One of the more common fault-finding rumors associated with the 11 September 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, is that Obama administration officials sat around watching the attack unfold in real time (via video) but did nothing to intervene. The earliest expression of this claim we've found comes from a 24 October 2012 opinion piece published by Forbes magazine:
Just one hour after the seven-hour-long terrorist attacks upon the U.S. consulate in Benghazi began, our commander-in-chief, vice president, secretary of defense and their national security team gathered together in the Oval Office listening to phone calls from American defenders desperately under siege and watching real-time video of developments from a drone circling over the site. Yet they sent no military aid that might have intervened in time to save lives.
Even at the time it was written, that claim was highly questionable for presenting a distorted version of what the sources it referenced (CBS News and ABC News) actually reported. A CBS News story published the same day as the Forbes piece stated the following:
CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan reports that the FBI and State Department have reviewed video from security cameras that captured the attack on the consulate.
The audio feed of the attack was being monitored in real time in Washington by diplomatic security official Charlene Lamb. CBS News has learned that video of the assault was recovered 20 days later from the more than 10 security cameras at the compound.
The government security camera footage of the attack was in the possession of local Libyans until the week of Oct. 1. The video will be among the evidence that the State Department's review board will analyze to determine who carried out the assault.
In other words, it was not the case that President Obama, Vice President Biden, Secretary of Defense Panetta, and a national security team were "watching real-time video of developments from a drone circling over the site"; rather, a single diplomatic security official was listening to an audio feed of events in Benghazi. Security cameras in the U.S. consulate compound did record video of the events as they unfolded, and a U.S. surveillance drone camera did capture the last hour of the attack, but neither of those sources was watched real-time by officials in Washington, as the consulate video recordings were not recovered until weeks after the attack:
Video footage from the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, taken the night of the Sept. 11 anniversary attacks, shows an organized group of armed men attacking the compound, according to two U.S. intelligence officials who have seen the footage and are involved in the ongoing investigation. The footage, which was recovered from the site [during the first week of October] by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, offers some of the most tangible evidence yet that a military-style assault took place, according to these officials.
The Obama administration has been studying the videos, taken from closed-circuit cameras throughout the Benghazi consulate’s four-building compound, for clues about who was responsible for the attack and how it played out. The two officials [said] that analysts are hoping to decipher the faces of the attackers and match them up with known jihadists.
In addition to the footage from the consulate cameras, the U.S. government is also poring over video taken from an overhead U.S. surveillance drone that arrived for the final hour of the night battle at the consulate compound and nearby annex.
Moreover, the majority report issued by the House Select Committee on Benghazi plainly stated that, minutes after learning about the ongoing attack at the U.S. diplomatic compound, President Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta issued "clear orders to deploy military assets":
Just minutes after word of the attack reached the Secretary, he and General Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, departed the Pentagon to attend a previously scheduled 5:00 p.m. meeting at the White House with President Obama and National Security Advisor Thomas E. Donilon. The Secretary recalled two details about the attack on the U.S. facility in Benghazi: a building was on fire and Stevens was missing. As the Secretary and Dempsey briefed the President on the evolving situation in Benghazi, Libya, the Secretary recalls the following guidance:
The President made clear that we ought to use all of the resources at our disposal to try to make sure we did everything possible to try to save lives there.
Similarly, the Secretary insists his own intentions and actions that night, in the aftermath of the President’s orders, were also clear: deploy the identified assets immediately. The Secretary said his orders were active tense. “My orders were to deploy those forces, period ... [I]t was very clear: They are to deploy.” He did not order the preparation to deploy or the planning to deploy or the contemplation of deployment. His unequivocal testimony was that he ordered the identified assets to “deploy.”
After the release of the Select Committee's report, Charles Lane caustically observed in a Washington Post opinion piece that:
Within 90 minutes of the Sept. 11, 2012, surprise attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and an aide, the report tells us, Obama had told his secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to do everything possible, implicitly including using military force, to protect Americans.
These were “very clear directions,” according to Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), one of Obama’s harshest critics on the panel.
How different from the version of the president’s conduct propounded on right-wing talk radio and TV in the aftermath: that he and his aides coolly watched live video of the mayhem in Benghazi, supplied by drones flying overhead, but declined to order a rescue mission.
Not only does this new Republican report debunk that smear, but it actually shifts blame from Obama to “a rusty bureaucratic process not in keeping with the gravity and urgency of the events happening on the ground.” A second attack, on a separate CIA annex, in which security contractors Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty died, was already over by the time U.S. military assets started moving toward Libya. And even then, the forces headed to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, not Benghazi.
To be sure, the report strains to put the most negative construction on these previously reported delays, insinuating but not asserting that Woods and Doherty might have been saved but for the low alert status of U.S. forces overseas or the dithering of officials in Washington. And it’s true: Special units in Europe did not meet their own standards for rapid deployment to Tripoli.
After two years of investigation, however, such tendentious implications are all that remain of the conspiracy theory that the Obama administration told rescuers to “stand down” or otherwise deliberately abandoned Americans on the ground.