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Ground Truth About Benghazi

May 3, 2014

The terrorist attack on U.S. Consulate Benghazi on September 11, 2012, which took the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other brave Americans, is back on front pages again. It’s never been out of the news entirely – and if you watch FoxNews it’s been a staple feature for the last twenty months, proving almost as popular as blondes on Roger Ailes’ network – but it’s been thrust back in the limelight by the revelations of White House emails obtained by a right-wing interest group through the Freedom of Information Act.

I’ve written a bit about the Benghazi disaster, at the outset of the scandal, but I’ve kept reasonably quiet about it since because it’s become such a partisan political football that just reading about it has made me want to take a shower. I detest how too many Americans allow ideology to blind them to realities they simply do not wish to see, and I loathe the shouting match that passes for debate, even among people who ought to know better. Grotesqueries have abounded in the Benghazi story on all sides. Our dead heroes deserve better than this, far better.

As someone who understands how Washington, DC works, particularly its secretive side, I can attest that upwards of ninety percent of the media coverage of what actually happened in Benghazi is wrong, sometimes intentionally. The essence of the story was never complicated: Stevens, a hard-working diplomat who cared deeply about his mission, was caught flat-footed because the situation in Benghazi was spiraling out of control, and moreover most of “his” Benghazi mission really belonged to Other Government Agencies, with whom coordination of security was problematic. The rest we know, and have for some time.

I have more than a little sympathy for the White House here. They remained ebullient after the successful tagging and bagging of Osama bin Laden by Navy SEALs not much more than a year before – how could they not? – and the narrative that Barack Obama had decisively defeated al-Qa’ida was understandably important in the 2012 reelection campaign. Moreover, Obama’s participation in the Libya war of 2011, the stage-setting for the Benghazi tragedy, was reluctant – for entirely valid reasons, I hasten to add – despite the ardent counsel of some of his less competent advisers. Operation ODYSSEY DAWN, to use its proper name, was undertaken at the behest of European NATO allies who were terrified by the specter of six million Libyan refugees headed in small boats across the Mediterranean. The dismal security situation left in its wake was hardly America’s fault.

Yet what can be lain at the doorstep of the White House is a lingering denial about how bad things were really getting in Libya in the summer of 2012. It’s clear, at least in hindsight, that too little attention was paid to warnings emanating from Americans actually in the country regarding the rising danger U.S. diplomats and others were actually in. Nevertheless, stuff happens, as they say inside the Beltway, and the failure to give our Benghazi consulate sufficient security is the sort of mistake that governments make all the time. This time, however, it mattered.

That said, the Obama administration’s serious failures here all came after the smoke had cleared from our consulate and the magnitude of the disaster was obvious. It would be wise to recount the basic right-wing talking points about the events of September 11, 2012:

1) the State Department and White House did not take adequate security precautions for U.S. diplomats and personnel in Benghazi;

2) the attack on CONGEN Benghazi was a preplanned terrorist attack somehow affiliated with al-Qa’ida;

3) more could have been done to rescue U.S. personnel once the attack was underway;

4) to cover itself during the election, the White House concocted a story about a YouTube video leading to spontaneous protests that got violent, ignoring contrary field reports from U.S. diplomats and intelligence personnel;

5) last, the White House engaged in a cover-up of its cover-up of the actual events at Benghazi.

While there is no evidence that point three has any validity – there simply were not sufficient Special Operations personnel or platforms close enough to have made any difference once the attack was underway, following all known evidence to date – it’s now clear, based on what came to light this week, that the other points are true, at least generally.

In response to a disaster of the kind that befalls every administration eventually, the Obama White House decided to obfuscate and, it seems, simply lie. Like Nixon in 1972, this administration opted to “go rogue” to save an election they were going to win anyway. Instead of coming clean and taking the hit, the White House placed the cover-up in the hands of its deputy national security adviser, a young speechwriter with zero experience in national security matters, who then proceeded to write a lot of FOIA-able emails about it. I could pontificate about having our national security policies crafted by people who don’t really know anything about how the world works, but I’d be repeating myself.

