Thursday, May 12, 2016

"We Could Have Been There"

The Benghazi scandal might have passed quickly from public memory had it not been for the work of two journalists at Fox News, Catherine Herridge and Adam Housley.  Ms. Herridge, who covers the intelligence beat, has generated a number of scoops on the story; she discovered, for example, the 16 August 2012 cable from the U.S. compound in Benghazi to the State Department, describing "imminent danger" to the facility and warning that the consulate could not defend itself against a coordinated attack.  Eventually, it was disclosed that Ambassador Chris Stevens (who died in the attack) sent scores of messages voicing security concerns, but they were ignored by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.    

She also confirmed that the American government was deeply involved in the flow of weapons into Libya, long before opposition forces in that country were "recognized" and the transfer of weaponry was approved.  Ms. Herridge was also among the first to confirm that the intelligence community knew the Benghazi attack was terrorism "within 24 hours," as senior administration officials discussed a media strategy to shift blame on a little-seen internet video which was offensive to Muslims.

Mr. Housley has been working another story angle, reaching out to current/former military personnel who were on the scene, or privy to some of the decision making that occurred on that fateful night in September 2012.  Housley first disclosed that military assets were available to assist American diplomats and security contractors on the ground, including a 40-member special operations team that was participating in an exercise in Croatia.  Had a "go" order been given, the team could have been on the ground in Libya in three to four hours, while the attack was still in progress. Such reporting contradicted another key talking point from the administration which insisted that forces were not available, or could not arrive in time to make a difference.

Now, Mr. Housley is back with more information on the military response.  He interviewed a member of the U.S. Air Force who was stationed at Aviano AB in northern Italy at the time of the Benghazi attack.  The source is identified as a member of "one of the squadrons" at the base; presumably, that's a reference to the 510th or 555th Fighter Squadrons, the F-16 units which form the backbone of the 31st Fighter Wing.

The airman, who asked not be be identified (because he fears potential retribution), described a beehive of activity on the Aviano flightline that night, in preparation for a possible contingency operation:

His squadron got the alert: a “real world mission was going down.”  
The team – at Aviano Air Base in northeastern Italy – raced to the field and was briefed, as planes were armed and prepared to launch. Hundreds of miles away, fellow Americans were under attack in Benghazi.

"There were people everywhere,” said the witness, who was on the ground that night but wished to remain anonymous. “That flight line was full of people, and we were all ready to go” to Benghazi. 

Only they were waiting for the order. It never came.


he said, that a team was ready to go that night to help protect Americans under fire in Benghazi – an account that runs counter to multiple official reports, including from a House committee, a timeline provided by the military and the controversial State Department Accountability Review Board investigation, which concluded the interagency response to Benghazi was “timely and appropriate.”

The source said: "I definitely believe that our aircraft could have taken off and gotten there in a timely manner, maybe three hours at the most, in order to at least stop that second mortar attack … and basically save lives that day."

The source also refuted claims that an airstrike against terrorists attacking US personnel in Benghazi was "unfeasible" due to the lack of air refueling tankers.  Aviano is just over 1,000 miles from the Libyan city; even with two external fuel tanks, F-16s from the Italian base would need to stop enroute and refuel.  The most logical destination is NAS Sigonella, Sicily, 600 miles from Aviano.  If Sigonella is equipped for "hot pit" refueling (with aircraft engines running), the process would be expedited.  Without that capability, the F-16s would be forced to shut down their engine and refueling would take a bit longer.  

By some estimates, a small element of F-16s could have reached Benghazi within three and a half to four hours after departure from Aviano--including the fuel stop at Sigonella.  That would put the Vipers overhead before the attack on the CIA annex, where Glen Doherty and Ty Woods were killed.  Most analysts believe a low-level, afterburner pass by the F-16s would send the terrorists scurrying and could have prevented the assault on the annex.  

Still, there are a number of details missing from the Fox report.  Was a recall issued by the 31st Fighter Wing commander for personnel to report to base and begin preparations?  When was the recall received?  How many F-16s were readied for possible launch on a Benghazi mission?  What was the planned munitions load?  Did pilots actually receive a briefing for the mission, either in the squadron or in the cockpit? Was Sigonella notified to provide refueling support for a possible strike in Libya?  More details about these elements would provide a better idea about the level of preparation at Aviano on the night of September 11, 2012.  

But this latest account is important, for a couple of reasons.  First, it contradicts administration claims that military options were considered and quickly rejected, due to time and distance considerations.  The airman who spoke with Adam Housley indicates the 31st Fighter Wing was leaning forward as events in Libya unfolded and could have launched a strike package, had the order been given.  

Secondly, the story affirms that a number of other military commands were involved that night.  The senior officer responsible for our forces in Libya that night was General Carter Ham, commander of U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM).  As luck would have it, General Ham was in Washington that evening and coordinated with his Germany-based staff from the Pentagon. 

It has been widely reported that General Ham quickly proposed a military response for Benghazi, but was rebuffed by administration officials.  Exactly who vetoed the plan remains unclear; President Obama's whereabouts on the night of 11 September 2012 remain unknown.  He received an initial brief from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and JCS Chairman General Martin Dempsey around 5:30 pm and was incommunicado until departing for a campaign trip to Nevada the following morning.  

While the president took a powder, other officials were on the job.  Secretary Panetta's chief of staff sent an e-mail to four senior Hillary Clinton aides that evening, announcing that DoD had identified assets which could be dispatched to Benghazi and they were "spinning up."  That claim certainly jibes with the activity at Aviano that night.

The F-16s at that base were being readied to support AFRICOM.  But they are a part of U.S. Air Forces in Europe (headquartered at Ramstein AB, Germany) and 3rd Air Force, also based at Ramstein.  Getting the 31st Wing ready for a possible mission would require the concurrence of all the air commands supporting AFRICOM.  But, to our knowledge, there has been no formal query about the roles played by Lt Gen Craig Franklin (3rd Air Force Commander, now retired); General Phillip Breedlove (USAFE Commander at the time and later served as the leader of EUCOM before retiring two weeks ago).  None of these officers have testified before the Congressional Committee on Benghazi, and it's unclear if they have been interviewed as a part of the investigation.  Ditto for Brigadier General Scott Zobrist, who was Commander of the 31st Fighter Wing in the fall of 2012, and (presumably) supervised the preparations referenced in the Fox report.  General Zobrist recently received his second star and a new assignment as Deputy Commander for the Air Component for CENTCOM. 

Responding to these latest claims about possible military action at Benghazi, Congressman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina said it was "deeply troubling there are individuals who would like to share their stories, but have not because they are afraid of retaliation from their superiors."  Mr. Gowdy, Chairman of the Select Committee looking into the Benghzi debacle, also criticized the Obama Administration for "stonewalling" on certain witness requests.  

But Mr. Gowdy and his fellow Republicans bear certain responsibilities as well.  As we've noted in the past, his investigators have demonstrated a certain tardiness in tracking down witnesses like the airman from Aviano, or a special forces operator who was also interviewed by Mr. Housely.  The special ops vet expressed "frustration" at watching events unfold and realizing that nothing would be done to assist Americans at the consulate, or the CIA annex.  

If a reporter from Fox News can locate these individuals, you'd think Congressional investigators could do the same.  It's not like General Zobrist is in the witness protection program, and with a little more digging, they can find the grunts who were preparing for a possible military response.  




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