Are you safer now than you were four years ago? That’s the most important question that needs to be answered in Monday night’s foreign policy debate. Unfortunately for President Obama, there’s ample evidence that the answer is no. His administration killed Osama bin Laden, but the war on terror is still very much alive. And while the Benghazi attack has been getting most of the attention lately, it’s just the latest symptom of a much more systematic national security problem for this administration.
Here are some questions that are indirectly related to Benghazi that would be interesting to raise at Monday’s debate. And since it’s never a good idea to ask a question at a debate that you don’t know the answer to, the answers to all of these are already known:
Question One: Did you underestimate al-Qaeda’s Arabian Peninsula affiliate before the 2009 Christmas Day bombing attack?
Obama’s counterterrorism advisor John Brennan surprised reporters when he referred to AQAP as “one of the most lethal, one of the most concerning” extensions of al-Qaeda at a press briefing two weeks after the attack, and noted that “They carried attacks against Prince Mohammed bin Nayef in Saudi Arabia, against Saudi targets, inside of Yemen, against Yemeni as well as against U.S. targets.”
U.S. targets — and yet the Obama administration hadn’t even designated the group as a terrorist organization until after the failed attack.
“We had a strategic sense of sort of where [al-Qaeda-Arabian Peninsula] were going, but we didn’t know they had progressed to the point of actually launching individuals here,” Brennan added. “And we have taken that lesson, and so now we’re all on top of it.” At least until the next attack.
Question Two: Did you call the Christmas Day bomber an “isolated extremist” three days after the attack?
Despite the fact that there was already evidence that showed Christmas Day bomber Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab had been training in Yemen weeks before the attack, and despite a statement from AQAP taking credit for the attack, President Obama called him an “isolated extremist” in his first public speech on the matter.
“This incident, like several that have preceded it, demonstrates that an alert and courageous citizenry are far more resilient than an isolated extremist,” said Obama.
It’s one thing for the president to say he wanted to wait for facts before making a definitive judgment on Abdulmutallab’s al-Qaeda ties. But Obama actually did make a definitive judgment — that Abdulmutallab was not affiliated with al-Qaeda, despite evidence to the contrary.
Question Three: Did John Brennan admit before the U.S. attack that al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate was capable of attacking the homeland?
In John Brennan’s January 2010 press conference, he said the Obama administration “saw the plot was developing, but at the time we did not know in fact that they were talking about sending Mr. Abdulmutallab to the United States.” Again, if they saw the plot developing, why had they not characterized AQAP as a threat to the country? Why was Obama so reluctant to say Abdulmutallab was tied to al-Qaeda?
Question Four: Did you underestimate the Pakistani Taliban’s ability to attack the homeland prior to the Times Square bombing?
The administration was caught flat-footed by the 2010 failed Times Square car bomb attack, which was carried out by a terrorist tied to the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Until then the TTP was not widely regarded as a group that was capable of carrying out an attack on U.S. soil.
And yet after the attack, Brennan told Fox News that the TTP was a significant threat that was “almost indistinguishable” from al-Qaeda.
Question Five: Did you miss warning signs in 2009, when CIA officers were killed in a suicide attack by a double-agent?
Seven CIA operatives were killed when a fake informant working for the Pakistani Taliban blew himself up inside a U.S. base in Afghanistan. A subsequent investigation found numerous red flags and intelligence breakdowns, including one CIA officer who had been warned about the informant weeks in advance, but hadn’t passed on the information. The investigation said that CIA officials may have ignored warning signs because they were desperate to find someone who could lead them to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri.
The U.S. can’t have eyes everywhere all the time, and there is always the possibility that a plot will be missed. But all of these incidents show that the Benghazi attack wasn’t an isolated lapse. The Obama administration has a pattern of intelligence breakdowns and missing clear signs prior to an attack. It also has a pattern of downplaying threats that may be politically harmful.
This isn’t just a critique of past failings. There are implications here for the future. As Jeffrey Goldberg wrote yesterday: “Biden said [at the vice presidential debate] the U.S. would know if the Iranians had begun to manufacture a warhead. But the U.S. didn’t know its ambassador in Libya would be assassinated. It didn’t know that the World Trade Center would be attacked. American intelligence doesn’t know a lot of things. Such is the nature of intelligence. Biden’s sanguine approach to weaponization suggests either that he strayed far from Obama administration policy, or that the White House is more relaxed and confident about stopping Iran than it should be.”
Can we rely on the Obama administration — the same administration that overlooked the threat from AQAP, dismissed the threat from the Pakistani Taliban, and ignored the multiple attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that led up to the 9/11/12 attack — to have a clear grasp of the Iranian nuclear threat? Preventing an Iranian bomb means that we’ll need to rely heavily on intelligence, something the Obama administration has not had a great track record of gathering, processing, or acting on for the past four years.