This weekend, The Weekend Reader brings you Under Fire: The Untold Story Of The Attack In Benghazi by former State Department counterterrorism deputy chief and Diplomatic Service agent and current vice president of a global private intelligence company Fred Burton, and Middle East security issues, international terrorism and counterterrorism expert Samuel M. Katz. Burton and Katz piece together, through public records and first-hand interviews, the 12 hours of the September 11, 2012 attacks on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
There have been numerous congressional hearings to determine what went wrong in the military’s response, and why four Americans died in the attack. Scandal-hungry Republicans have insisted that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration are ultimately fully responsible for the casualties due to a complete lack of response. But this is a far deeper and complicated circumstance than the GOP explains. While they don’t address any scandal at the hands of the federal government, Burton and Katz explain the logistical procedures of responding to this type of attack and how–despite objection from the GOP — the administration in fact followed these procedures and sought out every possible option to save the Americans in the compound.
You can purchase the book here.
The elite of the elite, the two-pronged dagger of JSOC, did not respond to protests and fires. Governments did not dispatch their most elite units, men who are truly not replaceable, unless the situation warranted a razor-sharp slice and not a wide-handed slap. Anyway, deploying one of the JSOC units from the continental United States would take hours.
There was always the Marine Corps — a branch of the armed forces with an illustrious combat legacy and entrenched history with Libya. In 1987, in the aftermath of nearly twenty years of global terrorist attacks that seemed endless and without solution, the U.S. Marine Corps adhered to a presidential directive mandating all branches of the military to enhance their counterterrorist capabilities. The USMC response was the FAST, Fleet Antiterrorism Security Team, companies, which could respond quickly to incidents around the world where Americans required emergency military aid. FAST units saw action in 1989 in Panama and in 1991 during Operation Desert Storm. FAST companies worked security in Somalia following the withdrawal of U.S. peacekeepers from Mogadishu and then secured the evacuation of the U.S. diplomatic presence in Monrovia, Liberia, during the civil war. FAST platoons provided tactical security to investigative teams following Saudi Hezbollah’s bombing of a U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia in 1996. FAST platoons were on site immediately after the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998; FAST marines secured the damaged USS Cole in Aden, Yemen, following the deadly attack on the warship in October 2000. They were a globally on-call force.
The FAST unit closest to Benghazi was FAST Company Europe, which reported to the Marine Corps Security Force Regiment, II Marine Expeditionary Force. Based at the Naval Station Rota, Spain,
FAST Company Europe was no stranger to crisis and response work in the Mediterranean. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta ordered that appropriate forces respond. A task order flowed from the Pentagon to NAVSTA Rota, Spain: “Lean forward and get there as fast as you can.” The marines mustered into their transport aircraft on the tarmac in their combat fatigues and full battle kit. However, logistic challenges such as airspace and overflight clearances are not easily sorted out, especially involving a nation like Libya. Sending armed U.S. Marines into a sovereign nation became a complex foreign policy decision with multiple moving pieces between the Libyan Foreign Ministry, the Pentagon, and the State Department. The marines waited on the tarmac for their orders. The FAST platoon wouldn’t make it to Libya, to augment security at the embassy in Tripoli, until the next evening.
AFRICOM, headquartered at Kelley Barracks in Stuttgart, Germany, was responsible for Libya and the closest operational command to have the assets, especially special operations forces, that could respond. AFRICOM was founded in 2000, with the looking-glass forethought that Africa would become a continent of vital interest to the United States, especially as it related to the war on Islamic terrorism, and AFRICOM was announced prior to the 9/11 attacks. The hell of Mogadishu was a wake-up call to American military planners, as was the realization that Africa was so volatile, so precariously steeped in failed-state chaos, that it was an ideal petri dish inside which the plague of Islamic fundamentalism could morph into an all-encompassing pandemic. AFRICOM is tasked and equipped to handle U.S. military operations and straight-on relationships with fifty-three African nations; it covers the entire continent with the exception of Egypt, which for reasons of geopolitical importance is still the focus of U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM. The fledgling post-revolution dysfunction that was Libya was the true personification of why AFRICOM was created— as a focal point of American military interests and operations to stem the seemingly unstoppable growth of Islamic-inspired violence, led by an implacable al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. AFRICOM was General Carter F. Ham’s shop. The general realized— before the September 11, 2012, attack— that Libya would have an intrinsic influence on the future of terrorism on the continent and especially in the northern half of the continent.
