This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.
President Obama is probably not going to lay out a complete, hour-by-hour account of how four Americans came to die in Libya on Sept. 11. Not before Tuesday.
Welcome to politics. Presidents don’t supply their challengers with rocket-propelled grenades on the eve of elections. Mitt Romney, for the same reason, is brushing off demands to clarify his past statements about FEMA.
Obama’s critics are rooting furiously for proof that his lieutenants deliberately denied help to the U.S. consulate in Benghazi – knowing full well that the ambassador and his staff were facing a sustained attack by a large force of heavily armed jihadists.
That extreme scenario reflects the passions of a high-stakes presidential election. It’s far more likely that people simply screwed up and aren’t eager to come clean until the ballots are counted.
What we now know about the attack remains sketchy, but it’s possible someone might have saved lives with a more decisive reaction to the attack.
According to CIA officials, their response was decisive – if not successful. On Thursday, the agency released a chronology indicating a rapid, large-scale response to the crisis. Intelligence officials said that an emergency security force was dispatched quickly to the scene.
What happened prior to the attack is troubling enough, though.
On Monday, The New York Times detailed how many red flags were ignored in the weeks and months leading up to the attack.
The State Department knew that its security arrangements for the U.S. compound in Benghazi were minimal, sometimes consisting of only two American agents. A local Islamist militia was supposed to ride to the rescue if things got out of hand.
The minimalism might have made sense in the aftermath of the U.S.-backed overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi. By last spring, though, Benghazi was looking very dangerous.
A bomb blew a hole in the wall of the U.S. mission on June. 6. Five days later, a rocket hit a vehicle in a convoy carrying the British ambassador; the British pulled out of the city almost immediately.
Then the Red Cross pulled out after an attack. It was common knowledge that al-Qaida and other militants were operating near the city.
The head of U.S. security in Tripoli told the Times, “When that occurred, it was apparent to me that we were the last flag flying in Benghazi; we were the last thing on their target list to remove.”
Any reasonably alert professional should have noticed the vulnerability of the U.S. mission in Benghazi and the possibility of an attack. This larger pattern of complacency ought to be getting as least as much attention as what happened during the confused hours of the Sept. 11 firefight.