Claim: Various statements about the September 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya:
FALSE: Administration officials watched the attacks unfold in real time but did nothing to intervene.
UNDETERMINED: Requests issued by U.S. personnel for military back-up during the attacks were denied.
UNDETERMINED: General Carter Ham was relieved of his command for attempting to provide military assistance during the Benghazi attacks.
UNDETERMINED: Rear Admiral Charles M. Gaouette was relieved of his command for attempting to provide military assistance during the Benghazi attacks.
[Forbes, October 2012]
Just one hour after the seven-hour-long terrorist attacks upon the U.S. consulate in Benghazi began, our commander-in-chief, vice president, secretary of defense and their national security team gathered together in the Oval Office listening to phone calls from American defenders desperately under siege and watching real-time video of developments from a drone circling over the site. Yet they sent no military aid that might have intervened in time to save lives.
[Collected via e-mail, October 2012]
Reports have just surfaced from a former Navy Seal present in Benghazi that those on the ground in Benghazi sent an urgent request from the CIA annex for military back-up during the attack on the U.S. consulate. Those requests were denied by U.S. officials — who told the CIA operators twice to "stand down" rather than help the ambassador's team. They were told to "stand down," according to sources familiar with the exchange. Soon after, they were again told to "stand down." Thankfully, that former Seal and at least two others ignored those orders and made their way to the consulate which at that point was on fire.
[Collected via e-mail, October 2012]
The information I heard today was that General Ham as head of Africom received the same e-mails the White House received requesting help/support as the attack was taking place. General Ham immediately had a rapid response unit ready and communicated to the Pentagon that he had a unit ready.
General Ham then received the order to stand down. His response was to screw it, he was going to help anyhow. Within 30 seconds to a minute after making the move to respond, his second in command apprehended General Ham and told him that he was now relieved of his command.
Origins: The claim that top Obama administration officials were gathered in the Oval Office watching a real-time video feed of the September 2012 terrorist attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, but did nothing to intervene appears to have originated with a 24 October 2012 Forbesop-ed piece ("White House Watched Benghazi Attacked And Didn't Respond"), the opening paragraph of which is quoted in the example block above.
However, that description is a rather distorted version of what the news sources it references (CBS News and ABC News) actually reported. A CBS News story from that same day ("U.S. military poised for rescue in Benghazi") stated the following:
Meanwhile, CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan reports that the FBI and State Department have reviewed video from security cameras that captured the attack on the consulate.
The audio feed of the attack was being monitored in real time in Washington by diplomatic security official Charlene Lamb. CBS News has learned that video of the assault was recovered 20 days later from the more than 10 security cameras at the compound.
The government security camera footage of the attack was in the possession of local Libyans until the week of Oct. 1. The video will be among the evidence that the State Department's review board will analyze to determine who carried out the assault.
According to that report, it was not the case that President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of Defense Panetta, and a national security team were "watching real-time video of developments from a drone circling over the site"; rather, a single diplomatic security official was listening to an audio feed of events in Benghazi. Security cameras in the U.S. consulate compound did record video of the events as they unfolded, and a U.S. surveillance drone camera did capture the last hour of the attack, but neither of those sources was watched real-time by officials in Washington — the consulate video recordings were not recovered until weeks after the attack:
Video footage from the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, taken the night of the Sept. 11 anniversary attacks, shows an organized group of armed men attacking the compound, according to two U.S. intelligence officials who have seen the footage and are involved in the ongoing investigation. The footage, which was recovered from the site [during the first week of October] by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, offers some of the most tangible evidence yet that a military-style assault took place, according to these officials.
The Obama administration has been studying the videos, taken from closed-circuit cameras throughout the Benghazi consulate’s four-building compound, for clues about who was responsible for the attack and how it played out. The two officials [said] that analysts are hoping to decipher the faces of the attackers and match them up with known jihadists.
In addition to the footage from the consulate cameras, the U.S. government is also poring over video taken from an overhead U.S. surveillance drone that arrived for the final hour of the night battle at the consulate compound and nearby annex.
On 26 October 2012, Fox News reported "urgent requests for military back-up" from those on the ground during the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi were turned down by the CIA:
Fox News has learned from sources who were on the ground in Benghazi that an urgent request from the CIA annex for military back-up during the attack on the U.S. consulate and subsequent attack several hours later on the annex itself was denied by the CIA chain of command — who also told the CIA operators twice to "stand down" rather than help the ambassador's team when shots were heard at approximately 9:40 p.m. in Benghazi on Sept. 11.
Former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods was part of a small team who was at the CIA annex about a mile from the U.S. consulate where Ambassador Chris Stevens and his team came under attack. When he and others heard the shots fired, they informed their higher-ups at the annex to tell them what they were hearing and requested permission to go to the consulate and help out. They were told to "stand down," according to sources familiar with the exchange. Soon after, they were again told to "stand down."
