With security deteriorating in Tripoli, Libya, the U.S. has shifted several dozen U.S. Marines and assault aircraft of the rapid response force that just arrived in Spain eastward to Sigonella, Italy.
The Pentagon's spokesman called the move a precautionary measure but would not say it was directly tied to Tripoli, which foreign diplomats and oil companies recently have begun evacuating. On Monday a car bomb reportedly exploded outside a hospital in Benghazi, killing 10 people.
The shift to Naval Station Signoella marks the first assignment for the response force -- a group of 550 Marines and six MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotor aircraft, which only arrived at Moron Air Base two weeks ago. A defense official told the E-Ring that the number of personnel moved from Moron totaled "less than 100."
Call them the Benghazi Unit. Officially dubbed Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force-Crisis Response, the unit was created specifically as the Pentagon's answer to congressional criticism that troops were not available in Europe or Africa to respond quickly enough to the September 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi that killed four Americans.
The unit falls under Africa Command's purview and Marine Corps Commandant Jim Amos told Congress to expect they will be moving around Africa.
Previously the U.S. shored up embassy security in Tripoli with a 150-member platoon from Special Marine Air Ground Task Force - Africa.
The E-Ring has heard some Pentagon staff speculation that having the new rapid-response force for AFRICOM frees up similar troops under European Command to respond, if needed, to any unrest from the Syrian conflict.
Pentagon press secretary George Little, on Monday, scoffed at that suggestion.
"I'm not going to get into the specific of our response -- or our potential response -- but we are prepared if necessary to respond to security conditions throughout the region," he said.
How far eastward does "the region" stretch, in this case?
"What I would say, I guess -- and read between the lines here, it won't be that hard -- is that, I think, the secretary and the president have been very clear that boots on the ground options in Syria are not likely."
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The chairmen of five House committees today in an interim report to Speaker John Boehner, R-Oh, accused former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of lying to Congress about reducing security in Benghazi, Libya, before last September's attacks, vowing to continue reviewing what it described as a "cover up" over the nature of the attacks and hold administration officials accountable.
The report is a compilation of investigations by the Republican staff of five House committees: Oversight, Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, Intelligence, and Judiciary. The five committees have not "officially adopted" the report, it notes.
"The U.S. government did not deploy sufficient U.S. security elements to protect U.S. interests and personnel that remained on the ground," the chairmen found. "Senior State Department officials knew that the threat environment in Benghazi was high and that the Benghazi compound was vulnerable and unable to withstand an attack, yet the department continued to systematically withdraw security personnel. Repeated requests for additional security were denied at the highest levels of the State Department."
On March 28, 2012, then-U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz requested additional security in Libya. The chairmen point to an April 19, 2012, response cable bearing Clinton's signature that "instead articulates a plan to scale back security assets for the U.S. Mission in Libya, including the Benghazi Mission." According to the report, embassy staff interpreted this to mean that Foggy Bottom wanted a study to justify removing two security teams.
In June, Chris Stevens, the new ambassador, asked to keep the two security teams through upcoming elections, but his request was denied.
Clinton, in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in January, said the cables never rose to her attention. Tuesday's report to Boehner included Clinton's response at the time: "Well if I could -- 1.43 million cables a year come to the State Department. They are all addressed to me. They do not all come to me. They are reported through the bureaucracy."
It's not clear who in the State Department sent the April 19 response. But as a general rule, "every single cable sent from Washington to the field is sent over the secretary of state's name," a former State Department official noted, adding, "Though they are trying to make this new, it's not. After 30+ hearings and briefings, thousands of pages, this has all been addressed."
The chairmen pin ultimate responsibility on President Barack Obama for failing "to proactively anticipate the significance of September 11 and provide the Department of Defense with the authority to launch offensive operations beyond self-defense."
After the attacks, the chairmen argued, "The Administration willfully perpetuated a deliberately misleading and incomplete narrative that the attacks evolved from a political demonstration caused by a YouTube video."
The Republicans also criticized the president for putting the post-attack investigation in the hands of the F.B.I. instead of military and intelligence officials. The decision, they argued, "significantly delayed U.S. access to key witnesses and evidence and undermined the government's ability to bring those responsible for the attacks to justice in a timely manner."
The three main findings, according to the executive summary, are:
"The committees will continue to review who exactly was responsible for the failure to respond to the repeated requests for more security and for the effort to cover up the nature of the attacks, so that appropriate officials will be held accountable," wrote the chairmen.
More than half of Boehner's Republican conference has asked him to create a select committee that could concentrate on the investigation. Such a move would ramp up political pressure on President Obama, but Boehner so far has resisted that call as a move that would cost time and money.
In the report, Republicans use the Benghazi attacks as basis for wider criticism of Obama's foreign policy across the Middle East, which they argue shows a "lack of a comprehensive national security strategy or a credible national security posture in the region." The chairmen predict that "this singular event will be repeated" unless Obama "properly postures resources and security assets."
