Commentary Magazine


Topic: David Petraeus

What Kind of Iraq Did Obama Inherit?

A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

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A very intense debate has broken out about who, from the American side of things, is responsible for the unfolding disaster in Iraq: President Obama or his immediate predecessor. That argument is less important than salvaging the current situation, which is ominous, but it’s not unimportant. The historical record matters.

A fair-minded reading of the facts, I think, shows that when Mr. Obama was sworn in, the Iraq war had more or less been won. Things were fragile to be sure. But the errors that were made during the occupation of Iraq following the fall of Saddam, which were extremely costly, were corrected in 2007. That was when President Bush made what is in my estimation his most impressive decision. In the face of enormous political opposition, with the nation weary of the war, Mr. Bush implemented a new counterinsurgency strategy, dubbed the “surge” and led by the estimable General David Petraeus. It resulted in startling gains.

By the time the surge ended in 2008, violence in Iraq had dropped to the lowest level since the first year of the war. Sectarian killings had dropped by 95 percent. By 2009, U.S. combat deaths were extremely rare. (In December of that year there were no American combat deaths in Iraq.) Iraq was on the mend. Even Barack Obama, who opposed the surge every step of the way, conceded in September 2008 that it had succeeded in reducing violence “beyond our wildest dreams.”

As importantly, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, himself Shia, was leading efforts against Shia extremists (including routing Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army in April 2008). Political progress was being made, with Sunnis willing to join the national government. In addition, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) had been dealt a devastating defeat, in good part because of the “Anbar Awakening.” This was significant because Iraq is where al-Qaeda decided to make its stand; its defeat there was therefore quite damaging to it.

If you want to understand how good things were in Iraq post-surge, consider what Vice President Joe Biden told Larry King on February 11, 2010:

I am very optimistic about Iraq. I think it’s going to be one of the great achievements of this administration. You’re going to see 90,000 American troops come marching home by the end of the summer. You’re going to see a stable government in Iraq that is actually moving toward a representative government. I’ve been there 17 times now. I go about every two months, three months. I know every one of the major players in all the segments of that society. It’s impressed me. I’ve been impressed, how they have been deciding to use the political process, rather than guns, to settle their differences.

So by the admission of the top figures in the Obama administration, they were quite pleased and very optimistic about the situation in Iraq. And no wonder: Iraq was a functioning (if fragile) democracy and an American ally (if a difficult one) in the Middle East. At least it was until President Obama failed in 2011 to get a new Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement, which set into motion a series of events that have led to where we are.

Defenders of Mr. Obama are now insisting that the president is fault-free when it comes to the SOFA failure. But this is an effort at revisionism. On the matter of the SOFA, this story by the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins makes it clear that (a) the Maliki government (which is certainly problematic) wanted to maintain a U.S. presence in Iraq; (b) it would have made a significant difference in keeping Iraq pacified; and (c) the Obama administration was not serious about re-negotiating a SOFA agreement. In the words of Mr. Filkins:

President Obama, too, was ambivalent about retaining even a small force in Iraq. For several months, American officials told me, they were unable to answer basic questions in meetings with Iraqis—like how many troops they wanted to leave behind—because the Administration had not decided. “We got no guidance from the White House,” [James Jeffrey, the Amerian Ambassador to Iraq at the time] told me. “We didn’t know where the President was. Maliki kept saying, ‘I don’t know what I have to sell.’ ” At one meeting, Maliki said that he was willing to sign an executive agreement granting the soldiers permission to stay, if he didn’t have to persuade the parliament to accept immunity. The Obama Administration quickly rejected the idea. “The American attitude was: Let’s get out of here as quickly as possible,” Sami al-Askari, the Iraqi member of parliament, said.

And then there’s this:

Ben Rhodes, the U.S. deputy national-security adviser, told me that Obama believes a full withdrawal was the right decision. “There is a risk of overstating the difference that American troops could make in the internal politics of Iraq,” he said. “Having troops there did not allow us to dictate sectarian alliances. Iraqis are going to respond to their own political imperatives.” But U.S. diplomats and commanders argue that they played a crucial role, acting as interlocutors among the factions—and curtailing Maliki’s sectarian tendencies. [emphasis added]

To sum up, then: post-surge, Iraq was making significant progress on virtually every front. The Obama administration said as much. The president was not engaged or eager to sign a new SOFA. A full withdrawal was the right decision. His own top advisers admitted as much. The president had long argued he wanted all American troops out of Iraq during his presidency, and he got his wish. He met his goal.

The problem is that in getting what he wanted, Mr. Obama may well have opened the gates of hell in the Middle East.

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Don’t Appease Terror in Iraq

In the wake of the joint Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Baathist seizure of Mosul, Tikrit, and Beiji, the knives have been out for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is far from perfect, but the idea that Maliki’s sectarianism or alleged authoritarianism caused the current crisis is nonsense.