What could have been a relatively brief scandal that would have cost the jobs of a few White House officials, none too senior – who, naturally, would have landed lucrative K Street gigs within an hour of their cashiering – instead went another direction, and the Obama administration now faces a political nightmare. There’s a reason, “it’s not the crime that gets you, it’s the cover-up,” is the most overused DC cliche: it’s so often true. Predictably, House Speaker John Boehner has already announced a special committee to reexamine Benghazi, and he intends to call Secretary of State John Kerry to testify. This will likely devolve into a sad partisan spectacle like everything else does on Capitol Hill these days, but the White House decided to give the GOP this scandal on a platter with its slow-rolling mishandling of the Benghazi tragedy, and now they have no one to blame but themselves.

Just as predictably, plenty on the left are insisting, yet again, that Republicans are inventing a scandal and Benghazi is really no big deal, and besides it was all of two years ago. These excuses hover between dumb and disgraceful. It is always a big deal when a U.S. diplomatic facility comes under major terrorist attack, particularly when our ambassador lays down his life. Moreover, those on the left harping about the right harping about Benghazi are frequently the same people who, only a few years ago, were protesting that the largely contrived scandal surrounding Valerie Plame – it was so harmful to Ms. Plame that it landed her on the cover of Vanity Fair, most glamorously – was the biggest abuse of White House power since Watergate, requiring aggressive prosecution of evildoers. The tables have turned, and this is how the DC game is played, so get used to it.

The White House today finds itself in an awkward place of its own creation. What could have been a brief, manageable scandal has now become an extended one that may dog the administration for the rest of its second term, while trashing Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential ambitions to boot. Mainstream media outlets are no longer burying the story, and the White House ought not expect a pass anymore, particularly as reporters generally sympathetic to the administration are calling it out for its dishonesty over Benghazi. For this, the White House, again, has nobody to blame but themselves.

I hope the American public learns the truth about what happened at Benghazi, why, and what came in its aftermath, both in Libya and in Washington, DC. There are more than academic questions at play here. Truth and justice, by no means always the same thing in our nation’s capital, deserve an audience. I especially hope that the coming investigation avoids excessive partisanship of the sort so many Americans, including this one, feel is corroding our entire political system, but I’m not overly optimistic on that point, given the recent track record of both parties. I’ll settle for knowing what really happened to Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone Woods – and why.

[As always, the author’s comments are his alone, reflective of his opinion, and possibly the cat’s, and definitely not any of his employers, past or present.]

From → Strategy, Terrorism, USG

30 Comments
  1. Why is it so impossible to find out where the president was during those 5 hours?

  2. smo permalink

    The assertion was not a concoction.
    “Anger at the video motivated the initial attack. Dozens of people joined in, some of them provoked by the video and others responding to fast-spreading false rumors that guards inside the American compound had shot Libyan protesters.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/benghazi/

  3. trizzlor permalink

    The author states that this weeks revelations confirm points (4) and (5) are true without any demonstrated evidence. For the many sentences here on Nixon and cover-ups, there is not one that directly quotes a damning statement from the FOIA’ed emails.

    On point (4), it has been well-established that the intelligence community initially believed that the YouTube video has played a role in the attacks and was only able to establish a direct link to Al Qaeda some time later. This is further supported by the trail of talking-points edits between State and the CIA which could not agree on the immediate cause and both came to emphasize the video in the final draft *without any White House involvement*. None of the emails released this week show the video story originating from the White House (or being “concocted” there) as this post claims. Here is one of the knee-jerk leftists at National Review making similar claims (http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/376867/what-new-benghazi-e-mails-show-and-what-they-dont-patrick-brennan).

    The supposed “Smoking Gun” e-mail is a messaging discussion from the Advisor for Communications and Speechwriting, and includes suggestions on how to spin the talking points, not how to invent them or cover them up. The email also has similar claims about President Obama’s “leadership” and “statesmanship” qualities, and I’m surprised the author hasn’t argued that these too are a concocted cover-up. It is apparently a great surprise to the author that the White House has someone in charge of messaging.

    At the end of the day, Susan Rice went on television and told everyone there was an ongoing investigation, that details were sketchy, and that current thinking is that the video played a role. These statements were cautioned, consistent with the talking points, and avoided the ongoing finger-pointing between State and the CIA (which is precisely the middle ground one would want to take when most of the details were still unconfirmed).

