Members of the Obama Administration and senior defense officials have long claimed that our forces were poorly positioned to render assistance. But determining the exact location of those assets--particularly Navy strike groups--has been nearly impossible. Until now.
Responding to a FOIA request from retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Randall R. Schmidt (who is investigating the military response to the attack), the Navy finally provided an unclassified graphic depicting the location of its ships in the Mediterranean and Middle East on the fateful day. Colonel Schmidt, in turn, gave a copy of the map to Judicial Watch, which released it to various media outlets. A reproduction of the map is provided below:
Disposition of U.S. Naval forces in the Med and the Middle East on the night of the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Libya (Lieutenant Colonel Randall Schmidt via Judicial Watch)
A look at the graphic seems to buttress both sides of the argument. Yes, there were significant Navy assets on station from the Strait of Gilbratar to the Persian Gulf, but none were in close proximity to Benghazi, where waves of terrorists assaulted the consulate, killing four Americans. This is particularly true of our carrier battle groups, which are often among the first assets tasked in response to any emergency. When Al-Qaida-linked militants launched their attacks on the diplomatic facility, both the USS Eisenhower and the USS Enterprise, along with their escorts, were roughly three thousand miles away in the Persian Gulf and Arabian Sea, respectively. Navy public affairs officials told Colonel Schmidt that it would have taken as long as seven days for the "Ike" to make the transit to the central Med, with a slightly shorter transit time for the Enterprise.
Of course, the p.r. flacks don't make mention of the air wings embarked on both carriers, which could span that difference in a matter of hours. But getting even a modest air package off the deck would have required diplomatic clearance/overflight rights, and enough tanker support to get F/A-18s from the Gulf to Benghazi, a flight that would take a minimum of six hours, with sufficient in-flight refueling and optimal routing. Factoring in the time needed to plan and coordinate the flight, and it's readily apparent the carriers could not respond to events in Benghazi in a timely manner.
Yet, the Navy was not without options on that fateful night. By our count, there were at least five surface vessels (all destroyers) deployed across the Med that night; the USS McFaul (east of Gibraltar); the USS Laboon (in port at Souda Bay, Crete); the USS Forrest Sherman (underway northeast of the island), and the USS Cole and USS Jason Dunham, on ballistic missile defense patrol in the eastern Mediterranean.
All of those vessels are equipped with variants of the BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missile. Collectively, those five destroyers had dozens of Tomahawks that could be employed against the terrorists in Benghazi, including newer variants that can be rapidly retargeted. And lest we forget, there was at least one UAV over the consulate during much of the attack, providing a potential source of coordinates.
Would cruise missiles be an optimum choice for this scenario? Hardly. There was a risk of collateral damage, and given the flight time for the missiles (anywhere from 45 minutes to a couple of hours), it is possible that some of the terrorists would disperse before the Tomahawks arrived. However, since the attack lasted for hours, there is also a good chance that cruise missiles would have killed scores of bad guys, since information from the UAV could have been used to update target locations while the missiles were en route. And, it's quite likely that targeting officers had previously identified terrorist facilities in the Beghazi which could have been targeted as well. Even if the Tomahawks weren't an ideal weapon, they were the best option available.
Of course, the launch order never came. Much of what happened that night at the White House, the Pentagon and the State Department has never been revealed, and for obvious reasons. There is an ample body of evidence that suggests the Benghazi consulate was involved in arms smuggling to the Syrian rebels, a program that apparently began with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA Director David Petraeus. The plan to funnel arms from Libya to Syria was the subject of at least two major articles in The New York Times, so the link is hardly the product of right-wing conspiracy theorists.
Existence of the arms transfer operation--along with the purported "lack" of military assets--was enough to send our leaders scrambling for the tall grass as terrorists attacked our consulate. We still don't know what President Obama was up to during much of that evening; he was at the White House, but save his late afternoon meeting with the SecDef and JCS Chairman--and a 10 pm phone call with Hillary Clinton--the Commander-in-Chief was off the radar. Ms. Clinton was on a diplomatic mission to the Far East at the time, but she, too, was remarkably uninvolved. The same might be said of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and General Martin Dempsey, the nation's senior military officer. Despite months of Congressional probing, we still don't know what they did after meeting with the President, and informing him of the attack on the consulate.
The administration narrative from that night suggests that nothing could have been done to assist our diplomats and security contractors in Benghazi. But that explanation doesn't wash; clearly there was time for a cruise missile strike (at a very minimum) and there have been other hints about military assets that were expected to arrive. Why, for example, did former SEALs (who responded to the consulate attack) actively "paint" targets with their laser designators? From their training and combat experience, Ty Woods and Glen Doherty knew that jihadists use their cell phones to spot individuals employing laser designators. So, Woods and Doherty would not have used those devices unless air assets were overhead, or expected very shortly.
They never arrived, and the two men were later killed by accurate mortar fire. Meanwhile, millions of dollars in cruise missiles remained in their launch tubes on Navy ships positioned around the Med, waiting for the launch command that never came.