A public statement this weekend about the night of the Benghazi attack from former AFRICOM commander General Carter Ham is making the rounds, thanks to some belated attention from Fox News, but it’s more curious than revelatory. Now retired, General Ham spoke at the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado and addressed his recollections of the consulate sacking and the American response. In Washington for meetings at the time, Ham told the audience that they knew within hours that it was a terrorist attack (via JWF):
While the State Department has maintained that Rice’s erroneous talking points were the result of getting and reacting to information in real time, critics accuse the Obama administration of orchestrating a politically motivated cover-up over a botched response, and continue to press for answers as to when the administration knew they were dealing with a terrorist attack.
When asked whether he specifically thought it was a terrorist attack, Ham said, “I don’t know that that was my first reaction. But pretty quickly as we started to gain understanding within the hours after the initiation of the attack, yes. And at the command I don’t think anyone thought differently.”
That raises all sorts of questions about the US response — afterward, at least. The White House maintained for a week afterward that the attack was a spontaneous riot sparked by a YouTube movie. Barack Obama went to the UN two weeks after the attack and warned that the future would not belong to “those who slander the prophet of Islam.” If the US military command was (correctly) convinced while the attack was underway that it was terrorism and not just a demonstration gone bad, why was the White House insisting that the latter was the case — for days on end?
However, Ham seems to take responsibility for the lack of response during the attack:
Ham was in Washington for a meeting of all combat commanders when the attack was under way. Although a decision was made to send a drone from eastern Libya toward Benghazi, by the time it arrived above the facility, the attack on the mission was winding down.
Ham knew Ambassador Chris Stevens was missing and believed he could have possibly been kidnapped. Stevens and three other Americans died in the attack.
“In my mind, at that point we were no longer in a response to an attack. We were in a recovery and frankly, I thought, we were in a potential a hostage rescue situation,” Ham said.
Ham said although he had authority to scramble a jet to the scene, he decided there was “not necessity and there was not a clear purpose in doing so.”
“To do what?” he asked. “It was a very, very uncertain situation.”
Congress had been asking about the lack of response in its hearings over the last two months, but didn’t get a lot of answers. Ham appears to be taking responsibility for that decision, with an explanation that he didn’t think much could be done. That doesn’t explain the eyewitness testimony about orders for the Tripoli unit to stand down, but it does cover the lack of any deployment from the Pentagon’s rapid-response units in the region. If Ham didn’t make that decision himself, it at least sounds as though he didn’t disagree with it.
Update: As a reminder, we’ve known for a long time — September 27th — that the White House knew almost immediately this was a terrorist attack.