First, it’s long past time Americans cease being more sectarian than the Iraqis. ISIS might despite Shi’ites, but they are killing Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds. On Saturday, the imam at one of the leading Sunni mosques in Mosul was executed by ISIS because he would not willingly turn his mosque over to the terrorists. The governor whom ISIS drove out of Mosul was Sunni, elected by the population of Mosul.

Second, ISIS and other radical Islamist groups as well as unrepentant Baathists are motivated not by grievance but by ideology. I, too, think Maliki should have more proactively sought to co-opt Iraqi Sunnis even if he tried more than he has been given credit for. But bashing Maliki for not offering enough to Sunnis is neither here nor there: ISIS and Baathists would have pocked any concessions offered and then simply attacked anyway.

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In the wake of the joint Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and Baathist seizure of Mosul, Tikrit, and Beiji, the knives have been out for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Maliki is far from perfect, but the idea that Maliki’s sectarianism or alleged authoritarianism caused the current crisis is nonsense.

First, it’s long past time Americans cease being more sectarian than the Iraqis. ISIS might despite Shi’ites, but they are killing Sunni Arabs and Sunni Kurds. On Saturday, the imam at one of the leading Sunni mosques in Mosul was executed by ISIS because he would not willingly turn his mosque over to the terrorists. The governor whom ISIS drove out of Mosul was Sunni, elected by the population of Mosul.

Second, ISIS and other radical Islamist groups as well as unrepentant Baathists are motivated not by grievance but by ideology. I, too, think Maliki should have more proactively sought to co-opt Iraqi Sunnis even if he tried more than he has been given credit for. But bashing Maliki for not offering enough to Sunnis is neither here nor there: ISIS and Baathists would have pocked any concessions offered and then simply attacked anyway.

Third, to respond to Sunni Islamist or Baathist terror by demanding the central government grant more concessions to Sunni Islamists or Baathists simply legitimizes terror. When terrorists struck the United States, only fools counseled changing American behavior to appease those terrorists. Likewise, when extremist Iranian-sponsored Shi‘ite militias targeted American soldiers in Iraq, the response should not have been offering incentives to Iran. When Sunnis are disillusioned, they should vote and, indeed, they did. If they are so disappointed with Maliki, they can rally other Iraqi political communities against a third term for Maliki, something that was already occurring before the ISIS attack began.

And, fourth, we’ve been down this road before. Remember the Fallujah Brigade? During the initial uprising in Fallujah a decade ago, the Bush administration and U.S. military responded by blessing the creation of the so-called Fallujah Brigade. Big mistake. Empowering the insurgents and justifying their uprising only worsened violence: Car bombings increased six-fold.

Before the surge, Gen. David Petraeus engaged in a similar strategy of appeasing and co-opting local Islamists and Baathists in Mosul, appointing them to key positions in the police and border security. In November 2004, after Petraeus went home and the money with which the 101st Airborne subsidized them dried up, the Islamists and Baathists with whom Petraeus had partnered handed the keys to the city to the insurgents. Too many journalists, cultivated by Petraeus, blamed the 25th Infantry which succeeded the 101stThat was both unfair and inaccurate.

America’s memory is notoriously short-term, but simply empowering those who consistently fail at the ballot box and refuse to accept both the legitimacy of the elected government and the fact that they cannot once again dominate 70 percent of the country who happen to be Shi’ite would be to make the same mistake three times.

A new government will benefit Iraq, but sometimes the key to making peace possible is to defeat terror and its supporters, not to reward it or to blame the victim.

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A Tale of Two Surges

In Friday’s “Notable & Quotable,” the Wall Street Journal quoted then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s famous remark at the September 11, 2007 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where she told Gen. David Petraeus his testimony on the Iraq “surge” required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It was her sophisticated way of telling him she thought he was peddling fiction.

That day, Gen. Petraeus also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Barack Obama and John Kerry were members. Obama told Petraeus he wanted “an immediate removal of our troops” and a policy that “surges our diplomacy.” He wanted “in a bipartisan way to figure out how to best move forward, to extricate this from the day-to-day politics that infects Washington.” Clinton and Obama would later admit to each other that their opposition to the surge had been political.

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In Friday’s “Notable & Quotable,” the Wall Street Journal quoted then-Sen. Hillary Clinton’s famous remark at the September 11, 2007 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, where she told Gen. David Petraeus his testimony on the Iraq “surge” required “the willing suspension of disbelief.” It was her sophisticated way of telling him she thought he was peddling fiction.

That day, Gen. Petraeus also testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, of which Barack Obama and John Kerry were members. Obama told Petraeus he wanted “an immediate removal of our troops” and a policy that “surges our diplomacy.” He wanted “in a bipartisan way to figure out how to best move forward, to extricate this from the day-to-day politics that infects Washington.” Clinton and Obama would later admit to each other that their opposition to the surge had been political.

