(CNSNews.com) - President Barack Obama met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden at the White House on Sept. 11, 2012 at 5:00 PM—just 55 minutes after the State Department notified the White House and the Pentagon that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi was under attack.
The meeting between Obama, Panetta and Biden had been scheduled before the attack took place, and the Department of Defense is not commenting now on whether the three men were aware when they met that day of the ongoing attack or whether Obama used that meeting to discuss with his defense secretary what should be done to defend the U.S. personnel who at that very moment were fighting for their lives in Benghazi.
“Secretary Panetta met with President Obama, as the White House-provided scheduled indicates,” Lt. Col. Todd Breasseale, a Defense Department spokesman, told CNSNews.com on Tuesday. “However, neither the content nor the subject of discussions between the President and his advisors are appropriate for disclosure.”
The fact that the president had been scheduled to meet with Vice President Biden and Defense Secretary Panetta at 5:00 p.m. on Sept. 11 had been publicized in the Washington Daybook--a planning service to which news organizations subscribe--and included on the official White House schedule posted online by the White House itself.
The State Department email notifying the White House and Pentagon of the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack was obtained by CBS News and reported by Sharyl Attkisson on Oct. 23, almost six weeks after the attack.
The terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi began at about 9:40 p.m. Benghazi time—or about 3:40 p.m. Washington, D.C. time. “The attack began at approximately 9:40 p.m. local time,” Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in written testimony submitted Oct. 10.
About 25 minutes after the attack started—at 4:05 p.m. Washington, D.C. time—the State Department sent an email that went to multiple recipients, including two at the White House and one at the Pentagon.
The subject line on this email said: “U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi Under Attack.” The text of the email said: “The Regional Security Officer reports the diplomatic mission is under attack. Embassy Tripoli reports approximately 20 armed people fired shots; explosions have been heard as well. Ambassador Stevens, who is currently in Benghazi, and our COM personnel are in the compound safe haven.” It went on to say: “The Operations Center will provide updates as available.”
In her testimony to the Oversight Committee, Charlene Lamb indicated that soon after the attack started, she was able to monitor it from Washington, D.C., in “almost real time.”
“When the attack began, a Diplomatic Security agent working in the Tactical Operations Center immediately activated the Imminent Danger Notification System and made an emergency announcement over the PA,” Lamb testified. “Based on our security protocols, he also alerted the annex U.S. quick reaction security team stationed nearby, the Libyan 17th February Brigade, Embassy Tripoli, and the Diplomatic Security Command Center in Washington. From that point on, I could follow what was happening in almost real-time.”
According to Lamb, three U.S. agents used an armored car to approach the safe haven at the U.S. consulate to rescue a U.S. security agent on the roof of the facility and also to try to retrieve Amb. Chris Stevens and Sean Smith, an Air Force veteran and State Department communications specialist.
“Despite thick smoke, the agents entered the building multiple times trying to locate the Ambassador and Mr. Smith,” Lamb testified. “After numerous attempts, they found Sean Smith and, with the assistance of members of the U.S. quick reaction team, removed him from the building. Unfortunately, he was already deceased. They still could not find the Ambassador.”
It was not until 11:00 p.m. Benghazi time—or just as Obama’s 5:00 p.m. meeting with Panetta and Biden was starting in Washington, D.C.—that the U.S. agents in Benghazi decided to abandon the main consulate facility there.
“At 11 p.m. members of the Libyan 17th February Brigade advised they could no longer hold the area around the main building and insisted on evacuating the site,” Lamb testified. “The agents made a final search for the Ambassador before leaving in an armed vehicle."
But the battle was far from over.
“Upon arriving at the annex around midnight, they took up defensive positions, including on the roof,” Lamb testified. “Shortly after their arrival, the annex itself began taking intermittent fire for a period of time.”
The battle continued, with the attackers now using mortars, and it was only in the “early morning” that two more Americans were killed and two more were wounded.
“In the early morning, an additional security team arrived from Tripoli and proceeded to the annex,” Lamb testified. “Shortly after they arrived, the annex started taking mortar fire, with as many as three direct hits on the compound. It was during this mortar attack that Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed and a Diplomatic Security agent and an annex quick reaction security team member were critically wounded.”
Doherty and Woods were both former Navy Seals who served in both the Iraq and Afghan wars. They were working as U.S. security personnel in Libya.
When exactly did Obama learn that the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi was under attack and whom did he order to do something about it? The White House is not saying.
“I can tell you, as I've said over the last couple of months since this happened, the minute I found out what was happening, I gave three very clear directives,” Obama told KUSA TV in Denver on Friday. “Number one, make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to.”
Fred Lucas of CNSNews.com asked the White House on both Monday and Tuesday to reveal exactly when Obama learned the U.S. mission in Benghazi was under attack and who exactly Obama directed to "make sure that we are securing our personnel" there. The White House did not respond.
At an Oct. 25 Pentagon press briefing, a reporter noted that “there was, in fact, a drone over the CIA annex [in Benghazi] and there were intelligence officials fighting inside the annex.” He then asked Panetta: “Why there wasn't a clear intelligence picture that would have given you what you needed to make some moves, for instance, flying, you know, F-16s over the area to disperse fighters or dropping more special forces in?”
“[T]here's a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on here,” Panetta said.
“We quickly responded, as General [Martin] Dempsey [chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] said, in terms of deploying forces to the region,” Panetta continued. “We had FAST platoons in the region. We had ships that we had deployed off of Libya. And we were prepared to respond to any contingency and certainly had forces in place to do that.
“But the basic principle here--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,” said Panetta. “And 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.”
A reporter followed up: “So the drone, then, and the forces inside the annex weren't giving enough of a clear picture is what you're saying.”
“This happened within a few hours and it was really over before, you know, we had the opportunity to really know what was happening,” Panetta said.