What really happened in Benghazi?

Editor’s Note: William J. Bennett, a CNN contributor, is the author of “The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood.” He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

Story highlights

William Bennett: President Obama needs to come clean about the Benghazi disaster

Bennett: It appears that high-ranking officials knew about the attack the night it happened

He asks whether the president tried to secure American personnel

Bennett: The death of four Americans at the hands of terrorists deserves serious scrutiny

CNN  — 

The Obama administration fiddled while Benghazi burned and four Americans died.

Late last week, Jennifer Griffin of Fox News reported that CIA operators caught in the attack in Benghazi requested military backup but were denied by higher headquarters.

If true, this would exhibit fatal inaction and negligence on the part of the administration or the military’s chain of command, or worse, some sort of cover-up.

William Bennett

On Friday, President Obama was asked directly by Denver’s KUSA-TV’s Kyle Clarke whether our forces were denied backup during the attack. The president dodged the first question. Clark followed up, “Were they denied requests for help during the attack?”

“Well, we are finding out exactly what happened,” the president responded. “I can tell you, as I’ve said over the last couple of months since this happened, the minute I found out what was happening, I gave three very clear directives. Number one, make sure that we are securing our personnel and doing whatever we need to.”

This is different from what the president said in his Rose Garden speech on September 12, when he mentioned nothing about securing personnel the evening of the attack, or what he said to “The View” or Univision in the weeks after the attack.

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We now know that President Obama met with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Vice President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at 5 p.m. ET on the night of the attack. We also know that the first e-mail announcing the attack came in at 4:05 pm ET, about a half hour after the attack started, and that there was a drone overhead monitoring the attack and diplomatic security official Charlene Lamb was monitoring the audio feed of the attack in real time in Washington.

That night, the Commander’s In-extremis Force, a special rescue team of commandos, was moved from Europe to Sigonella, Italy, about a two-hour flight from Benghazi. Also that evening, a “FAST team” (Fleet Anti-terrorism Security Team) of Marines in Rota, Spain, was deployed to protect the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.

The Pentagon was aware of the attack and put forces into motion. All information seems to indicate President Obama or the highest-ranking officials in the White House and Pentagon knew of the attack the same evening it occurred. Which begs the all-important question: Why was no additional military aid sent to secure our personnel, like the president claimed he directed?

Shortly after the fighting started in Benghazi, the embassy in Tripoli (400 miles away) sent its own separate aid, dispatching an aircraft carrying 22 men. They didn’t arrive in Benghazi until hours into the battle and were not nearly as qualified or as equipped as the Special Forces standing by in Europe.

The battle raged for seven hours, resulting in the death of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. It finally ended at dawn the next day when Libyan militia forces showed up to aid the Americans.

Asked to explain the inaction on the part of the Pentagon, Panetta said, “The basic principle is you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on, without having some real-time information about what’s taking place.”

Contrary to Panetta’s claim, we know with certainty that there was real-time information coming into Washington and the Pentagon during the attack. We are therefore left with two conflicting explanation’s for the administration’s inaction – either the president’s directive to secure our personnel wasn’t heeded, or he didn’t exactly give such a directive.

After all, as former Marine captain and former assistant secretary of defense, Bing West, has so well chronicled, directives of such serious importance would be recorded and sent throughout the chain of command.

The administration insists that aid was not declined. “Neither the president nor anyone in the White House denied any requests for assistance in Benghazi,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told Yahoo News this past Saturday.

We will wait and see what unravels in the coming days, but regardless, the public deserves to know why, with real-time intelligence of the attack, Panetta and defense officials did not immediately send military aid to secure our personnel.

It’s been more than a month since the Benghazi attacks and many of the crucial details are still unknown. Some of the mainstream media have been reticent to cover in-depth the story in Benghazi. Since the second presidential debate, Mitt Romney has been noticeably silent on Libya; he shouldn’t be. Without the Republican House investigating it, one wonders whether Benghazi would be a story at all.

The death of four Americans at the hands of terrorists deserves serious and sustained attention. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. The administration’s first explanation, a spontaneous mob reaction to a YouTube video, has already been shattered. Now we are left putting together the real story piece by piece.

Either there was serious malfeasance on the part of this administration or a knowing cover up with shifting stories and blame. Either way, the American people deserve to know the full story of the disaster in Benghazi.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.