Kerry told Petraeus the day was “historic”–because “not since the country heard from General Westmoreland, almost 40 years ago, has an active-duty general played such an important role in the national debate.” Kerry said he wanted to remind everyone that:

[A]lmost half the names that found their way etched into the Vietnam Wall after Westmoreland’s testimony found their way there when our leaders had acknowledged, in retrospect, that they knew the policy was not working, and would not work. And all you need do to underline this chilling fact is read Defense Secretary McNamara’s books …

The following year, Barack Obama was elected president, and faced in his first year the need for a “surge” in Afghanistan. He approved it only after an excruciatingly long series of White House meetings and gave the military less than they had requested. In an excerpt from his memoir yesterday in the Wall Street Journal, former Defense Secretary Robert Gates recounted the November 2009 Oval Office meeting with Gen. Petraeus and Adm. Michael Mullen in which Obama discussed the basis on which he had decided to go forward, with Obama and Biden giving what they described as an “order” for the military to follow Obama’s decision:

That Sunday meeting was unlike any I ever attended in the Oval Office … I was shocked. I had never heard a president explicitly frame a decision as a direct order. With the U.S. military, it is completely unnecessary … Obama’s “order,” at Biden’s urging, demonstrated the complete unfamiliarity of both men with the American military culture … In the end, this major national security debate had been driven more by the White House staff and domestic politics than any other in my entire experience. The president’s political operatives wanted to make sure that everyone knew the Pentagon wouldn’t get its way.

The next day, Obama announced his decision in his televised West Point speech, in which he said the additional troops would “allow us to begin the transfer of our forces out of Afghanistan in July of 2011 … taking into account conditions on the ground.” Obama had simultaneously announced a surge and a withdrawal–a counter-productive combination. The Gates excerpt does not deal with what followed, but Jonathan Alter summarized it succinctly in his 2010 book on Obama’s first year as president:

It didn’t take long for Clinton, Gates, and Petraeus to begin endorsing nation-building and exploiting their “conditions on the ground” loophole. Testifying the day after Obama’s speech, Gates told a House committee, “I have adamantly opposed deadlines. I opposed them in Iraq and I opposed them in Afghanistan.” At the Pentagon the message coursing through the building was the summer of 2011 didn’t really mean the summer of 2011. The president was unperturbed. Obama’s attitude was “I’m president. I don’t give a shit what they say. I’m drawing down those troops” said one senior official who saw him nearly every day.

By early 2011, Gates concluded that Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” It had been the “good war” for purposes of the 2008 campaign, a way for Obama to distinguish his opposition to the Iraq war. But once in office, it became for Obama, as Rich Lowry writes, “the insincere war,” fought half-heartedly, with a goal not of winning but getting out.

More than three-fourths of the names on some future Afghanistan memorial wall will be those of American soldiers who died under a commander-in-chief contemptuous of the military, whose foreign policy was (to use Bret Stephens’s expression in this incisive video on the Gates book) “the conduct of politics by other means”–a chilling fact now underlined by a former secretary of defense’s book.

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What Gates Gets Wrong

Many on the right have seized upon former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s criticism of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton in his new book to show the cravenness of behavior and their treatment of American soldiers in harm’s way as political footballs. That may all be true, but as with the lionization of Ryan Crocker (who has embraced unconditional talks not only with Iran but also Hezbollah) and David Petraeus (who repeatedly sought to appease radical Islamists and unrepentant Baathists and wanted also to engage with Bashar al-Assad in Syria), there is a danger in amplifying Gates’s welcome criticism into an imprimatur of statesman-like wisdom.

As Hugh Hewitt pointed out during a conversation on his radio show last Wednesday, the paragraph in the excerpts of Gates’s book that too many experts overlook is this:

Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike—as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.

Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do—and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.

First, let’s put aside Gates’s legacy statement that “too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort.” That seems a straw man argument, and a cheap one at that: Who exactly with any credibility on issues calls for U.S. force as the first option? The Iraq war was launched as the sanctions regime was collapsing after failing for 13 years to bring Saddam in from the cold. The intelligence regarding Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was faulty, but what was not—and was confirmed subsequently from seized Iraqi documents—was that Saddam sought to restore his capability after the international community abandoned sanctions.

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Many on the right have seized upon former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s criticism of President Obama, Vice President Biden, and Secretary of State Clinton in his new book to show the cravenness of behavior and their treatment of American soldiers in harm’s way as political footballs. That may all be true, but as with the lionization of Ryan Crocker (who has embraced unconditional talks not only with Iran but also Hezbollah) and David Petraeus (who repeatedly sought to appease radical Islamists and unrepentant Baathists and wanted also to engage with Bashar al-Assad in Syria), there is a danger in amplifying Gates’s welcome criticism into an imprimatur of statesman-like wisdom.

