US special forces told not to fly to Benghazi in wake of attack – diplomat

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “US special forces told not to fly to Benghazi in wake of attack – diplomat” was written by Dan Roberts, for theguardian.com on Monday 6th May 2013 22.22 UTC

Republican critics of Hilary Clinton have released selected testimony from a forthcoming hearing on the Benghazi embassy attack which appears to show that special forces and fast jets could have arrived in time to protect US diplomats.

As the political fallout from the September 2012 incident continues to dog Clinton, the former secretary of state, a witness due to speak before the House oversight committee on Wednesday alleges that military commanders blocked deployment of troops or planes for fear of offending the new Libyan government.

Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission in Libya, told a congressional interview in pre-prepared testimony that he believed the arrival of special forces or jets could have saved lives or even prevented the attack, which led to the death of ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others.

The White House declined to comment, stressing that it was an interview it had not yet been able to view. It was also not possible to verify whether the selected testimony from Hicks released on Monday was a partial version designed to emphasise critical aspects.

It does, however, shed important new light on attempts to dispatch troops to Bengazi:

Hicks: So, Lieutenant Colonel Gibson, who is the Socafrica commander, his team – you know – they were on their way to the vehicles to go to the airport to get on the C-130 when he got a phone call from Socafrica, which said: you can’t go now, you don’t have authority to go now. And so they missed the flight. And, of course, this meant that one of the …

Questioner: They didn’t miss the flight. They were told not to board the flight.

Hicks: They were told not to board the flight, so they missed it. So, anyway, and yeah. I still remember Colonel Gibson – he said: "I have never been so embarrassed in my life that a State Department officer has bigger balls than somebody in the military." A nice compliment.

The testimony also raises questions about whether US officials in Washington and Libya were too cautious in responding to the attack, which is thought to have been carried out by fighters close to al-Qaida.

White House spokesman Jay Carney acknowledged that there had been mistakes made before the attack, but insisted these had been dealt with in subsequent investigations.

"There was an accountability review board chaired by two of the most distinguished experts in our national security establishment, nonpartisan experts – Admiral Mullen and Ambassador Pickering – who oversaw this review," said Carney.

"And it was unsparing. It was critical. And it held people accountable. And it made a series of recommendations for action that could be taken to improve security to reduce the potential for these kinds of events from happening in the future. And every single one of those recommendations has been or is being implemented by the State Department."

Nonetheless, Wednesday’s hearing looks set to re-open the issue both for the White House and for Clinton, who is still widely tipped to be planning a presidential run at the next election.

Pressure is likely to focus on what steps the US took once it was aware the embassy was under attack, an issue the selected Hicks testimony suggests was badly handled:

Questioner: But do you think, you know, if an F-15, if the military had allowed a jet to go fly over, that it might have prevented [the second attack]?

Hicks: Yeah, and if we had gotten clearance from the Libyan military for an American plane to fly over Libyan airspace. The Libyans that I talked to and the Libyans and other Americans who were involved in the war have told me also that Libyan revolutionaries were very cognizant of the impact that American and NATO airpower had with respect to their victory. They are under no illusions that American and NATO airpower won that war for them. And so, in my personal opinion, a fast-mover flying over Benghazi at some point, you know, as soon as possible might very well have prevented some of the bad things that happened that night.

Questioner: The theory being, the folks on the ground that are doing these – committing these terrorist attacks look up, see a heavy duty airplane above, and decide to hightail it?

Hicks: I believe that if – I believe if we had been able to scramble a fighter or aircraft or two over Benghazi as quickly as possible after the attack commenced, I believe there would not have been a mortar attack on the annex in the morning because I believe the Libyans would have split. They would have been scared to death that we would have gotten a laser on them and killed them.

The hearing will also include testimony from Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary for counterterrorism, and Eric Nordstrom, a diplomatic security officer and former regional security officer in Libya.

