7/19/2013. In a sudden about-face, the Pentagon has agreed to let Colonel Bristol speak with Congress about last year's attack on our consulate in Benghazi. DoD relented after Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and Congressman Jason Chaffetz complained about the military's reluctance to make Bristol available. According to the UK Daily Mail, the same Pentagon flack who claimed that Bristol could not be compelled to testify because he was retired is now blaming an administrative error for that statement. Earlier this week, Marine Corps Times reported that Bristol is on terminal leave, but remains on active duty until 1 August.
Today's announcement is clearly a step forward, but it is worth noting that officials and military members involved in the Benghazi episode were forced to sign non-disclosure agreements after the incident. Incidentally, the Daily Mail had little difficulty locating Colonel Bristol at his retirement home in northern Virginia, a task the American media was unable--or unwilling--to perform.
This should come as no surprise.
The same administration that has lied, obfuscated and stone-walled over the Benghazi scandal is at it again.
Remember Colonel George Bristol? In recent months, he has emerged as a key figure regarding our military response--or more correctly, the lack of a response--to the terrorist attack on our consulate in Libya last fall. At the time of that debacle, Colonel Bristol (a career Marine) was serving as Commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara, part of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), headquarted in Stuttgart, Germany.
In that role, Colonel Bristol had detailed knowledge of special forces assets that might have been employed to assist American diplomats and security contractors who were under attack. Four U.S. officials, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed. There was no military response; early reports suggested that we lacked assets in the region at the time the assault began. When it was revealed that an American SOF team was actually on the ground in Tripoli--with an airplane waiting to fly them to Benghazi--the narrative changed. Current accounts suggest the team was "held" in Tripoli in case U.S. facilities in that city came under attack. Various administration officials have also denied claims that the commander of that SOF unit, Lieutenant Colonel S.E. Gibson was told to "stand down" when he volunteered to respond to the situation in Benghazi.
Through it all, the one person we haven't heard from is Colonel Bristol. When Congressional investigators first learned of his role, they asked DoD about the possibility of Bristol testifying before the House Oversight Committee (and other panels) who are looking into the debacle. Initially, DoD claimed it could not compel Bristol to testify because he was "retired." Colonel Bristol left his post at AFRICOM in March of this year, following a change-of-command ceremony. In his farewell speech, Bristol said an "evil" has taken hold in Africa and it is "up to us to stomp it out."
But it turns out that Bristol isn't retired (not yet). Marine Corps Times writer Dan Lamothe did a little digging and discovered that Bristol is still on active duty. Technically, he's on terminal leave, which means he's using accumulated leave and permissive temporary duty (TDY) days to prepare for retirement. But he doesn't go on the retired list until 1 August.
That means he's still on active duty. And that means Bristol's superiors can compel him to testify before Congress. However, the window for such a directive is closing fast, and the Pentagon shows no urgency in delivering that order to Colonel Bristol. In fact, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel insisted that Congress had missed an opportunity for his testimony, since no invitation was extended before his "retirement." From Marine Corps Times:
“Col. Bristol was not invited by Congress to testify before he retired,” said Air Force Maj. Robert Firman, a spokesman with the Office of the Secretary of Defense. “The DoD has cooperated fully with Congress and the Accountability Review Board since the beginning of this investigation, and we will continue to do so.”
But clearly that's not the case. Like much of the Benghazi matter, Bristol's status, whereabouts and his sudden departure from the post at AFRICOM are shrouded in mystery. Consider these developments:
- Colonel Bristol retired from his JTF slot just six months after the consulate attack, and only one year into his command tour. Most commanders serve a minimum of two years in their posts before moving on. It is worth noting that Bristol (a former enlisted Marine) was nearing mandatory retirement after 38 years of active-duty service. But extensions can be granted for individuals in key positions, and the JTF post would qualify for that sort of dispensation. Additionally, there are legitimate questions as to why the Marine Corps would spend thousands of dollars in permanent change-of-station funds to send a senior Colonel to Europe for only one year.
- The former joint task force commander has seemingly disappeared after his change-of-command ceremony in Germany a few months back. Efforts by various media outlets to contact him have proven unsuccessful, and Congressional staffers have had similar luck in trying to track him down. Did we mention that all military members have a "final" address on their retirement orders, used to determine where the retiree's personal property will be shipped, and establish a final place of residence. In rare cases, the retiree may use someone else's address; I knew an Air Force Colonel who listed the home of a former Air Force Academy as his retirement address (he was going through a bitter divorce and trying to conceal assets from his wife). But that is the exception and not the rule; going through proper channels, Congress should be able to gain Bristol's retirement location from the Marine Corps, the Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS), or both.
- The good Colonel is spending a lot of time on terminal leave. While it's not uncommon for retiring service members to spend 30 or 60 days in that status before retirement, Bristol will be in that category for for 122 days--a full, four months. To accumulate that much leave time, Colonel Bristol had to carry over the year-to-year "max" (75 days); utilize all leave accumulated during the current fiscal year (25 days) and take three weeks of permissive TDY, which is allowed in conjunction with permanent change-of-station moves. Not entirely unheard of; many military members try to "bank" as much leave as possible in conjunction with their retirement. Colonel Bristol did one helluva job in maximizing leave in the months before retirement--and covering his tracks. So far, no one can find the mysterious Colonel, who had a long career in special ops, and is credited with developing the Marine Corps' current martial arts training program.
Obviously, DoD is in no mood to help Congress locate Colonel Bristol. But we've also got to wonder if our legislators are really serious about the task. Given the various databases and resources outlined above, finding George Bristol should be a relatively simple process. Yet, members of the House and Senate seem no closer to securing his testimony than they were a few months ago. Obviously, Congressional Democrats are concerned about what Bristol might say; in his former position, Colonel Bristol was almost certainly involved in the high-level consultations on the evening of September 11, 2012, and the ultimate rejection of a military response. But we're also starting to wonder about members of the GOP. They deserve great credit for pursuing the truth on Benghazi; so why aren't they being more aggressive in pursuing the testimony of the senior special ops officer for the Africa region, on a night when such assets were available--and desperately needed--but never used.