Remember the closing sequence of Animal House? Just before the final credits rolled, we learned that Hoover became a public defender in Baltimore; Otter established an OB-GYN practice in Beverly Hills and Bluto became a U.S. Senator. As for Daniel Simpson Day (“D-Day,” played by Bruce McGill) his whereabouts were officially unknown.
Oddly enough, we can say the same thing about the Commander-in-Chief on the night of September 11, 2012. As the U.S. consulate in Benghazi came under attack and Ambassador Chris Stevens died (along with three other Americans), President Obama essentially disappeared. Officially, we’re told that he had a previously-scheduled meeting with then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey, at 5:30 eastern time, during the early stages of the assault. While the session with Panetta and Dempsey had been previously scheduled, events in Libya were discussed during the meeting.
After that…well, we don’t know. The next time Mr. Obama was seen publicly was 9 am the next morning, en route to a fund raiser in Las Vegas. Where was he during the 12-14 hours from the time his meeting with Mr. Panetta and General Dempsey ended, and the moment he boarded Marine One for the trip to Andrews AFB, and his flight to Nevada? Supposedly, he was somewhere in the White House but to this day, there have been no photographs of the President in the Situation Room (or any other venue), monitoring events in Libya as they unfolded.
Eight months after Benghazi, the usually incurious Washington media (and various pundits) have apparently discovered Mr. Obama’s disappearing act, and they’re finally asking questions. To be fair, most of the queries have come from Fox News, which has been on the story from Day One. On the May 8th edition of Special Report, Charles Krauthamer pointedly asked “where was the Commander-in-Chief in all of this?” noting the stand-down order given to a U.S. special forces team that was in Libya at the time, and awaiting permission to fly to Benghazi and provide assistance.
So far, no one has bothered to pose that question to Mr. Obama himself, but Chris Wallace attempted to follow-up on that query this morning, in an interview with White House adviser Dan Pfeiffer on Fox News Sunday. Predictably, Pfeiffer offered no additional details on the president’s whereabouts during the Benghazi debacle, but he did offer this observation–the commander-in-chief’s physical location on the night of September 11th is an “irrelevant fact.” Here’s the complete exchange between Pfeiffer and Wallace, posted at The Weekly Standard:
WALLACE: let’s turn to benghazi. he had a meeting with panetta in the afternoon, heard about this on an unrelated subject, wanted them to deploy forces as soon as possible. the next time he shows up, hillary clinton says she spoke to him at around 10:00 that night after the attack at the consulate, not the annex, but the attack at the consulate had ended. question, what did the president do the rest of that night to pursue benghazi?
PFEIFFER: the president was kept up to do throughout the entire night, from the moment it started till the end. this is a horrible tragedy, people that he sent abroad whose lives are in risk, people who work for him. i recognize that there’s a series of conspiracy theories the republicans are spinning about this since the night it happened, but there’s been an independent review of this, congress has held hearings, we provided 250,000 pages of — 250,000 pages of documents up there. there’s been 11 hearings, 20 staff briefings. everyone has found the same thing. this is a tragedy. the question is not what happened that night. the question is what are we going to do to move forward and ensure it doesn’t happen again? congress should act on what the president called for earlier this week, to pass legislation to actually allow us to implement the recommendations of the accountability review board. when we send diplomats off into far-flung places, there’s inherent risk. we need to mitigate that risk.
WALLACE: with all due respect, you didn’t answer my question. what did the president do that night?
PFEIFFER: kept up to date with the events as they were happening.
WALLACE: he didn’t talk to the secretary of state except for the one time when the first attack was over. he didn’t talk to the secretary of defense, he didn’t talk to chiefs. the chairman of the joint who was he talking to?
PFEIFFER: his national security staff, his national security council.
WALLACE: was he in the situation room?
PFEIFFER: he was kept up to date throughout the day.
WALLACE: do you know know whether he was in the situation room?
PFEIFFER: i don’t know what room he was in that night. that’s a largely irrelevant fact.
WALLACE: well —
PFEIFFER: the premise of your question, somehow there was something that could have been done differently, okay, that would have changed the outcome here. the accountability roof board has looked at this, people have looked at this. it’s a horrible tragedy, and we have to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
WALLCE: here’s the point, though, the ambassador goes missing, the first ambassador in more than 30 years is killed. four americans, including the ambassador, are killed. dozens of americans are in jeopardy. the president at 4:00 in the afternoon says to the chairman of the joint chiefs to deploy forces. no forces are deployed. where is he while all this is going on?
