Benghazi Revisited

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Fireworks are in place and set to explode Wednesday on Capitol Hill over whether the U.S. military could have done more to save the four trapped U.S. diplomats who died in Benghazi last September 11.

It’s all going to boil down to a debate over time and distance: were U.S. warplanes close enough to Benghazi that night that they could have been dispatched in time to scare off the militants and prevent the deaths of two of the Americans? “Time and distance,” Admiral James Stavridis, who responded to the attacks as the NATO commander, “are a tyranny of their own.”

Ambassador Christopher Stevens and State Department computer expert Sean Smith died in the initial assault on the U.S. consulate. But three hours after Libyans looters pulled a dying Stevens from the compound, former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were killed in a second attack on the CIA annex about a mile away.

If U.S. warplanes had been scrambled at the first sign of trouble to scream low over Benghazi and threaten the militants, could the second attack have been thwarted?

We’ll never know for sure. But a U.S. diplomat in Libya thinks it might have, even as the four-star head of U.S. Africa Command at the time said he considered and scratched the notion.

“If we had been able to scramble a fighter or aircraft or two over Benghazi as quickly as possible after the attack commenced, I believe there would not have been a mortar attack on the [CIA] annex in the morning, because I believe the Libyans would have split,” veteran U.S. diplomat Gregory Hicks has told congressional investigators, according to a partial transcript of his interview with them. “They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them.”

Hicks is slated to be star witness Wednesday into the Benghazi attack at a hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Hicks said the U.S. military attaché in Tripoli told him that the nearest jets were at Aviano, Italy, and would take two to three hours to put over Benghazi, assuming refueling tankers could be found to help them make the 900-mile flight.

Those long odds apparently kept the planes grounded.

“Did you ever suggest that we deploy any military asset quicker than 24 hours?” Senator Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., asked Army General Carter Ham, then-chief of U.S. Africa Command, at a March hearing.

“I did not,” Ham responded. “I considered, but did not request, the deployment of fighter aircraft.”

Countered Graham: “Did anybody ever ask you, `General Ham, what do we have to get to the aid of these folks quickly?’ Did anyone ever suggest that we use an F-15 or F-16 to buzz the compound once the ambassador was found missing?”

“Not to my knowledge, sir,” Ham responded.

Military command is all about assessing risk, and determining how much is prudent to take.

Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador to die on duty since 1979, and Republicans have made clear that they believe the Obama Administration didn’t do enough to keep him and his three colleagues alive.

Believing that is one thing. Proving it is another.