Obama administration officials who were in key positions on Sept. 11, 2012, acknowledge that a range of mistakes were made the night of the attacks on the U.S. missions in Benghazi, and in messaging to Congress and the public in the aftermath.
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."
The Obama administration's chief critics on Benghazi, such as Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., remain skeptical. They see a pattern, even a conspiracy, to deflect attention from the idea that four Americans had been killed by al Qaeda-linked attackers, on the president's watch. "There is no conclusion a reasonable person could reach other than that for a couple of weeks after the attack, [the Obama administration was] trying to push a narrative that was politically beneficial to the president's re-election," Graham told CBS News.
The list of mea culpas by Obama administration officials involved in the Benghazi response and aftermath include: standing down the counterterrorism Foreign Emergency Support Team, failing to convene the Counterterrorism Security Group, failing to release the disputed Benghazi "talking points" when Congress asked for them, and using the word "spontaneous" while avoiding the word "terrorism."
The emergency response: "I wish we'd sent FEST"
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.
Whoever made the decision, it came amid sharp disagreement over the FEST's true capabilities. Kennedy and others at the State Department view the team as one that primarily restores communications at besieged embassies. However, the FEST's own mission statement describes a seasoned team of counterterrorism professionals who can respond "quickly and effectively to terrorist attacks... providing the fastest assistance possible" including "hostage negotiating expertise" and "time-sensitive information and intelligence." In fact, FEST 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. Those officials expressed the same limited view of FEST's capabilities when CBS News asked on Nov. 1, 2012, why FEST hadn't deployed. The officials argued that FEST teams were "used in the past to re-establish infrastructure, communications, etc. after a devastating attack...That wasn't the need here."
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. And officials familiar with FEST say it could have helped pave the way for the FBI to get into Benghazi much faster than the three weeks it ultimately took. 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."
The Counterterrorism Security Group: Not convened
Under presidential directive, an interagency task force called the Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG) is to be convened when emergency terrorist events are suspected. According to a public military document, it's part of a plan to "synchronize the efforts of all the government agencies that have a role to play in the Global War on Terrorism." But on Sept. 11, 2012, the Obama administrationthis body of terrorism expert advisers.
One official associated with the State Department now acknowledges that the CSG would probably have advised decision makers that FEST "was not just backup generator and radios." Said the official: "the CSG could have made the argument, they were upset that they weren't heard." Another former Defense Department official says he finds no merit to using the CSG. "I'd like to hear them say what they could have done."
Last October, National Security Council (NSC) Spokesman Tommy Vietor told CBS News that the CSG wasn't needed because consultations were quickly underway at the highest levels. He indicated that, under the Obama administration, the function of the CSG has become a "lower level group" that "does different tasks" than under the Bush administration. "From the moment [President Obama] was briefed on the Benghazi attack, the response effort was handled by the most senior national security officials in government. Members of the CSG were of course involved in these meetings and discussions to support their bosses," said Vietor.
However, absent the CSG's collective advice, there's evidence that some high-level decision makers were unaware of all available resources. In October, on a phone call that included then-Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough (now White House Chief of Staff), Vietor initially told CBS News: "I don't know what [FEST] is... it sounds antiquated."
In-extremis Force: On a training mission
In an unfortunate turn of events, on Sept. 11, a special U.S. military force based in Europe, designed specifically for quick reaction to unforeseen emergencies, was off on a training mission in Croatia. By the time the so-called Commander's In-extremis Force was diverted to an airfield at Sigonella, Italy, an hour's flight from Benghazi, the attacks were over.
"They didn't get there in time to have an impact, which is unfortunate," said a Defense Department source who was involved in the Benghazi response.
Another administration source says, with the benefit of hindsight, everyone wishes U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM), the combatant command responsible for Libya on Sept. 11, had its own In-extremis Force.
That's already been accomplished. In what turns out to be a stroke of terrible timing, AFRICOM was just a few weeks away from getting an In-extremis Force when the Benghazi attacks happened. The Force was in the U.S. finishing training on Sept. 11 and is now in place.