On this past Sunday morning, Chris Wallace of Fox News grilled the administration’s newly anointed flak catcher, White House Senior Adviser Dan Pfeiffer.
One critical question was how Obama spent that long night of Sept. 11, 2012, while his charges were busy dying in Benghazi.
“With all due respect,” asked Wallace, “you didn’t answer my question. What did the president do that night?” This was a good question and one that prompts a careful look at the time line.
At 3:40 p.m. Washington time on Sept. 11, 2012, U.S. ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens in Benghazi called his No. 2 man, Greg Hicks, and told him, “We’re under attack.”
(All times cited will be EDT, six hours earlier than Libyan time).
At 4:05 p.m. the State Department Operations Center issued an alert to all relevant agencies, “U.S. Diplomatic Mission in Benghazi Under Attack.”
At 4:25 p.m. a six-member CIA team headed by Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods arrived at Stevens’ compound from the nearby annex.
Under heavy fire, Woods’ team recovered the body of Foreign Service IT specialist Sean Smith but could not find Stevens’ body in the burning building.
At 5 p.m. President Barack Obama had a pre-scheduled meeting with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who briefed him on the Benghazi situation.
At 6 p.m. Woods and his CIA team arrived back at the annex, which they would defend Alamo-style for the next six hours. They would kill an estimated 60 Libyans before the night was through.
At 6:07 p.m. the State Department Operations Center shared a report from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli that Ansar al-Sharia had claimed responsibility for the Benghazi attack. The terror group also called for an attack on the Embassy in Tripoli.
At 7:30 p.m. or thereabouts Obama engaged in an hour-long phone call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Obama hoped to mend fences with Netanyahu to help secure the Jewish vote in the upcoming election.
After roughly 8:30 p.m., there is no known accounting of Obama’s time or whereabouts.
At 11:15 p.m. Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, another former SEAL, were killed in a mortar assault at the annex. Doherty had just arrived as part of a six-man team from Tripoli.
At 1:40 a.m., having evacuated the annex, the first group of Americans flew out of Benghazi bound for Tripoli. They saw Stevens’ body at the airport and confirmed his death.
Said Pfeiffer to Wallace when asked about Obama’s evening, “He was in constant touch with his national security team and kept up to date with the events as they were happening.”
Wallace then listed all the critical people with whom Obama had little or no conversation – the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the chairman of the joint chiefs.
Pfeiffer clarified, “He was talking to his national security staff, his National Security Council – people who would keep him up to date as these things were happening.”
“Was he in the situation room?” Wallace asked.
“I don’t remember what room he was in that night,” said Pfeiffer. “That’s a largely irrelevant fact.” No, it is not irrelevant at all.
I cannot say for sure where Obama was that evening, but if the night of July 17, 1996, set a precedent, Obama was likely in the White House family quarters.
For the record, at 8:35 p.m. on that turbulent night in the election year of 1996, President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary left a Washington fundraiser and headed back to the White House by motorcade.
At 8:31 p.m., two FAA veterans at the New York Air Route Traffic Control Center observed a target arching and intersecting with Paris-bound TWA Flight 800 as it headed east off Long Island’s south shore.
A manager from that center rushed the radar data to the FAA technical center in Atlantic City, and from there it was faxed to FAA headquarters in Washington and rushed “immediately” to the White House situation room.
It was in this room, “in the aftermath of the TWA Flight 800 bombing,” as Clinton aide George Stephanopoulos unwittingly told Peter Jennings on Sept. 11, 2001, that all key parties converged.
“This looks bad,” said Ron Schleede of the National Transportation Safety Board upon first seeing the data that “suggested something fast made the turn and took the airplane.”
Anti-terror czar Richard Clarke got the message too. By 9 p.m., he was driving in to the White House to convene a meeting of his security group, not at all the norm for a plane crash.
“I dreaded what I thought was about to happen,” Clarke wrote in his best-seller “Against All Enemies.” Clarke called it “The Eisenhower option,” a retaliatory strike against Iran.
When President Clinton met with friendly historian Taylor Branch on Aug. 2, 1996, he also traced the TWA 800 disaster to Iran. “They want war,” Branch quoted Clinton as saying.
On the night of July 17, however, the president chose not to join Clarke and the other agency representatives in the situation room.
Clinton remained holed up in the family quarters with Hillary. Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Robert “Buzz” Patterson and others have confirmed the president’s location that evening.
Patterson was in a position to know. He carried the nuclear football for the president, and he too was in the White House that night, though purposefully kept out of the loop.
The one person Patterson has tentatively cited as being in the family quarters with the Clintons is Sandy Berger, the deputy director of the NSA and the Clintons’ political consigliere.
As it happened, National Security Adviser Tony Lake, Sandy Berger’ boss, was not invited to the family quarters. Lake was known to excuse himself from meetings when they turned political.
That night Berger and the Clintons gathered information from the FAA radar, from the satellite data and from the eyewitness accounts and translated the data into electoral strategy.
By 3 a.m. Clinton had apparently gathered enough information to call Lake with the following message: “Dust off the contingency plans.”
Dust them off, yes, but let’s not get too serious about them. In late summer 1996, with the election comfortably in the bag, war was the last thing the Clintons wanted or needed.
On Sept. 11, 2012, war was the last thing Obama wanted or needed as well. He had already bagged Osama bin Laden, pacified al-Qaida and liberated Libya.
Or so he repeated endlessly. Foreign policy was alleged to be his electoral strong suit. Given the political dynamics, Obama likely retreated, just as the Clintons had, to the family quarters.
As Pfeiffer said, Obama probably did talk to “people who would keep him up to date as these things were happening.”
Obama and certain of these people, the political insiders, would have spent the night translating national security data into electoral strategy.
After all, Obama had a big fundraiser the next day in Vegas. That did not allow much time to establish an alibi that would preserve his carefully crafted bin Laden-slayer narrative.
It was a close call, but with a little help from the media – a special shout-out to CNN’s Candy Crowley! – the alibi worked just well enough to get the man re-elected.
History does repeat itself.