As Hugh Hewitt pointed out during a conversation on his radio show last Wednesday, the paragraph in the excerpts of Gates’s book that too many experts overlook is this:

Wars are a lot easier to get into than out of. Those who ask about exit strategies or question what will happen if assumptions prove wrong are rarely welcome at the conference table when the fire-breathers are demanding that we strike—as they did when advocating invading Iraq, intervening in Libya and Syria, or bombing Iran’s nuclear sites. But in recent decades, presidents confronted with tough problems abroad have too often been too quick to reach for a gun. Our foreign and national security policy has become too militarized, the use of force too easy for presidents.

Today, too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort. On the left, we hear about the “responsibility to protect” civilians to justify military intervention in Libya, Syria, Sudan and elsewhere. On the right, the failure to strike Syria or Iran is deemed an abdication of U.S. leadership. And so the rest of the world sees the U.S. as a militaristic country quick to launch planes, cruise missiles and drones deep into sovereign countries or ungoverned spaces. There are limits to what even the strongest and greatest nation on Earth can do—and not every outrage, act of aggression, oppression or crisis should elicit a U.S. military response.

First, let’s put aside Gates’s legacy statement that “too many ideologues call for U.S. force as the first option rather than a last resort.” That seems a straw man argument, and a cheap one at that: Who exactly with any credibility on issues calls for U.S. force as the first option? The Iraq war was launched as the sanctions regime was collapsing after failing for 13 years to bring Saddam in from the cold. The intelligence regarding Saddam’s possession of weapons of mass destruction was faulty, but what was not—and was confirmed subsequently from seized Iraqi documents—was that Saddam sought to restore his capability after the international community abandoned sanctions.

While Gates is certainly right that the decision to utilize military force should not be taken lightly, he fails to consider what happens should resistance to military force allow problems to spread. Take the case of Syria: Two and a half years ago, the United States had the way but not the will to catalyze the conflict’s end and President Bashar al-Assad’s ouster before Syria became a magnet for international jihadism. The opposition had radicalized today not only to the extent that it dooms Syria but also will threaten many other countries throughout the region as their citizens fighting with radicals in Syria return home. Moroccan security experts believe, for example, that perhaps 600 Moroccans have joined jihadi groups inside Syria. Tunisia, Jordan, and Turkey will face similar blowback, all of which more decisive action in a limited window might have prevented. Likewise, while the Obama administration celebrated its “leading from behind” approach toward Libya, the American desire to take a hands-off approach to the situation on the ground meant that no one secured ousted Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s weapons caches. Not only will we eventually pay the price for the surface-to-air missiles which went missing, but the collapse of Mali into civil war was a direct result of the resulting flow of Libyan weapons to terrorist movements across the Sahel.

Gates also seems not to understand the danger of signaling emptiness to American red lines. Not only during the Obama administration, but also during the Republican and Democratic administrations which preceded him, a tremendous gap has developed between the rhetoric of policy and its reality. That encourages international rogues to test the line. When they become too overconfident or improperly assess American resolve, the result can be devastating.

Gates’ frustration when testifying in Congress also gained press attention. “I may be the secretary of defense, but I am also an American citizen, and there is no son of a bitch in the world who can talk to me like that. I quit,” he wrote, adding, “It was, I am confident, a fantasy widely shared throughout the executive branch.” Again here his umbrage is dangerous. Anyone who has testified before Congress knows that they are mere props for representatives and senators who are speaking more for the television or their constituents than to the item at hand. Still, the job of Congress is oversight and the notion either that such oversight should be mitigated for the ego of a secretary, or that the thin skins of senior executives within the United States government mean that words must be crafted to a kindergarten code is nonsense. Had the Pentagon’s own congressional liaisons done a better job, perhaps such exchanges would not have been so testy, but the Pentagon’s congressional liaisons are not the most effective bunch, as the culture of the Pentagon does not encourage the type of glad-handing, back-slapping, alcohol-imbibing culture that permeates Congress and its staff.

It would be nice if everyone was nice and demonstrated class, but if senior officials cannot put up with the likes of Carl Levin, John McCain, or Rand Paul, then they should not be trusted to deal with Cuba, Iran, and North Korea. That said, had the cynicism of Obama, Biden, and Clinton really frustrated Gates to the extent he suggests, then he should have quit for, by doing so, he literally could have put his money where his mouth was and changed the debate when it still mattered.

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Kirkuk and Mosul: A Tale of Two Cities

For the past few days, I have been calling Kirkuk, Iraq, home. Kirkuk, of course, is the city that, prior to Iraq’s liberation, policymakers and journalists worried about most. The reason is simple: In a country that does not reward diversity, Kirkuk has a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen; and Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Christians. Above ground, various groups jockeyed over land and property. Below ground, they fought over vast reserves of oil. Not surprisingly, both the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government based in Erbil continue dispute the final status of the city.

