Canadian journalist Donna Laframboise. Former National Post & Toronto Star columnist, past vice president of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. New posts: Mondays & Wednesdays.
Much of the conservative narrative about Benghazi is wrong.
In September 2012, four Americans were murdered in Benghazi, Libya, including the US Ambassador, Christopher Stevens.
Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State at the time, so these tragic events became an election issue when she ran for president in 2016.
I didn’t pay close attention to the Benghazi affair. Later, much of what I thought I knew about the matter came from conservative critics during the election campaign. Then (as now), the Internet was awash in memes alleging malfeasance on the part of the US government.
A book titled 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi, documents the heroics of six elite security specialists who were there, boots on the ground. This non-partisan, measured account reveals that much of the conservative Benghazi narrative is either totally wrong, or barely correct.
There’s no question US officials made false statements about the Benghazi affair. The biggest whopper was their claim that an obscure YouTube video had sparked a demonstration outside a US diplomatic compound in Benghazi (the actual US embassy is in Tripoli, 600 miles to the west). The public was falsely told these demonstrators got carried away and stormed the compound.
Earlier that day, violent protesters angry about a video did gather outside the US embassy in Cairo. Several scaled a perimeter wall, after which Egyptian riot police spent several days protecting the embassy.
But Benghazi was a different scenario altogether, with two distinct parts. First, dozens of assailants descended on the compound after dark, around 9:45 pm on September 11. Firing weapons, chanting, and carrying banners with Arabic writing, they ransacked and vandalized. They doused buildings and vehicles with diesel fuel, setting them ablaze.
Ambassador Stevens and a 34-year-old State Department communications specialist named Sean Smith died of smoke inhalation shortly afterward. A bodyguard had escorted them into the compound’s highest-security area. He then looked for, and found, an escape route from the overpowering heat and toxic fumes. But it was near-impossible to see through the smoke and, despite extensive and sustained attempts, the bodyguard and others were unable to locate Stevens and Smith.
A mile away, the US government had a secret facility called the Annex. It housed CIA personnel and a team of highly trained, highly experienced security contractors. Three had previously served as Marines, two were former Navy SEALS, one had been an Army Ranger.
Despite distress calls from the diplomatic compound, the CIA person in charge initially prevented these men from rushing to the rescue. US officials apparently hoped Libyan personnel would step in and restore order.
Shortly after the team did arrive on the scene, Smith’s body was removed from the burning building, but the Ambassador still couldn’t be located. Dozens more attempts were made to find him until a second assault on the compound began, approximately 90 minutes after the first.
Having gathered up laptops and hard drives, the compound’s five remaining Americans fled to the Annex. Under fire from rocket-propelled grenades, the security specialists also retreated.
As the night progressed, the Annex was itself attacked. This was Benghazi, Part 2. The security specialists successfully defended everyone from two waves of assault. From the beginning, they’d requested air support in the form of an unarmed surveillance drone and a gunship, but only the drone came.
In Tripoli, US embassy personnel had gone to work immediately, chartering a private plane so that its own team of security contractors could be flown in to assist. Shortly after this team arrived, the Annex’s main building suffered a series of direct mortar hits. Four men were on the roof.
Tyrone Woods was killed instantly. He was one of the six elite Benghazi warriors (the book relies on the firsthand accounts of the remaining five). Being a trained nurse in addition to a former Navy SEAL, Woods had spent part of his time that night tending to other people’s wounds.
Glen Doherty, a member of the backup team, likewise lost his life in an instant. The other two men on the roof were seriously injured. In the aftermath, both endured numerous surgeries to repair shattered limbs.
This book isn’t just a compelling page turner. It’s a bucket of cold water, reminding us that fake news comes at us from all directions. This Internet meme, for example, claims President Barack Obama “watched the attack and murder of these men on live video feed.”
But the book tells us the “US military’s Africa Command ordered a drone surveillance aircraft” to the vicinity 15 minutes after the diplomatic compound was attacked, and that the drone took “more than an hour” to get there. Which means the Ambassador and Smith had succumbed to smoke inhalation long before it arrived. (The drone was, indeed, above the Annex when the mortars hit.)
The meme further claims: “When they begged for help three times during the 7+ hour attack, [Obama] did nothing to help them!!!!” But the book tells us the most senior people in Benghazi were in constant communication with Washington. We know the drone got there, we know human reinforcements arrived. We know Libyan personnel – presumably responding to appeals from American officials – transported the reinforcements from the airport to the Annex, and later provided a heavily-armed escort to the airport so that all the Americans could evacuate. We know the chartered airplane wasn’t large enough, and that the Libyan Air Force supplied a second plane.
We might argue that all of the above was too little, too late. We might wonder why, according to a Pentagon spokesperson, no US military gunships were in range of Benghazi that night.
But it is untrue to say nothing was done. It is untrue to say these people were abandoned, that they were left to die. If that had actually been the case, the American death toll would likely have been in the dozens.
Another meme declares, above photographs of Doherty and Woods: “These two Navy SEALS held off an entire platoon of terrorists for 7 hours at the Benghazi Embassy”:
First, these were former SEALS, independent contractors being well paid to perform dangerous work in high-risk locales. Second, there was no Benghazi Embassy. Third, the diplomatic compound was abandoned within two hours. Fourth, being one of the Tripoli reinforcements, Doherty only made it to the Annex at five in the morning.
The heroics were actually performed by Woods and the five surviving members of the Benghazi-based team. Those men were calm and collected under fire. Supremely efficient, they knew how to take care of business. By all accounts Doherty was of equal calibre. No doubt he would have shone had he been given the chance. But he died within 30 minutes of his arrival.
How is it respectful to his memory to distribute memes that utterly misrepresent his role? How is it respectful to produce total nonsense such as this:
(13 hours is the elapsed time between 9:45 pm when the compound was first attacked and 10:30 am the next morning when, after three hours at the airport, the last planeload of Americans departed Benghazi.)
Of all the memes circulating out there, the worst grotesquely claim Ambassador Stevens was captured alive and tortured. As this book makes clear, that didn’t happen.
After the fire had cooled somewhat, apparent Libyan good Samaritans located the body of Ambassador Stevens in the high-security area. A famous photo shows his limp form being moved by locals. He was taken to hospital, where he was officially pronounced dead. In the midst of the chaos, a trusted American ally went to the hospital to confirm his identity.
Some hours later, Libyan personnel transferred the Ambassador’s remains directly from the hospital to the airport where the security specialists were awaiting the second plane. The book tells us that, when these men laid his body near the three other deceased Americans, “Stevens was barefoot but fully clothed, with no signs of injury or abuse, his eyes shut in peaceful repose.”
How does promulgating foul lies about his final hours honour the Ambassador’s memory?
I recommend this book highly. It’s a fantastic read describing admirable feats by extraordinary heroes. The competence and courage of these men is tremendously inspiring.
|13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi
Mitchell Zuckoff with the Annex Security Team