Live video from a drone flying over the U.S. Consulate during the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, was monitored at a Defense Department facility, but was not fed to the White House, senior officials say.
The Obama administration has declined to respond to media requests for details about who was watching the live video, but a senior defense official told The Washington Times that “the surveillance aircraft captured footage of events on the ground” and “it wasn’t available that night at the White House.”
The officials said the “overhead footage was available at a DOD location,” and they declined to comment further.
Questions about the drone video have largely gotten lost amid the raucous political theater that has arisen in the aftermath of the Benghazi attack, in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, and State Department officer Sean Smith were slain.
Some close observers of the Benghazi attack’s aftermath are hoping that details about the video will emerge when the findings of the State Department’s Accountability Review Board investigation into the attacks are eventually made public.
The review board has conducted its work in secrecy, and its findings and recommendations are expected to draw heavily from classified intelligence about the attack.
On Friday, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican and chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, announced that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton would testify publicly about the findings, but gave no date for her appearance.
The State Department this week suggested that the review board findings may be imminent. Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters Monday that when Mrs. Clinton announced the board’s members in late September, she “asked them to try to meet a 60- to 65-day timeline.”
That would mean the findings could be released during the coming days. “I don’t have any reason to think that we’re off base there, but obviously we want them to do it, do it right,” Mrs. Nuland said.
Various video footage
The digital camera aboard what defense officials have described as an “unarmed surveillance” drone, meanwhile, was one of several that recorded portions of the Benghazi attack.
Closed-circuit security cameras fixed to the consulate’s outer security walls also captured images.
A senior State Department official said during an Oct. 9 background briefing that one camera “on the main gate” of the Benghazi diplomatic mission showed “a large number of men, armed men, flowing into the compound” at about 9:40 p.m. on Sept. 11 — the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the U.S.
Footage from that camera is thought to be what Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, the Obama administration’s top intelligence official, has shown to lawmakers on Capitol Hill during two recent classified briefings about the Benghazi attack.
“It was very difficult to watch,” Rep. Thomas J. Rooney, Florida Republican and a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said Dec. 5 after one of the briefings. “That is U.S. sovereign territory, and for people to just walk in like a street mob and light the embassy on fire it just made you feel extremely helpless.”
It is unclear whether footage from the surveillance drone has been included in Mr. Clapper’s briefings.
Defense Department officials have said the drone did not arrive over the Benghazi compound until about two hours after the militants stormed through the facility’s gates.
Critical observers, including one family member of the men who were killed, have questioned whether officials monitoring the drone video missed a chance to launch a more aggressive rescue mission or a counterstrike on the militants.
Response in real time
Senior defense officials argued otherwise during a Nov. 9 background briefing on the Benghazi attack.
“There are people out there who have suggested that an overhead surveillance aircraft could have perfect visibility into what was happening on the ground, and on that basis alone, you could send in a team,” one senior defense official said. “That is not necessarily how things work.
“You get a lot of good information from a surveillance aircraft, but it doesn’t necessarily provide you a complete and instant picture of what is happening on the ground. If you’re going to undertake military action, you’d better have solid information before you decide to take the kinds of steps that are required to effectively complete a military mission of this sort.”
A senior U.S. intelligence official, meanwhile, has told The Times that the CIA’s personnel in Benghazi “responded to the situation on the night of 11 and 12 September as quickly and as effectively as possible.”
“The security officers in particular were genuine heroes,” said the official, noting that CIA personnel drove to the site of the attack within 25 minutes of the alarm first being raised and “put their own lives on the line to save their comrades.”
The official said a support team was scrambled from the Libyan capital of Tripoli and, despite having to put together a team from scratch and charter a plane to fly them to Benghazi, were able to make the trip in less than four hours.
Officials have declined to comment on whether anyone in Benghazi or Tripoli had access to the drone footage in real time, or whether it was used to help the rescue team find its way into the city from the Benghazi airport.