While I have been a frequent visitor to Kirkuk over the past decade, I have not been to the city in three years. What has transpired over that time—and specifically during the tenure of current governor Najmaldin Karim—is amazing. What’s changed since my last visit? No longer is electricity available only six hours a day: At present, Kirkukis enjoy 20-22 hours, and that during the summer season of peak demand. The ring roads are paved, as are many secondary streets. Fancy street lights add a touch of class to the city. Dusty, trash-strewn road islands are now planted with a variety of trees. Curbs are painted, as are many buildings. New stores have opened, and residents enjoy parks and amusement parks. Hospitals are getting better, and many schools have gotten a facelift. Importantly, all local residents appear to benefit equally; there has been no ethnic or sectarian chauvinism on the part of the current government. That is not merely the finding of diplomats, but is also the firm conclusion of the city’s diverse taxi drivers—perhaps the most honest purveyors of local opinion. Kirkuk shows what can be done when government works for the people rather than for itself.

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For the past few days, I have been calling Kirkuk, Iraq, home. Kirkuk, of course, is the city that, prior to Iraq’s liberation, policymakers and journalists worried about most. The reason is simple: In a country that does not reward diversity, Kirkuk has a mixed population of Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen; and Sunnis, Shi’ites, and Christians. Above ground, various groups jockeyed over land and property. Below ground, they fought over vast reserves of oil. Not surprisingly, both the Iraqi central government in Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government based in Erbil continue dispute the final status of the city.

While I have been a frequent visitor to Kirkuk over the past decade, I have not been to the city in three years. What has transpired over that time—and specifically during the tenure of current governor Najmaldin Karim—is amazing. What’s changed since my last visit? No longer is electricity available only six hours a day: At present, Kirkukis enjoy 20-22 hours, and that during the summer season of peak demand. The ring roads are paved, as are many secondary streets. Fancy street lights add a touch of class to the city. Dusty, trash-strewn road islands are now planted with a variety of trees. Curbs are painted, as are many buildings. New stores have opened, and residents enjoy parks and amusement parks. Hospitals are getting better, and many schools have gotten a facelift. Importantly, all local residents appear to benefit equally; there has been no ethnic or sectarian chauvinism on the part of the current government. That is not merely the finding of diplomats, but is also the firm conclusion of the city’s diverse taxi drivers—perhaps the most honest purveyors of local opinion. Kirkuk shows what can be done when government works for the people rather than for itself.

Just one hundred miles away from Kirkuk lies Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul. I was in Mosul a few years ago, but I was strongly advised not to visit this trip: The city has become too dangerous. It remains a hotbed both of Baathist insurgency and al-Qaeda. Recent visitors—both Kurdish and Arab—say that it is in a deplorable state. The problem is not lack of resources, but rather poor management. While Kirkuk spent 96 percent of the money allocated to it by the central government, Mosul spent only four percent because its government simply cannot get the job done (the government funds provinces with sequential payments; when funds at hand are spent, governors can apply for their province’s next installment). While roads are paved in Kirkuk, Mosul still deals with open sewage and crumbling infrastructure. As the temperature regularly climbs above 100 degrees across Iraq, Kirkukis enjoy ice cream and air conditioning. The Moslawis swelter.

How to explain the difference? Certainly, Najmaldin is more competent than his predecessors and remains squeaky clean, a rarity in a nation where corruption has since the 1980s been the norm. There is another explanation which Iraqis offer, however, that will not be popular among Americans: David Petraeus.

Iraqis assess Petraeus’s legacy far differently than do many Americans. While commander of the 101st Airborne, Petraeus was effectively king of Mosul. He pursued three main policies during his tenure:

  • First, he sought to increase trade with Syria on the theory that such trade would benefit Mosul’s economy. While commander, he famously bragged to a visiting American delegation about how much he had augmented cross-border trade, even as that trade facilitated an influx of Syrians and others who did not consider Iraqi security an objective to promote.
  • Second, he sought to counter de-Baathification by appointing senior Baathists to both government and security positions.
  • Lastly, he sought to appease some of the more radical Islamists, often through creative use of some of the funds at his disposal.

For a time, Petraeus’s strategy appeared to work: So long as the money flowed, there was quiet. But as soon as such funds dried up, all hell broke loose. It was a myth held too highly among some in the army that only Baathists had the capacity to manage; the fact of the matter is that many Baathists retained their municipal positions not because of competence but because of politics. Scores of perfectly competent Iraqis, meanwhile, did not compromise themselves morally in order to work under Saddam’s regime. Some of these men took jobs in Kirkuk. Alas, many of the men to whom Petraeus reached out remain entrenched in Mosul, enjoying the perks of titles but not having the capacity to manage. Several are actively engaged in terrorism. The misery to which they condemn Mosul keeps grievance alive. Blaming Baghdad is not an option: In both Mosul and Kirkuk, Baghdad’s influence is more theoretical than real. Both cities have de facto autonomy by distance to implement the programs they desire. In neither city is the ruling Da’wa Party strong, and yet one succeeds where the other fails.

While Petraeus rehabilitated Baathists and Islamists, Kirkuk—the city which was by all accounts supposed to be Iraq’s flashpoint—purged Baathists and refused to pay off extremists. Today, the difference between short-term appeasement and more principled governance is on full display in the juxtaposition between the two cities. Petraeus may be a patriot and a well-regarded military tactician, but when it came to civilian affairs and, indeed, those living with his signature counterinsurgency policies, his reputation may be less well-deserved.