In October 2012, the Oversight committee held the first hearing on the Benghazi attacks, which it says exposed denials of security requests and forced the administration to acknowledge that the attacks were not sparked by a protest of a YouTube video, contrary to claims made by Obama administration officials.

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Obama condemns Egyptian violence and cancels joint military drills

 

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Obama condemns Egyptian violence and cancels joint military drills” was written by Dan Roberts in Washington, for The Guardian on Thursday 15th August 2013 18.30 UTC

Barack Obama has cancelled US military exercises with Egypt in a carefully-calibrated rebuke to its interim government that stopped short of a more significant suspension of aid.

Reacting to the killing of more than 500 anti-government protesters, the US president interrupted his family vacation on Martha’s Vineyard to condemn the bloodshed, but stressed that any move toward peaceful democracy was a difficult process that could take decades.

"We appreciate the complexity of the situation," he said. "We recognise that change takes time. There are going to be false starts and difficult days. We know that democratic transitions are measured not in months or even years, but sometimes in generations."

Obama also issued a reminder of why the US had initially chosen to support the ousting of Egypt’s first elected president following the overthrow of dictator Hosni Mubarak.

"While Mohamed Morsi was elected president in a democratic election, his government was not inclusive and did not respect the views of all Egyptians. We know that many Egyptians, millions of Egyptians, perhaps even a majority of Egyptians, were calling for a change in course."

Nevertheless, the White House statement was designed to reinforce a recent hardening of US criticism of the violence, which began on Wednesday with condemnation from secretary of state John Kerry and tough language from spokesman Josh Earnest.

Obama criticised the "arbitrary arrests" and persecution of Morsi supporters as well as the violence on Wednesday.

After Morsi was removed there remained an "opportunity to pursue a democratic path," Obama said. "Instead we’ve seen a more dangerous path taken."

His statement will disappoint some who hoped for a suspension, or even cancellation of .3bn in annual US military aid to Egypt, but Washington is anxious to retain this link for future leverage over the generals.

The Bright Star military exercise cancelled by the president was due to take place in September, but may have been in jeopardy regardless of US disapproval, since the fragile security situation in Egypt makes it hard to imagine the Pentagon sanctioning the deployment of hundreds of US troops into a hostile environment for mere training purposes.

Obama said he had notified the interim government that he is cancelling the bi-annual exercises and was asking advisers to "assess implications" of interim government’s actions and consider "further steps."

"The Egyptian people deserve better than what we’ve seen over the last several days … The cycle of violence and escalation needs to stop," he added.

Obama ended by saying: "America cannot determine the future of Egypt. That’s a task for the Egyptian people. We don’t take sides with any particular party or political figure."

Obama ignored questions from reporters outside his rented vacation home about whether the US would cut off aid. His audio statement was not initially televised, but video was released later.

Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, conceded that the cancellation of the joint training scheme would have only a limited, if any, impact on events in Egypt. "I don’t think anyone in the government thinks that simply the cancellation of BrightStar is going to change actions on the ground," she said.

Asked at a press briefing why the US had not curtailed its aid to Egypt in light of the mass killing, Psaki replied: "Given the depths of a partnership with Egypt, our national security interests in this part of the world, our belief, also, that engagement can support a transition back to a democratically elected civilian government, we have sustained that commitment.

"But of course we evaluate and review on a regular if not daily basis."

She added: "This is a rocky road back to democracy. We continue to work at it."

The US criticism of the violence in Egypt was echoed in other western countries, but opposition parties called for a firmer response.

British foreign secretary William Hague is being urged by the Labour opposition to convene an emergency meeting of European Union foreign ministers that could halt EU aid to Egypt.

The UK shadow foreign secretary, Douglas Alexander, also asked the foreign secretary to urge the US to suspend military assistance, saying the west should use "any lever" available to show that such crackdowns could not be tolerated.

In November, following the election of Mohamed Morsi, the European Union pledged nearly €5bn in loans and grants for 2012-13, plus potential loans through the European Investment Bank of up to €1bn a year.

Additional reporting by Rajeev Syal in London

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