    As a side note, I’ve greatly enjoyed the coverage here of the situation in Russia and Crimea. The writing is consistently informative and it’s a bummer that I de-lurked to write this negative comment. But I feel like this particular post is more wishful thinking than fact.

    • Glad you know the mind of the IC – it’s a great honor to have DNI Clapper posting here, anonymously!

      • trizzlor permalink

        Plenty of snark but not one sentence from the released e-mails that supports point (4), was this just a “letting off steam” post?

      • This might come as a surprise to you, but I may know some things that are not well suited to an UNCLAS blog post.

      • trizzlor permalink

        This might come as a surprise to you, but I may know some things that are not well suited to an UNCLAS blog post.

        I don’t doubt that you have important insider knowledge, but the post says “it’s now clear, based on what came to light this week, that the other points are true, at least generally.” which implies that there are statements in the released e-mails – now in the public domain – that support points (4) and (5) (and contradicts previous statements of CIA director Morell that the agency initially implicated the video) . How hard is it to quote one such statement?

      • If you don’t like my work, you may get your own blog. Good luck.

      • trizzlor permalink

        I think your work is terrific, so I genuinely don’t understand the pushback to demonstrating your support for new conclusions by directly quoting the new evidence. We’re obviously not getting anywhere with this exchange so I’ll re-lurk and carry on reading silently if you don’t mind.

    • RICanuck permalink

      @trizzlor,
      On point (4), it has been well-established that the intelligence community initially believed that the YouTube video has played a role in the attacks

      If that’s what the IC really believed, then I have little respect for their wisdom. I am a former Jr. NCO in a NATO infantry. The attack in Benghazi involved covering small arms fire and movement with overhead mortar fire. The attackers had a least some military training. It was not a spontaneous outbreak of emotion over a video, there was some level of planning and command in execution.

      If the IC really believed the attack was spontaneous outburst due to video, then America chooses its intelligence leaders from a shallow gene pool.

      • That is not what the IC believed, that is what the WH told you the IC believed.

    • RobertW permalink

      Paid or volunteering?

  4. jefeinoc permalink

    A well written critique. The key issue truly is the cover up and not the screw up. While questions linger (why was the ambassador in such an exposed area, why wasn’t security heightened on 9-11 in a failed Muslim nation) those questions were learning opportunities not the results of corruption. Corruption, even a “smidgen” is much more difficult to explain. The present climate in DC is often dictated by the President. This president heightened it with a faux moral outrage on various errors while obfuscating and denying everything for every error. Benghazi won’t be the only chicken coming home to roost by the next election.

  5. Tarita permalink

    I think you are mostly correct, but I doubt the White House just out and out lied about the motive of the attackers. Obama usually has a bit more finesse and is more thoughtful than that. In the end, the motive is the least important aspect of the attack. The consulate should have been better prepared regardless of the motive of any attacker.

  6. MarqueG permalink

    Disagree on the problem of partisan bickering. I’ve come to hate it when the two parties collude and DC passes some Trojan Horse legislation that winds up concentrating power at the federal level while squandering more scarce resources and ignoring all the predictable unintended negative consequences. The intricate Enlightenment design of our government was meant to be adversarial, which requires adversaries who are willing to fight.

    In many circles, that probably marks me as an extreme right-wing screamer, but oh well. It’s only because I detest 100 percent of Donk policy ideation, while only rejecting half or more of what Repubs connive to do. My cross to bear… 🙂

    More to the point of the essay: Part of the problem is the WEIRDs’ iron grip on the media, which kept the serious story about the terrorist attack on our sovereign territory abroad from the headlines. And say what you will about “Foe News” and Ailes and Murdock, but even the odd journalist that takes her professional calling seriously *cough*Atkisson*cough* endeavored to seek truth rather than reflexively shield the celebrity president.

    How are we supposed to have a rational foreign policy or a grand strategy when one party is never subjected to any broad national criticism and scrutiny?

