Pentagon decided not to send troops to Benghazi during attack

Leonpanetta
WASHINGTON -- U.S. military commanders decided against sending a rescue mission to Benghazi during the attack against the American diplomatic mission last month because they didn’t have enough clear intelligence to justify the risk to the troops, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said Thursday.

Panetta, in his fullest comments yet on the attack that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, said Pentagon officials were aware of the assault by armed militants soon after it began Sept. 11. But he said they never had more than fragmentary information during the course of the attack.

The “basic principle is that you don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s taking place,” Panetta told reporters at a Pentagon briefing. “This happened within a few hours, and it was really over before we had the opportunity to really know what was happening.”

He said he, Army Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command, and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, all believed“very strongly that we could not put troops at risk in that situation.”

Panetta’s comments came after House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) released a letter he had sent to President Obama demanding more details of the administration’s handling of the incident, including the military response.

Panetta said there was “a lot of Monday morning quarterbacking going on.”

The Defense secretary and other senior Pentagon officials were at the White House that afternoon for a previously scheduled meeting. Later that evening, they decided to order two warships to the coast of Libya and send a special operations team from Central Europe to Sicily to be closer to Benghazi.

But because of the lack of precise information, they didn't make that decision until after the attack was over, officials said. A small team of soldiers flew to Benghazi from Tripoli, 400 miles away, and ultimately helped evacuate about two dozen diplomats and other embassy employees.

Republicans have sought to portray the attack as a symbol of a failed administration policy. U.S. officials have said they had no credible intelligence indicating that an attack was being planned in Benghazi.

The incident is under investigation by House and Senate committees, the FBI and a special State Department review panel.

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-- Paul Richter

Photo: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta, left, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey answer questions at a Pentagon news conference on Oct. 25, 2012, about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Credit: Alex Wong / Getty Images


Two U.S. soldiers slain by gunman in Afghan uniform

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Two U.S. soldiers were killed on patrol Thursday in southern Afghanistan when a man in an Afghan national police uniform opened fire on them, a spokesman for the NATO-led force said.

The shooter escaped and the military was not sure if he was a member of the Afghan security forces or an insurgent in disguise. “It’s under investigation,” Charlie Stadtlander, a spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force, said of the attack in Oruzgan province.

Separately, a third soldier from the international coalition was killed and three others wounded by insurgents in western Afghanistan’s Farah province, the NATO-led force said in a statement. The force  provided no further information, but the Italian Defense Ministry later reported that the slain soldier was one of theirs.

The deaths in Oruzgan were almost certain to heighten tensions among the U.S. and Afghan forces, whose relationship has been tested this year by the wave of killings of Western soldiers by their Afghan colleagues. The NATO-led force has counted 53 deaths of coalition members this year at the hands of Afghan army or police counterparts.

U.S. military commanders are still seeking to understand the reason for the epidemic. While the Taliban has claimed many of the deaths, the killings also reflect real resentment and anger on the part of Afghans toward their Western allies.

Western troops are meant to train and mentor the Afghan forces so they can take over the country’s security by the end of 2014, when international forces will largely leave Afghanistan.

Such shootings make it harder to plan the seamless transition sought by the United States. They also complicate the diplomatic relationship between Western nations and Afghanistan as the international community focuses on ensuring the Afghans’ next presidential election in 2014 is seen as free and fair.

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Syrian government agrees to temporary cease-fire

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-- Ned Parker


Syrian government agrees to temporary cease-fire

Syria
BEIRUT — Responding to international peace efforts, Syria said Thursday its forces would observe a cease-fire from Friday to Monday, the period of the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha.

In an early evening bulletin, the official state news service and state-run television reported that the "general command" of the armed forces announced a “cease of military operations” for four days as of Friday. Despite the truce,  the  military reserves the right to respond to attacks or counter any efforts to reinforce or resupply rebels from neighboring nations, state TV said.  Further details were not immediately available.

The cease-fire could provide a glimmer of hope in a bloody, 19-month conflict that has  caused vast devastation and loss of life and threatens to destabilize much of the Middle East. But many observers regard the chances of a wider peace in Syria -- or even four days without some violence -- as slim.

Rebels fighting to oust President Bashar Assad have generally reacted warily to the cease-fire initiative. The government calls the rebels "terrorists" and "mercenaries" and says it will not negotiate with armed groups. Rebels say Assad must step down before any peace talks begin.

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Israel, Palestinian militants exchange strikes in Gaza Strip flare-up

Israel-rockets
JERUSALEM -- Tensions along the Gaza Strip intensified Wednesday as a sustained barrage of rockets fired into Israel prompted an Israeli airstrike, marking an escalation in the latest round of fighting in the region.

In a morning barrage, Palestinian militants fired more than 50 rockets into Israel, officials said, with several making direct hits on farms and residences. Three immigrant Thai farm workers who were injured in the attacks were airlifted for medical treatment.

School was canceled throughout Israeli communities bordering on the Gaza Strip, and residents were instructed to remain near shelters and protected areas.

Israel retaliated with an airstrike on Gaza, the fourth in 24 hours.