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Inside Obama’s Syria Paralysis

The Wall Street Journal had a long article this weekend on the Obama administration’s decision-making process with regard to Syria. You can read the whole thing here if you have a WSJ.com subscription. My takeaway is that the administration’s deliberations do not inspire much confidence. As Journal reporter Adam Entous notes, the “process has been slowed by internal divisions, miscalculations and bureaucratic inertia.”

Former CIA Director David Petraeus emerges as the strongest proponent within the administration of arming moderate Syrian rebels. He had the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but she “and other advocates of arming the rebels didn’t in the end aggressively push for the initiative… as it became clear where Mr. Obama stood, according to current and former administration officials.” As this passage shows, the president has been the biggest obstacle to a more active role to end the slaughter in Syria. His “Syria strategy is emblematic,” the article notes, “of the administration’s policy of limiting Washington’s role as global policeman.”

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The Wall Street Journal had a long article this weekend on the Obama administration’s decision-making process with regard to Syria. You can read the whole thing here if you have a WSJ.com subscription. My takeaway is that the administration’s deliberations do not inspire much confidence. As Journal reporter Adam Entous notes, the “process has been slowed by internal divisions, miscalculations and bureaucratic inertia.”

Former CIA Director David Petraeus emerges as the strongest proponent within the administration of arming moderate Syrian rebels. He had the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but she “and other advocates of arming the rebels didn’t in the end aggressively push for the initiative… as it became clear where Mr. Obama stood, according to current and former administration officials.” As this passage shows, the president has been the biggest obstacle to a more active role to end the slaughter in Syria. His “Syria strategy is emblematic,” the article notes, “of the administration’s policy of limiting Washington’s role as global policeman.”

The president has been so desperate to stay on the sidelines, in spite of ample evidence that a standoffish American attitude is making the crisis worse, that he has fallen time and again to the lure of wishful thinking—imaging that Assad might be forced out by the rebels last summer or that a diplomatic initiative by Kofi Annan could possibly succeed. The interagency committee working on Syria policy was directed, according to the Journal, to focus on planning for post-Assad Syria—while largely ignoring the substantial issue of how to get rid of Assad in the first place.

In the absence of resolution from the top, the bureaucracy generated various reasons for doing nothing—as is usually the case. The most egregious objections came from “lawyers at the White House and departments of Defense, State and Justice,” who “debated whether the U.S. had a ‘clear and credible’ legal justification under U.S. or international law for intervening militarily. The clearest legal case could be made if the U.S. won a U.N. or NATO mandate for using force. Neither route seemed viable: Russia would veto any Security Council resolution, and NATO wasn’t interested in a new military mission.”

Suffice it to say, if the president were remotely interested in a more active American role, legal opinions could easily be ginned up to provide ample justification for such a policy. And if the U.S. were serious about doing something, then NATO could very well be brought along. These are not serious obstacles to action—but rather excuses for inaction.

The consequences of that inaction are persuasively laid out today by Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post [http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/jackson-diehl-what-the-iraq-war-taught-me-about-syria/2013/03/31/5ef2e6d0-97b2-11e2-814b-063623d80a60_story.html]. He notes that U.S. influence in the Middle East survived the early setbacks in Iraq. But “now it is plummeting: Not just Britain and France but every neighbor of Syria has been shocked and awed by the failure of U.S. leadership. If it continues, Syria — not Iraq — will prove to be the turning point when America ceases to be regarded as what Bill Clinton called the ‘indispensable nation.’”

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Panetta’s Revelation

Leon Panetta made a fascinating disclosure in his congressional testimony on Thursday: He revealed that he had backed the proposal by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus last year to arm the Syrian rebels. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that he too was supportive. So if all of the major players on President Obama’s national security team were in favor, why was nothing done?

As Michael Gordon of the New York Times, who first broke the story about Clinton and Petraeus’s support for arming the rebels, put it: “The White House, however, was worried about the risks of getting more deeply involved in the crisis in Syria. And with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, the White House rebuffed the plan, rejecting the advice of most of the key members of Mr. Obama’s national security team.”

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Leon Panetta made a fascinating disclosure in his congressional testimony on Thursday: He revealed that he had backed the proposal by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus last year to arm the Syrian rebels. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, revealed that he too was supportive. So if all of the major players on President Obama’s national security team were in favor, why was nothing done?

As Michael Gordon of the New York Times, who first broke the story about Clinton and Petraeus’s support for arming the rebels, put it: “The White House, however, was worried about the risks of getting more deeply involved in the crisis in Syria. And with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, the White House rebuffed the plan, rejecting the advice of most of the key members of Mr. Obama’s national security team.”

