CBS News: Benghazi Counterterrorism Response Team "Ruled Out From The Start"

Posted: May 17, 2013 3:05 PM

CBS News' Sharyl Attkisson -- last heard from explaining that although her bosses have been supportive of her Benghazi reporting, her network's shows and producers don't seem interested -- has chased down another major scoop.  This time, she quotes unnamed White House officials admitting that administration leaders determined they would not deploy a counterterror response team to Benghazi from the get-go:

The Foreign Emergency Support Team known as "FEST" is described as "the US Government's only interagency, on-call, short-notice team poised to respond to terrorist incidents worldwide." It even boasts hostage-negotiating expertise. With U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens reported missing shortly after the Benghazi attacks began, Washington officials were operating under a possible hostage scenario at the outset. Yet deployment of the counterterrorism experts on the FEST was ruled out from the start. That decision became a source of great internal dissent and the cause of puzzlement to some outsiders.

Thursday, an administration official who was part of the Benghazi response told CBS News: "I wish we'd sent it." The official said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's deputy, Patrick Kennedy, quickly dispensed with the idea. A senior State Department official Thursday told CBS News, "Under Secretary Kennedy is not in the decision chain on FEST deployment" but would not directly confirm whether Kennedy or somebody else dismissed the FEST.  [FEST leader] leader Mark Thompson says Benghazi was precisely the sort of crisis to which his team is trained to respond. While it was the State Department that's said to have taken FEST off the table, the team is directed by the White House National Security Council.

So someone high up in the administration decided "from the start" that a FEST crew wouldn't be sent to Benghazi, even though the team's leader says his group was designed to handle exactly that sort of emergency.  We don't know who made the decision to shut down the FEST option, or why.  These questions must be answered.  The FEST chain of command resides inside the State Department and the White House.  Attkisson reports that much like the Tripoli response team that was ordered to stand down twice, FEST members were shocked when their services weren't required in Benghazi:

As soon as word of the Benghazi attack reached Washington, FEST members "instinctively started packing," said an official involved in the response. "They were told they were not deploying by Patrick Kennedy's front office... In hindsight... I probably would've pushed the button." It's unclear what assistance FEST might have provided on site in the hours and days after the Benghazi attacks. In the end, Obama administration officials argue that its quick deployment would not have saved lives because, while the U.S.-based team might have made it to Tripoli, Libya, before the attacks ended, they most certainly wouldn't have made it to Benghazi in time...Still, nobody knew at the outset how long the crisis was going to last.  Said one source, "I don't see a downside to sending FEST...if for no other reason than so no one could ask why we didn't."

That last statement is telling, in terms of the administration's mindset.  Also, the "they wouldn't have gotten there in time" excuse still doesn't wash because it (a) doesn't apply to the grounded Tripoli team, and (b) is irrelevant because nobody knew how long the siege would last.  We now know that deploying a FEST team was taken off the table from word one, a fact that further invalidates the administration's misleading post hoc explanation.  Which brings us to the latest line from the White House, via one of Attkisson's sources.  In short:  We're not malicious.  We're not liars.  We're just incompetent idiots (their words):

The officials spoke to CBS News in a series of interviews and communications under the condition of anonymity so that they could be more frank in their assessments. They do not all agree on the list of mistakes and it's important to note that they universally claim that any errors or missteps did not cost lives and reflect "incompetence rather than malice or cover up." Nonetheless, in the eight months since the attacks, this is the most sweeping and detailed discussion by key players of what might have been done differently.  "We're portrayed by Republicans as either being lying or idiots," said one Obama administration official who was part of the Benghazi response. "It's actually closer to us being idiots."

What a ringing endorsement.  So under the best case scenario, the administration is populated with self-assessed "idiots" who bungled the immediate response to a terrorist attack against an American consulate and made bad decisions from the very beginning.  But the cover-up angle is still very much in play, as evidenced by the State Department's extensive edits to Susan Rice's talking points.  These revisions removed potentially damaging intelligence details for specifically political reasons.  USA Today runs down a useful list of remaining questions about the talking points alone, and members of Congress are pointing out that thousands of pages of Benghazi-related White House emails remain unreleased.  Earlier today, Watergate reporter Bob Woodward said the redactions and substantive scrubbing of relevant information from the administration's "official story" on Benghazi is reminiscent the Nixon administration's illicit behavior.  As such, he warned the media not to "dismiss" this scandal:

I'll leave you with Charles Krauthammer's typically excellent column on Benghazi.  It entails a clear summary of the subject, and some sage advice for Republican investigators.

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