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First, Aid the Living

At 5 p.m., President Obama met with Vice President Biden and Secretary of Defense Panetta in the Oval Office. The U.S. military base in Sigonella, Sicily, was 480 miles away from Benghazi. Stationed at Sigonella were Special Operations Forces, transport aircraft, and attack aircraft — a much more formidable force than 22 men from the embassy.

In the past, presidents have taken immediate actions to protect Americans. In 1984, President Reagan ordered U.S. pilots to force an airliner carrying terrorists to land at Sigonella. Reagan acted inside a 90-minute window while the aircraft with the terrorists was in the air. The Obama national-security team had seven hours in which to move forces from Sigonella to Benghazi.

Fighter jets could have been at Benghazi in an hour; the commandos inside three hours. If the attackers were a mob, as the CIA wrongly speculated, then an F18 in afterburner, roaring like a lion, would unnerve them. This procedure was applied often in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Conversely, if the attackers were terrorists, then the U.S. commandos would eliminate them. But no forces were dispatched from Sigonella.

In the meantime, the terrorists – untrained and poorly led by American standards – were proving to be lethal. They forced the Americans to abandon the Benghazi consulate, with the ambassador still missing, and fall back to an annex a mile away. When the terrorist gang followed the Americans, looters took the opportunity to ransack the empty consulate. But when they found Ambassador Stevens unconscious on the floor, they stopped looting and rushed him to a hospital. Unfortunately, the doctors could not save his life. Not knowing who he was, they took the cell phone from his pocket and called numbers. By about two in the morning, the American embassy received word that the ambassador was dead.

About the same time, the 22 reinforcements from the embassy in Tripoli arrived at the Benghazi airport. They drove to the annex to assist in its defense against persistent terrorist attacks. Around 4 a.m. Libyan time — six hours into the fight — enemy mortar rounds killed two of the defenders on the roof of the annex. If even one F18 had been on station, it would have detected the location of the enemy fire and attacked. The fight – that began at 10 p.m. – persisted until dawn, when the Libyan militia came to the aid of the Americans.

For our top leadership, with all the technological and military tools at their disposal, to have done nothing for seven hours was a joint civilian and military failure of initiative and nerve. Secretary of State Clinton has said the responsibility was hers. But there has been no assertion that the State Department overruled the Pentagon out of concern about the sovereignty of Libyan air space. Instead, it appears passive groupthink prevailed, with the assumption being that a spontaneous mob would quickly run out of steam.

Firefights, however, wax and wane from dusk to dawn. You cannot predict ahead of time when they will stop. Therefore a combat commander will take immediate action, presuming reinforcements will be needed.

The administration wrongly blamed a mob for the attack. Yet ironically, Mr. Obama’s chances of reelection would have plummeted were it not for the human decency of a mob that took the ambassador to the hospital before the terrorists returned. If the terrorists had taken his body and, with no Special Operations Forces hot on their trail, taunted America the next day — claiming the ambassador was still alive — the Benghazi tragedy would have escalated into an international disaster.

Why did the National Security Council watch passively for seven hours while our ambassador and three other Americans died?

— A former assistant secretary of defense, Bing West is co-author of Into the Fire: a Firsthand Account of the Most Extraordinary Battle of the Afghanistan War

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