We’ve both had the honor to work in the White House. We’ve seen presidents, vice presidents, chiefs of staff and national security advisers during moments of international crisis. We know that in these moments human beings make mistakes. There are failures of communication and errors of judgment. Perfection certainly isn’t the standard to which policy makers should be held.
But there are standards. If Americans are under attack, presidential attention must be paid. Due diligence must be demonstrated. A president must take care that his administration does everything it can do. On Sept. 11, 2012, as Americans were under attack in Benghazi, Libya, President Obama failed in his basic responsibility as president and commander in chief. In a crisis, the president went AWOL.
Thanks to the congressional testimony of outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey late last week, we know they met with President Obama on Sept. 11 at 5 p.m. in a pre-scheduled meeting, when they informed the president about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The meeting lasted about a half-hour. Mr. Panetta said they spent roughly 20 minutes of the session briefing the president on the chaos at the American Embassy in Cairo and the attack in Benghazi, which eventually cost the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, security personnel Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, and information officer Sean Smith.
Secretary Panetta said the president left operational details, including determination of what resources were available to help the Americans under siege, “up to us.” We also learned that President Obama did not communicate in any way with Mr. Panetta or Gen. Dempsey the rest of that evening or that night. Indeed, Mr. Panetta and Gen. Dempsey testified they had no further contact at all with anyone in the White House that evening–or, for that matter, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
That’s not all we discovered. We now know that despite Gen. Dempsey having been informed of Ambassador Stevens’s repeated warnings about the rise of terrorist elements in Benghazi, no forces were put in place or made ready nearby to respond to possible trouble. It also seems that during the actual attacks in Benghazi, which the administration followed in real time and which lasted for some eight hours, not a single major military asset was deployed to help rescue Americans under assault.
And we learned one other thing: Messrs. Panetta and Dempsey both knew on the night of the assault that it was a terrorist attack. This didn’t prevent President Obama, Secretary Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice from peddling a false version of events in the days and even weeks that followed, as the administration called the incident spontaneous, said there was no evidence of a coordinated terrorist attack and blamed the violence on an anti-Muslim video. So the White House, having failed to ensure that anything was done during the attack, went on to mislead the nation afterward.
Why the deception? Presumably for two reasons. The first is that the true account of events undercut the president’s claim during the campaign that al Qaeda was severely weakened in the aftermath of the killing of Osama bin Laden. The second is that a true account of what happened in Benghazi that night would have revealed that the president and his top national-security advisers did not treat a lethal attack by Islamic terrorists on Americans as a crisis. The commander in chief not only didn’t convene a meeting in the Situation Room; he didn’t even bother to call his Defense secretary or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Not a single presidential finger was lifted to help Americans under attack.
This is an embarrassment and a disgrace. Is it too much to hope that President Obama is privately ashamed of his inattention and passivity that night? And that he has resolved, and instructed his senior staff, to take care that he not be derelict in his duty as commander in chief ever again?
Mr. Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, served in the George W. Bush White House. Mr. Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, served in the George H.W. Bush White House.