"The [Israel Defense Forces] will not tolerate any attempt to harm Israeli civilians and will operate against anyone who uses terror against the state of Israel," said an army statement that held Hamas, which seized control of the seaside territory in 2007, "solely responsible for any terrorist activity emanating from the Gaza Strip."

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Wounded Syrian rebel leader refutes reports of his death

 

BEIRUT -- The leader of the Tawheed division, one of the largest rebel factions fighting in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo, has survived an assassination attempt while visiting the front lines, according to an oppositon video posted on YouTube.

The video appears to show Abdel Qader Saleh, the Tawheed chief, recuperating in bed with a bandaged left arm and torso.

The video posting was apparently meant in part to refute reports on pro-government social media sites that a military sniper had killed Saleh, one of the best-known rebel figures in Aleppo, with a loyal following among various brigades in the disparate opposition forces. The government labels the opposition fighters "terrorists" and "mercenaries," but the rebels call themselves revolutionaries.

"I'm in good health and God willing, I will be among them [rebel fighters] in few days," Saleh says in the video. Directly addressing Syrian President Bashar Assad, the wounded commander sends a message:  "We are coming to your presidential palace."

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Jordanian soldier killed in clash on border with Syria

A Jordanian soldier was killed in clashes with an armed group on the Syrian border, according to Jordan's official Petra news agency
BEIRUT -- A Jordanian soldier was killed Sunday night in clashes with an armed group on the Syrian border, according to Jordan's official Petra news agency.

Eight armed people were attempting to illegally cross into Jordan from Syria when fighting broke out between them and members of the Jordanian armed forces, the news agency reported, quoting an anonymous official from the military.

One member of the armed group was critically injured, and all eight were arrested.

"Another armed Takfiri group using Kalashnikov rifles and guns tried to cross the border," the official told the news agency, using a term that refers to an extremist Muslim ideology that accuses others of being infidels.

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Lebanese army warns against violence amid tensions

Lebanon-army
This post has been updated. See the notes below.

BEIRUT — The Lebanese army moved Monday to quell unrest following an outbreak of clashes in the aftermath of the politically charged funeral of a police official assassinated in a car bomb attack.

The army vowed to use “decisive measures" to insure stability and warned that security was a “red line” not to be breached. The military urged all parties to exercise restraint.

The armed forces generally command respect across Lebanon’s sectarian fault lines. But the nation is also home to sundry armed militias allied with political and religious factions.

Overnight clashes were reported in Beirut and the northern city of Tripoli, which has become a battleground for armed groups on opposing sides of the conflict in neighboring Syria. At least three people were killed in Tripoli, the national news service reported. The army said it shot and killed a man who opened fire on a patrol in the capital.

[Updated Oct. 22, 2:20 p.m.: Sniper fire reportedly continued in Tripoli during the day, raising the death toll to four. In Beirut, troops in armored vehicles were taking up positions at some strategic intersections and roads in districts where rival gunmen have engaged in skirmishes.]

The situation remained tense and some parents were said to have kept their children home from school, fearing more violence.

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Guantanamo terrorism convictions proving vulnerable on appeal

Khalid Shaikh Mohammed
Salim Hamdan has been home in his native Yemen for nearly four years since completing his sentence at Guantanamo Bay for providing "material support to terrorism" -- six years of domestic service to Osama bin Laden as gardener, bodyguard and driver.

GlobalFocusOne of only seven Guantanamo captives to be sentenced for alleged war crimes by the Pentagon's military commissions, Hamdan had his conviction vacated this week by a unanimous federal appeals court panel on grounds that the assistance he provided the late Al Qaeda leader in Afghanistan wasn't defined as a war crime until five years after his 2001 capture.

Hamdan is already at liberty and moving on with his life, his pro bono attorney reported Thursday after informing his client by telephone that his appeal was successful. The 40-year-old taxi driver with a fourth-grade education was pleased to be cleansed of the "war criminal" label but doesn't plan to pursue an uphill battle for compensation, said the attorney, Harry Schneider of Seattle.

Dean Boyd, a Justice Department spokesman, said the government was still reviewing the ruling and would have no comment.

The ruling will serve as binding precedent in the appeals of other Guantanamo detainees convicted for war crimes ex post facto, Schneider predicted. The next likely beneficiary of the tribunal's overreaching prosecutions, defense attorneys say, could be defiant Al Qaeda propagandist Ali Hamza Bahlul, who is serving a life sentence at the U.S. military prison in southern Cuba.

Within hours of the decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, Australian convict David Hicks' lawyer announced that he would seek to have his client's guilty plea revoked and conditions of his release to Australia stricken. Attorney Stephen Kenny also said in an interview with the Australian Broadcasting Co. that he would pursue compensation for Hicks and an investigation of whether the Canberra government aided and abetted his wrongful imprisonment.

A kangaroo skinner who trained at an Al Qaeda base in Afghanistan before fleeing the October 2001 U.S.-led invasion, Hicks was arrested trying to cross into Pakistan and held at Guantanamo for six years. He was released to his homeland as part of his plea deal, which prohibits him from appealing his case or disclosing details of his experience for monetary gain.