  7. Mike Lumish permalink

    “I especially hope that the coming investigation avoids excessive partisanship”

    You have got to be fucking kidding me. If I wanted to read self-deluding partisan hackery I could waste my time over at the Daily Kos. Seriously, I thought you were better than this.

  8. uhlan permalink

    Some mention of what the “ambassador” was doing there would have been nice. He was coordinating transferring weapons from Libyan Al Qaeda to Syrian Al Qaeda by route of Turkey. Whether or not he was assassinated or allowed to die for his knowledge of the US deliberately aiding Al Qaeda is a different question, but this scandal can expose quite a bit more than a coverup over a video. It can expose the bipartisan support for international Sunni Islam and Al Qaeda, and what a joke the “war on terror” is.

    The USA went in to Libya for the sake of BENGHAZI, which was #2 exporter of jihadis in the world, and an Al Qaeda stronghold. There, as now in Syria, it knowingly armed Al Qaeda. As it is trying to do also with the help of Saudi Arabia in southern Russia.

  9. Amberbock Mike O'Malley permalink

    Double Cross is an apt description of your post. Ever heard of Mike Bravo?

  10. dougr100 permalink

    Juan Cole at informed comment has a great post taking apart the talking points one by one.

  11. I’m really glad you did this post. Your blog is a “home” for liberals who want to debate the flawed policies of the Obama Administration but don’t want to embrace the hard left with its hatred of the government.

    Here’s a comment I just made to Trudy Rubin of the Philadelphia Inquirer who is a good liberal, but who is going down the path of bashing the GOP now merely for re-raising this debate:

    http://www.philly.com/philly/columnists/trudy_rubin/20140511_Worldview__Benghazi_committee_a_waste_of_time__but_lucrative_for_GOP.html

    Yes, I realize it’s politically fashionable to bash the GOP on Benghazi. But it should get more debate than it does from liberals who fear the retribution of the left, Trudy. John Schindler has exactly summed up this problem here: https://20committee.com/…/03/ground-truth-about-benghazi/ I personally don’t blame Hillary Clinton or Susan Rice for this, and even Ben Rhodes talking points fit into a mindset that he himself isn’t really to blame for.

    But it is part of the whole DSA gestalt of the Obama Administration to take several over-arching views of terrorism and Islamist regimes in the world, namely a) that they can be solved by policing methods rather than war — the words “war on terrorism” should never be used; b) that “development” (i.e. fixing unhappy childhoods) will solve the “root causes” of terrorism; and c) that USAID and NGOs and unarmed ambassadors without the Marines can just walk into these war-torn zones and fix them with scientific development methods rather than warfare. And all three of these premises are flawed, and all three of them led to failures and deaths of our people not only in Libya but in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is especially the case when the root causes of terrorism are *states*, like Iran or Libya who are paying for and training terrorists and making mayhem in the region. So the GOP may be stumbling in wrong directions here and there and obsessing about things that are off point, but at least this has kept a debate open that people like you want to shut down. It’s possible to vote for Hillary *and* debate Benghazi, you know.

    I could add that the reason Amb. Stevens was in Benghazi was to open a wing of a hospital — the same hospital he wound up dead in. His belief in “development” — that we could open up wings of hospitals in war zones like this without having won the war yet — is emblematically illustrated there. There’s also the people “protecting” the US facility there — the 17th of February Brigade — another emblematic belief in the “development” approach that sees local armes or societies changing their nature in a matter of months merely because a tyrant has been killed and some of his supporters defeated. We seem to lurch from dismantling armies we should have kept around to keep order (Iraq) to embracing armed forces that we should have really taken a second look at (Libya) — and if we have such odd contracts with local forces *because the government of the country won’t let us bring in Marines* then — hey – that’s a sign that we a) shouldn’t be there or b) shouldn’t have illusions that civilian projects with light protection are the order of the day.

    Does that make sense?

    To me, the problems of the Obama Administration that rightly need denunciation and changing can’t really be adequately addressed through the vehicle of Benghazi or indeed any sort of “Swift Boat” sort of story.

    • It is just awful how everything has been so politicized. I hope the House committee on Benghazi does due diligence, but who knows? I try to be optimistic…and we need the full story.

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