No one disputes that the president is commander-in-chief and as such has the right to overrule his advisers: the buck, after all, does stop in the Oval Office. But it behooves the president to more fully explain his reasoning, lest the assumption become prevalent that this was a decision made for political rather than strategic reasons.

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Extremists’ Role in Syria Was Not Inevitable

The Obama administration is only beginning its second term, but it is already clear that its mishandling of Syria is turning out to be one of its biggest foreign policy failures. The evidence accumulates every day–whether in the form of more dead bodies piling up in Syria, or more refugees crowding neighboring countries, or more foreign jihadists rushing into Syria. Just yesterday the New York Times ran this interview with Hajji Marea, one of the most potent rebel commanders to emerge out of the fighting, who is quoted as follows:

“America keeps silent,” he said. “The way we see it as Arabs: If you are silent, then you are agreeing with what is happening.”

Sitting nearby, Abdel-Aziz Salameh, Al Tawhid’s political leader, warned that time was running short for the United States. “All the world has abandoned us,” he said. “If the revolution lasts for another year, you’ll see all the Syrian people like Al Qaeda; all the people will be like Al Qaeda.”

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The Obama administration is only beginning its second term, but it is already clear that its mishandling of Syria is turning out to be one of its biggest foreign policy failures. The evidence accumulates every day–whether in the form of more dead bodies piling up in Syria, or more refugees crowding neighboring countries, or more foreign jihadists rushing into Syria. Just yesterday the New York Times ran this interview with Hajji Marea, one of the most potent rebel commanders to emerge out of the fighting, who is quoted as follows:

“America keeps silent,” he said. “The way we see it as Arabs: If you are silent, then you are agreeing with what is happening.”

Sitting nearby, Abdel-Aziz Salameh, Al Tawhid’s political leader, warned that time was running short for the United States. “All the world has abandoned us,” he said. “If the revolution lasts for another year, you’ll see all the Syrian people like Al Qaeda; all the people will be like Al Qaeda.”

As some of us have been saying since the start of the revolt, there was nothing inevitable about the growing prominence of al-Qaeda; the extremists might have been sidelined by a more active American policy of support for the more moderate rebel factions.

The Times reveals this morning that this was precisely the policy option advocated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus last summer. “But,” the story continues, “with the White House worried about the risks, and with President Obama in the midst of a re-election bid, they were rebuffed.”

In other words, President Obama was so committed to his “tide of war is receding” mantra that he was willing to ignore a growing war in Syria so as not to run political risks during his reelection. The proposal to arm the rebels might have been given a serious look after the election were it not for the scandal which brought down Petraeus and the concussion which sidelined Clinton.

So now the White House appears committed indefinitely to a “lead from behind” strategy in Syria even as the evidence of that policy’s failure becomes starker every day.

One suspects that Clinton and Petraeus–along with Leon Panetta and, before him, Bob Gates–will be sorely missed in the second term. They were important advocates of a more moderate, centrist, activist American foreign policy. With their departure, there seems to be little standing in the way of a policy of retreat and retrenchment for which the U.S. and our allies are certain to pay a heavy price in the years ahead.

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The End of the Allen-Kelley “Scandal”

After Ray Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of labor, was cleared of corruption charges, he famously and plaintively asked, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” That is a question that General John Allen might be asking himself today.

Yesterday afternoon the press office at the Pentagon issued this terse statement: “Secretary Panetta has been informed that the Department’s Office of Inspector General has concluded an investigation into a matter involving General John Allen, U.S. Marine Corps.  The Secretary was pleased to learn that allegations of professional misconduct were not substantiated by the investigation.  The Secretary has complete confidence in the continued leadership of General Allen, who is serving with distinction in Afghanistan.”

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After Ray Donovan, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of labor, was cleared of corruption charges, he famously and plaintively asked, “Which office do I go to to get my reputation back?” That is a question that General John Allen might be asking himself today.

Yesterday afternoon the press office at the Pentagon issued this terse statement: “Secretary Panetta has been informed that the Department’s Office of Inspector General has concluded an investigation into a matter involving General John Allen, U.S. Marine Corps.  The Secretary was pleased to learn that allegations of professional misconduct were not substantiated by the investigation.  The Secretary has complete confidence in the continued leadership of General Allen, who is serving with distinction in Afghanistan.”

Thus ended the “scandal” that has been the subject of so much feverish press speculation since early November involving Allen’s emails with a Tampa socialite named Jill Kelley—a relationship that was brought to light as a result of the controversy which brought down David Petraeus. There were numerous leaks insinuating there was something inappropriate going on between Allen and Kelley which, even if true, would be none of the public’s business. It is ridiculous that this whole matter was referred for official investigation in the first place and that the investigation has lasted some two months, leaving a dark cloud hanging over Allen’s future just as he had to deliver politically sensitive recommendations for future force levels in Afghanistan.

Presumably Allen will now proceed to confirmation for his next job, as Supreme Allied Commander Europe. Let us hope that in that position he will have to fight only our nation’s enemies—not political snipers in Washington who engage in character assassination by innuendo.