Administration officials have so far denied that any requests for military assistance by those at the U.S. mission in Benghazi were rejected:
The White House [has] flatly denied that President Barack Obama withheld requests for help from the besieged American compound in Benghazi, Libya, as it came under on attack by suspected terrorists on September 11th.
"Neither the president nor anyone in the White House denied any requests for assistance in Benghazi," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor [said].
And the CIA has denied that anyone in its chain of command rejected requests for help from the besieged Americans.
Fox News Channel reported that American officials in the compound repeatedly asked for military help during the assault but were rebuffed by CIA higher-ups. At a press briefing one day earlier, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, asked why there had not been a quicker, more forceful response to the assault, complained of "Monday-morning quarterbacking." Panetta said he and top military commanders had judged it too dangerous to send troops to the eastern Libyan city without a clearer picture of events on the ground.
On 1 November 2012, U.S. intelligence officials released an account stating the CIA had in fact rushed security operatives to the U.S. mission compound in Benghazi within half an hour of the start of the attack:
The CIA rushed security operatives to an American diplomatic compound in Libya within 25 minutes after it had come under attack and played a more central role in the effort to fend off a night-long siege than has been publicly acknowledged, U.S. intelligence officials said.
The agency mobilized the evacuation effort, took control of an unarmed U.S. military drone to map possible escape routes, dispatched an emergency security team from Tripoli, the capital, and chartered aircraft that ultimately carried surviving U.S. personnel to safety on Sept. 12, U.S. officials said.
U.S. intelligence officials insisted that CIA operatives in Benghazi and Tripoli made decisions rapidly throughout the assault with no interference from Washington, even while acknowledging that CIA security forces were badly outmatched and largely unable to mobilize Libyan security teams until it was too late.
Among the new disclosures is that the CIA station chief in Tripoli sent an emergency security force, with about a half-dozen agency operatives as well as two U.S. military personnel, to Benghazi aboard a hastily chartered aircraft while the attack was underway.
The CIA team attempted to organize an effort to make its way to a hospital where U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens had been taken and was thought to be still alive. But the team was held up by Libyan officials at the airport and scrapped the plan to reach Stevens after learning that the security situation at the hospital was uncertain.
General Carter Ham headed the U.S. Africa Command during the attacks on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. A late October 2012 rumor claimed General Ham declined an order to "stand down" and attempted to provide military assistance during the attacks, only to be relieved of his command "within a minute" of doing so, and Rear Admiral Charles M. Gaouette was likewise relieved of his command for ordering his forces to support those ordered into action by General Ham. That rumor was fueled by an 18 October 2012 announcement that President Obama had selected a nominee to replace General Ham as commander of the U.S. Africa Command:
President Barack Obama will nominate Army Gen. David Rodriguez to succeed Gen. Carter Ham as commander of U.S. Africa Command and Marine Lt. Gen. John Paxton to succeed Gen. Joseph Dunford as assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced.
In announcing Ham’s successor, Panetta also praised the work Ham has done with Africa Command.
"Gen. Ham has really brought AFRICOM into a very pivotal role in that challenging region," Panetta said. "I and the nation are deeply grateful for his outstanding service."
What actions General Ham took (or attempted to take) during the Benghazi attacks are currently unknown. Secretary of Defense Panetta said during an October 2012 press briefing that General Ham was one of the military commanders who had judged it too dangerous to send troops to Benghazi without a clearer picture of events on the ground:
The "basic principle is that you don't deploy forces into harm's way without knowing what's going on; without having some real-time information about what's taking place," [Panetta] said during a joint question-and-answer session with Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff General Martin Dempsey.
"As a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, General Ham, General Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation," Panetta said.
On 29 October 2012, General Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated:
The speculation that General Carter Ham is departing Africa Command (AFRICOM) due to events in Benghazi, Libya, on 11 September 2012 is absolutely false. General Ham's departure is part of routine succession planning that has been on going since July. He continues to serve in AFRICOM with my complete confidence.
Admiral Gaouette has been relieved of his command of an aircraft carrier strike group in late October 2012 for a reason that has so far been specified only as a recent case of “inappropriate leadership judgment”:
In an unusual move, the Navy has replaced an admiral commanding an aircraft carrier strike group while it is deployed to the Middle East. The replacement was prompted by an Inspector General’s investigation of allegations of inappropriate leadership judgment. Rear Adm. Charles M. Gaouette, the commander of the USS John C. Stennis strike group, is being returned to the United States for temporary reassignment.
In a statement the Navy said it had approved a request made by Vice Adm. John W. Miller, the Commander of U.S. Naval Forces Central Command, to temporarily reassign Gaouette "pending the results of an investigation by the Navy Inspector General."
A Navy official familiar with the circumstances of the investigation said it involved allegations of "inappropriate leadership judgment" and stressed it was not related to personal conduct.
The Stennis group arrived in the Fifth Fleet’s area of operations on Oct. 17 to replace the USS Enterprise, which was on the final deployment of its 50 years of service. The allegations are recent and were made within the last couple of weeks.