Additionally, the chairmen further accuse the president of not being forthcoming to the public about threats to the United States. They call on Congress to be "an effective counterweight to the administration's failure to adequately communicate the nature and the extent of the threats our country faces today."
The State Department referred questions to the White House, which responded with the following statement by National Security Staff spokesperson Caitlin Hayden:
"The report just released by the House Republican Conference on Benghazi appears to raise questions that have already been asked and answered in great detail by the Administration. We have taken extraordinary steps to work with five different committees in Congress in investigating what happened before, during, and after the Benghazi attacks. The Administration has provided over ten thousand pages of documents, senior agency officials have appeared in ten congressional hearings on Benghazi; agency officials have provided more than 20 briefings for members and staff; and agencies have permitted members to view classified video footage from the night of the attacks. Most importantly, the State Department’s Accountability Review Board -- the independent body charged with reviewing the attacks and evaluating the interagency response -- released its report which specifically found that the interagency response was “timely and appropriate” and “helped save the lives of two severely wounded Americans,” while also making important recommendations to improve security that we are in the process of implementing."
House Demcrats responded to the interim report with a letter, signed by the ranking members of each of the five committees, accusing their colleagues of issuing "a partisan Republican staff report on Benghazi without any vetting for accuracy or consideration by Committee Members."
Photo by Linda Davidson / The Washington Post via Getty Images
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The Defense Department is determining how the U.S. military can get more involved in the fight against al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups spreading across North African countries.
Actually, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said so openly, two months go. Exactly how the U.S. should get more involved in the region, though, reached new levels, according to a Washington Post story on Tuesday, which reports that the White House "has held a series of secret meetings in recent months" on the issue.
In the Pentagon today, however, officials are pretty even toned about it all. There is no desire or planning in the building toward "unilateral" military actions in North Africa, which the Post described as being heard out in the White House -- including unilateral drone strikes. In fact, the E-Ring is told the focus is on working with national militaries in the region to give them what they need, including intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) platforms, to include drones, and a whole lot of other training.
But there remains a whole lot of grey to figure out,
including what can be done, what permissions are needed, and what drone assets
can be shifted to eyeball the vast width of the African continent from as a far
away as Pakistan.
"There are no plans, at this stage, for unilateral U.S. military operations in Mali or in the region," Pentagon press secretary George Little said in Tuesday's press briefing. "As always, we're paying very close attention to the situation in the region, and stand ready should our partners in the region and regional actors such as ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) request our assistance. But at this time, that's where we are."
Little said the Pentagon is focused on building capacities in the region, but would not say on the record if additional drones were part of any assistance requests coming from North Africa. "With regard to specific requests, I wouldn't get into those in a public forum. I'm not prepared to make any announcements today."
The Pentagon has made no secret that it is willing, eager even, to get a much higher level of counterterrorism operations in North Africa going. Panetta, on the first stop of his Middle East visit in Tunisia in July, said, "We continue to be concerned about continuing Al Qaida presence in places like Yemen and Somalia and in North Africa. And so for that reason, we strongly urge countries like Tunisia to develop a counterterrorism operation that can deal with that. And there are a number of efforts that we can assist them with to develop the kind of operations, the kind of intelligence that would help them effectively deal with that threat. And they expressed a willingness to work with us on that effort."
The phrasing was important: "They expressed a willingness to work with us." In other words, the U.S. is doing the asking there, wanting countries like Tunisia to open their borders to American intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets to get an early crack against terrorists groups who want to use the largely unwatched, remote, and sometimes ungoverned spaces across North Africa.
On the way into Tunisia, Panetta also told reporters, "I will reaffirm the commitment of the United States to the stability of the Middle East and North Africa. Our goal is to advance security by supporting peaceful change throughout the region. This means we believe that establishing strong partnerships with new governments in the region."
"They have growing concerns about how to deal with Al Qaeda, how to deal with AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], and they've also indicated growing concerns about how to protect their borders."
So, step one: establish partnerships (where more are needed, like in post-revolution Tunisia). Step two: ask North African governments to "work with us." Step three? Well, that appears to be what the White House is hearing out.
As has been reported, Africa Command's commander, Gen. Carter Ham, in several African countries, has given public assurances the U.S. wants no unilateral involvement in Mali. But that's not what the Pentagon wants, anyway. It wants to help North African militaries help themselves.
The bottom of the Washington Post story gives a handy primer on how AQIM has grown outward from Algeria to Mali, and how the U.S. has armed, equipped and aided neighboring countries to handle spill-over concerns. Some of Mali's government officials have said they wan the ECOWAS to help take the counterterrorism lead. That's what they're saying in the E-Ring, too.
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Kevin Baron reports on the people and policies driving the Pentagon and the national security establishment in The E-Ring.