Bahlul, a Yemeni like Hamdan, also was convicted at his uncontested 2008 trial of solicitation of murder in a recruiting video he produced for Al Qaeda. David Glazier, an international law professor at Loyola Law School, said legal scholars began speculating that the solicitation charge might be ruled beyond the commissions' jurisdiction after the same Washington appeals court that threw out material support as a legal charge canceled oral arguments in the Bahlul appeal just before it issued the Hamdan decision.

"There's been some discussion in the blogosphere about whether or not this means the end of conspiracy as well," said Glazier, who was a career Navy surface warfare officer before earning his law degree.

Only one of the seven Guantanamo convictions has involved crimes recognized as a violation of the international law of war: the murder, attempted murder and spying charges against Canadian Omar Ahmed Khadr, who was recently transferred to Canadian custody to serve out the six years left on his term.

Prosecutors at the military commissions have relied on material support and conspiracy to get convictions or plea bargains in the few completed cases, but Glazier argues that those "inchoate offenses" aren't considered war crimes under international law. Only after Congress passed the 2006 Military Commissions Act did the Guantanamo tribunal have jurisdiction to try suspects for those crimes, said the appeals court panel, which is made up entirely of Republican appointees.

J. Wells Dixon, senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, which has provided legal representation to hundreds of the nearly 800 men detained at Guantanamo since 2002, predicted that "conspiracy is the next military commissions charge on the chopping block."

"The Hamdan decision is significant because it is an illustration of the inherent problems in creating a second-rate system of justice that we make up as we go along," he said of the commissions, the original version of which was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in June 2006, prompting a hurried redo, the Military Commissions Act, three months later.

Five "high-value detainees" facing death penalty trials for the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have been in the Guantanamo courtroom this week, bringing pretrial motions and theatrics to the forum.

In the first prosecution on charges widely accepted as war crimes, Army Col. James Pohl, the presiding judge, has been inundated with peripheral considerations, such as whether self-proclaimed Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed should be allowed to wear a camouflage hunter's vest in the courtroom to project a warrior image.

Pohl has also had to rule on whether mold and rodent infestation at the defense attorneys work space on the remote base compromises their ability to prepare for trial, and whether any mention of mistreatment during CIA interrogations risks revealing national security secrets.

"Regardless of the underlying conduct and the quality of evidence the government presents at trial, there is no certainty that those convictions will stand" federal civilian court review, Dixon said. "For the Obama administration to continue to pursue military commissions charges is a real gamble."

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Follow Carol J. Williams at www.twitter.com/cjwilliamslat

Photo: Artist's sketch shows alleged Sept. 11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, right, speaking with a member of his legal team during a hearing at the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Credit: Janet Hamlin

 


Activists: Airstrike on Syrian city kills at least 30 civilians

Syria
BEIRUT -- At least 30 civilians, many of them women and children, were killed Thursday in an airstrike on the northern Syrian city of Maarat Numan, activists said.

The city, strategically located on the main highway that connects Syria's two major cities, Aleppo and Damascus, has been the site of more than a week of fierce clashes and intense shelling by government helicopters and warplanes.

Thursday's attack came a day after activists posted a video showing what they said was a government helicopter shot down by rebels near the city.

PHOTOS: Living under siege: Life in Aleppo, Syria

A missile fired by a MiG warplane hit a residential neighborhood about noon, destroying four buildings and four homes and damaging a nearby mosque, said opposition activist Ahmad Halabi.

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U.S. soldiers arrive in Israel for largest-ever military exercise

Military exercise
JERUSALEM -- More than 1,000 U.S. soldiers have begun to arrive in Israel for the largest-ever joint military exercise between the two nations to test their cooperation in the event of a large-scale missile attack against Israel.

The three-week, $30-million war games are purely defensive in nature and unrelated to any specific regional threat, Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin said during a briefing with reporters Wednesday.

Israel is particularly worried about recent turmoil and new threats in the region. Syria’s unrest is raising fears about the fate of its chemical weapons. Israel has threatened to launch a military attack against Iran’s purported nuclear weapons program. An Iranian-built unmanned spy drone sent by Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group was shot down over Israel last week.

Militants in the Gaza Strip this week, for the first time, fired an antiaircraft missile against Israeli planes. Israeli officials believe that weapon and many more like it were smuggled into Gaza from Libya after the revolution in that country.

But Franklin stressed that the exercise, which will include tests of U.S.-made Patriot and Aegis missile defense systems, had been planned for two years and was not intended to send any signal about possible upcoming military operations.

The drill is “not there to send a message,” he said.

In the same telephone briefing, however, Israel Defense Forces Brig. Gen. Nitzan Nuriel said that “anyone who wants can get any kind of message he wants from this exercise.”

Israel relies heavily on its close cooperation with the U.S. military to serve as a deterrent against its enemies.

The exercise will simulate a multifront missile attack against Israel, Nuriel said.

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 -- Edmund Sanders

Photo: A U.S. soldier works on an anti-missile system in an earlier U.S.-Israeli military exercise. About 1,000 U.S. military personnel are arriving in Israel for joint military exercises to take place over the next three weeks. Credit:  Ziv Koren / European Pressphoto Agency


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