One of the unanswered questions about the terrorist attack on our consulate in Benghazi is why the US military didn’t intervene.  Rumors had swirled that the US asked the Libyan government in Tripoli for permission to fly into Benghazi to break up the attack but had been refused, although no one has claimed that on the record.  Defense Secretary Leon Panetta put that rumor to rest yesterday by telling reporters that the US never planned to intervene at all, thanks to a lack of intel on the ground:

US military leaders ruled out sending in forces during the attack on an American consulate in Libya last month because of a lack of reliable intelligence, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said Thursday.

Although forces were on alert and ready to launch an operation if needed, the US military commander for Africa, General Carter Ham, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, and Panetta all decided against any intervention as they had no clear picture of events unfolding in Benghazi, he said.

“There’s a basic principle here, and 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 told a news conference.

“And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who’s …in that area, General Ham, General Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation.”

I agree with Panetta that onebasic principle in military operations is not to jump into a situation without having real-time data.  However, we discovered in the House Oversight hearings two weeks ago that we did have that kind of data; the State Department has 50 minutes of video of the attack from surveillance feeds that their command center watched in real time as the attack unfolded.  Surely State could have had the Pentagon watch the same feed for the “real-time information” that we otherwise lacked.

Second, it’s difficult to believe that we weren’t collecting this kind of intel prior to the attack.  There had been a number of attack attempts in the city on our assets.  The New York Times reported that the CIA “got our eyes poked out” by the loss of the consulate.  There may have been a lack of intel on the attack itself, but not on the threat.  Ambassador Chris Stevens had warned State repeatedly of the security dangers before the terrorist attack that took his life — and let’s not forget that the attack took place on the anniversary of 9/11.

Finally, isn’t there a more basic principle at stake?  Consulates and embassies are considered American territory.  When they are under attack, the US is under attack in a very real way.  When we are under attack, do we not defend ourselves and our people from attack, or do we only do that when the intel is solid?