PFEIFFER: this has been tested to by —
WALLACE: well, no. no one knows where he is, who was involved, the —
PFEIFFER: the suggestion of your question that somehow the president —
WALLACE: i just want to know the answer.
PFEIFFER: the assertions from republicans that the president didn’t take action is offensive. there’s no evidence to support it.
WALLACE: i’m simply asking a question. where was he? what did he do? how did he respond in who told him you can’t deploy forces and what was his president?
PFEIFFER: the president was in the white house that day, kept up to date by his national security team, spoke to the joint chiefs of staff earlier, secretary of state, and as events unfolded he was kept up to date.
If you buy Mr. Pfeiffer’s explanation, it really doesn’t matter where the President actually was, given the communications capability that supports the commander-in-chief. It doesn’t matter if he is in the Oval Office, the residential quarters, the limosuine, or half-way around the world on Air Force One; the President has the ability to stay in touch with senior advisers, utilizing a full range of secure voice and data networks.
But if President Obama was in the White House that evening, why not move to the Situation Room, which is maintained–and equipped–for crisis management? Mr. Obama has used that facility during past contingencies, ranging from the bin Laden raid to Hurricane Sandy. The chief executive’s presence has often been documented through official photos, released by the White House press office. But so far, no photo has emerged of Mr. Obama in the situation room during Benghazi, suggesting he was at another location in the White House. But where?
And what’s the hang-up about releasing that location? Needless to say, Mr. Pfeiffer (and the White House) have opened another can of worm by refusing to disclose the President’s whereabouts on the evening of 11 September was and providing more details of the interaction with his national security team.
Such information is critical, because the version of events now available depicts a commander-in-chief who was out-of-the-loop by his own choosing (emphasis ours). Obviously, no one expects a President to manage every single engagement in the War on Terror, but Benghazi was different. A U.S. diplomatic facility was under attack for hours; four Americans died and it’s unclear who was in charge. Who gave the order for the special ops team in Tripoli to stand down? Who determined that other assets could not be mustered in time to provide assistance? These are questions that demand answers, beginning with the actions of the President.
However, there are ways of determining what the President knew, in terms of information available to him. As we noted last fall, the National Security Agency (NSA) almost certainly issued FLASH/CRITIC intelligence reports on the situation in Benghazi. A CRITIC, or Critical Intelligence Report is reserved for the highest-priority SIGINT reporting (an attack on a US. diplomatic compound would certainly meet the criteria for that type of reporting. FLASH priority dictates the CRITIC must be delivered to the commander-in-chief within 10 minutes.
Perhaps it’s time for the House Intelligence Committee to summon General Keith Alexander, the NSA Director, for testimony on his agency’s reporting from Benghazi. A review of CRITIC traffic (along with delivery confirmations) would provide additional insights into the amount of information received by the POTUS and how he accessed it. Incidentally, there would be no need to disclose the intelligence details of the CRITICS; just the timelines for NSA issuing the reports and when they were received by the White House.
As for the President’s location, the Secret Service is responsible for keeping tabs on that. Maybe Congressman Issa should subpoena the Secret Service visitor logs and related documents for the White House on the evening in question. That would offer some idea as to who was present in the situation room, and where the President was hunkered down as events unfolded in Benghazi.
Mr. Pfeiffer’s parsing suggests the White House has something to hide. What might that be? Our guess goes something like this: initial reports from Libya were bad; in the middle of a re-election campaign, Mr. Obama took the advice of his political advisers and tried to distance himself from Benghazi–even before the attack ended. Key decisions were deferred to subordinates, part of a strategy to muddle through the situation and “manage” the disaster on the back end.
This strategy is reflected in the lack of communication between Mr. Obama and his senior national security advisers on that fateful evening. To date, there is no record of additional conversations between the President, Defense Secretary Panetta and General Dempsey beyond their 5:30 meeting. Similarly, there appears to be only one phone call between the President and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the attack in Benghazi. That conversation reportedly occurred at 10:00 pm Eastern Time, hours before the assault ended.
Clearly, it’s hard for a President to manage a crisis when he has limited communication with his advisers. And it’s even more difficult when he is outside the Situation Room, apparently by design. If there’s anything worse than a commander-in-chief who is AWOL, it’s a President who deliberately takes himself out of the loop during a serious foreign policy crisis. The political calculations of Barack H. Obama are now being laid bare, and the White House is doing all it can to minimize the damage.