John Brennan testified yesterday that it wasn’t him. Secretary Panetta said it wasn’t him. In hearings, the ODNI Clapper said it wasn’t him. Acting DCI Mike Morell said it wasn’t him. Ambassador Kennedy said it wasn’t him. And the FBI said it wasn’t them. Now, we’ve eliminated a lot of people who had contacts within the intelligence community that knew firsthand what was going on in Benghazi. Let me ask you again: Who briefed the president on actually what was happening throughout this seven-hour period?
MR. LEW: Well, in the conversations that I was in, the National Security Staff was present and some of the people — (inaudible) –
SEN. BURR: Would John Brennan have been included in that?
MR. LEW: You know, you’re asking who did a briefing, and that’s different from who was in a conversation. I think if you ask people were they in conversations, there might have been a different answer.
SEN. BURR: Who was your primary point of contact in the intelligence community?
MR. LEW: As chief of staff, I didn’t usually reach out directly to the intelligence community. I worked through the National Security Staff.
SEN. BURR: Was there anybody from the intelligence community in that briefing session on a continual basis, to your knowledge?
MR. LEW: The intelligence community was in close touch with the White House, with the national security team on a near-constant basis.
The President was not in charge. He was absent in the midst of a crisis that cost American lives and exposed U.S. intelligence assets. Senators Ayotte, McCain and Graham are absolutely right to insist on getting full answers before moving a finger to even consider the nominations of Hagel and Brennan for the posts of SECDEF and CIA Director respectively.