Even though AFRICOM was closer, geographically, to Benghazi than any other major American military command center, there was still an inescapable issue of logistics. Even for AFRICOM, assembling the personnel and the aircraft, addressing the operational intelligence, and securing permission from the Libyan government in order to respond forcefully to the developing situation in Benghazi were going to take hours. As much as technological innovations and the U.S. presence throughout the world— especially following the 9/11 attacks— had turned the planet into a condensed theater of operations for the United States and its global interests, issues of logistics and kilometers still required adequate start-up and deployment times for even the most immediate of global emergencies. There was no U.S. Air Force AC-130 gunship anywhere near the African continent that could have been diverted to fly close air support and aid rescue efforts. The fastest response boiled down to an unarmed drone that AFRICOM diverted from a mission “somewhere” over the continent.
There was never a question concerning U.S. resolve or the overall capabilities of the U.S. military to respond to Benghazi. There was, however, nothing immediate about an immediate response. There were logistics and host-nation approvals to consider. An immediate response was hampered by the equation of geography and logistics.
Inside the State Department’s Operations Center, there was a bank of secure color video screens where senior government officials had the ability to talk to each other at the top secret level; it was an advanced and highly secure adaptation of the Skype concept for those engaged in classified videoconferencing. When news of the attack in Benghazi began to reach the various law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies, the response could not be instantaneous or in real time; it took quite a bit of effort and time to get cabinet-level officials into these rooms for a single secure videoconference. The initial attack on the villa had taken place before the assembled appointed officials could gather and figure out what to do. Government agencies and bureaucracies are not made for speed. As many DS agents will say, “By the time the bosses get involved, it’s too late.”
At Foggy Bottom, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy, known simply as M. (for Management), discussed response options with John Brennan, President Obama’s national counterterrorism adviser, at the White House. The decision was made not to launch a Foreign Emergency Support Team, or FEST, from Andrews Air Force Base. FEST teams are always on call to respond to international terrorist incidents— their personnel are able to depart Andrews Air Force Base within four hours of notification. Since its inception in 1986, the FEST has deployed to more than twenty countries.
FEST teams deploy under short-notice requests by U.S. ambassadors. They can be deployed to assist U.S. diplomatic posts with internal crises (such as Benghazi) and can also be deployed through bilateral requests to support host nations facing crises not related to or directly affecting U.S. diplomatic posts. Made up of intelligence operatives and experts from the State Department, FBI, Department of Defense, and Department of Energy, FEST’s job upon arrival at the scene is to manage operations based on its assessment of the emergency and to advise the ambassador on a subsequent course of action.
FEST packages are multiagency security and intelligence teams sent by the U.S. government within three hours of an attack anywhere in the world to prop up, support, or provide technical assistance. The composition of the team varies, depending upon the assignment, but generally includes DS agents, intelligence analysts, JSOC operators, FBI hostage negotiators, bomb techs, and communications and military logistics experts. Once in country, the FEST mission is operational. By long-standing orders, put together by various NSC directives from the early 1980s, attacks and hostage takings at U.S. diplomatic facilities dictate a FEST response, even if the team gets turned around in the air. A little-known issue that always becomes a kludge on international terrorist attacks is the complexity of overflight and host-government clearances in order for a FEST team to move in. Country clearances are required and are worked through Foggy Bottom with the respective government permission.
With Libya’s nascent and fairly dysfunctional government, a move would have to be unilateral and covert, without host-government knowledge. This is always the course of last resort, and such operations are conducted solely under extraordinary circumstances; the May 2011 killing of Osama bin Laden, in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where the host government’s approval was never sought, was one such undertaking. Despite what you see in the movies, the U.S. government doesn’t like to go down this path, absent extraordinary conditions. The foreign policy blowback from such unilateral moves is simply too great.
FEST packages are usually deployed in “permissive environments” only, where local security arrangements can be coordinated and generally assured; such was the case, for example, in previous deployments to Kenya, Tanzania, and Yemen, when the host nations provided official authorizations for the American specialists to operate in their countries.
In Benghazi, the decision to deploy FEST was held up by State, reportedly by M., because of the risk of putting American assets on the ground in a place where the local militias could not prevent another attack and where the host government could not ensure a safe and secure environment. A FEST response to Benghazi was possible only when thinking of life inside the bubble of a perfect world. The FEST assets could not have gotten to Benghazi in time to do anything for Ambassador Stevens or the DS agents under fire. It was doubtful, even in a perfect world, if the package could have arrived in Benghazi by mid-morning (local time) the following day.
The situation report from Benghazi was still murky. Everybody wanted more eyes, visibility, and ground truth. The drone, on an unknown classified mission somewhere over North Africa, was immediately reassigned by AFRICOM to Benghazi.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, you can purchase the full book here.
Reprinted by arrangement from St. Martin’s Press, from Under Fire by Fred Burton and Samuel M. Katz © 2013.