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Secrecy, National Security, and the Case of John Kiriakou

Scott Shane of the New York Times has written a long and somewhat awkward article about the indictment, plea bargain, and federal prison sentencing of former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Long, because the story is complicated, and Shane must recount about a decade’s worth of national security history and policy to get us from A to Z. Awkward, because Shane is a prominent element in the federal indictment against Kiriakou.

At the heart of this case is information Kiriakou provided to Shane for a story, and to another reporter for a second story. We often see such stories play out through a drama in which reporters protect their sources and risk jail time to do so. But in this case, Shane could not protect Kiriakou, nor was it at all clear that Kiriakou would have needed such protection. Kiriakou became a minor media star in 2007 when he spoke out about the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding. Kiriakou defended the decision to waterboard in 2002 (“I think the second-guessing of 2002 decisions is unfair,” he told Shane) but was against the practice going forward. Shane asked Kiriakou about another CIA officer. Kiriakou said he knew the officer, and that the two had worked together in pursuit of Abu Zubaydah. The officer never agreed to talk to Shane, and had never been undercover. But Kiriakou’s email to Shane turned up in the indictment against him for revealing the identity of an agent.

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Scott Shane of the New York Times has written a long and somewhat awkward article about the indictment, plea bargain, and federal prison sentencing of former CIA officer John Kiriakou. Long, because the story is complicated, and Shane must recount about a decade’s worth of national security history and policy to get us from A to Z. Awkward, because Shane is a prominent element in the federal indictment against Kiriakou.

At the heart of this case is information Kiriakou provided to Shane for a story, and to another reporter for a second story. We often see such stories play out through a drama in which reporters protect their sources and risk jail time to do so. But in this case, Shane could not protect Kiriakou, nor was it at all clear that Kiriakou would have needed such protection. Kiriakou became a minor media star in 2007 when he spoke out about the agency’s use of enhanced interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding. Kiriakou defended the decision to waterboard in 2002 (“I think the second-guessing of 2002 decisions is unfair,” he told Shane) but was against the practice going forward. Shane asked Kiriakou about another CIA officer. Kiriakou said he knew the officer, and that the two had worked together in pursuit of Abu Zubaydah. The officer never agreed to talk to Shane, and had never been undercover. But Kiriakou’s email to Shane turned up in the indictment against him for revealing the identity of an agent.

Kiriakou is accused of revealing the name of that agent to Shane and one other agent to a different reporter. There are obvious questions here about the nature of the reporter-source relationship. Neither man in this case thought he was doing something unlawful or unethical. Nothing came of the disclosure. As Max wrote with regard to the scandal surrounding David Petraeus, some information remains officially classified or secret long after it has been revealed in the media. Thus, such information becomes common knowledge, yet discussing it is not decriminalized. The decision to investigate and prosecute such conversations, then, can smack of political motivation–all the more so for someone like Kiriakou, who became an uncommonly public figure for a CIA agent by leaving the agency and going public with his opinions about the CIA’s methods.

However, Shane remains an interested party here, with a clear preference for Kiriakou’s exoneration, both legally and personally, since Shane wants continued access to such sources and a clear conscience to do so. Thus, Shane’s readers will be subject to justifications and false choices that conveniently absolve him of guilt. In that vein, Shane writes on the Obama administration’s increased push for combating leaks it sees as unhelpful to the White House:

The resulting chill on officials’ willingness to talk is deplored by journalists and advocates of open government; without leaks, they note, Americans might never have learned about the C.I.A.’s interrogation methods or the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping. But for supporters of greater secrecy, the chill is precisely the goal.

This is, clearly, an overly simplistic view of the issue. First of all, not all leaks are created equal: some are legal and others break federal law. Second, some leaks are clearly damaging to national security, and thus put Americans in unnecessary danger. Some don’t. The press coverage of Washington is built around the use of leaks and unnamed sources, much of which is perfectly legal. The Times takes this practice to such an obsessive degree that reading the Times, one often expects to hear the week’s weather forecast followed by “according to an unnamed satellite who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he has not been authorized by the sun to discuss these matters.”

A good example of a damaging leak is the New York Times’s decision to publish in 2006 the details of a highly successful secret program used by the government to track the finances of terrorist activity. The program was legal and constitutional, but the Times saw an opportunity to damage the Bush administration’s national security efforts, and took it—safety of Americans be damned. Democrats and Republicans, experts and officials, pleaded with then-Times Executive Editor Bill Keller not to publish the story. Keller ignored them.

The point here is that neither the government nor the crusading journalist is always right. Rather, they both err in judgment or in law—and sometimes both. Shane asked a source for information that would land the source in a federal prison and nearly bankrupt his family, costing his wife her job as well. So the neat categories into which Shane seeks to divide the voices in this scandal are understandable, but that doesn’t make them any less mistaken or self-serving.

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Why Is Gen. Allen Still Under Investigation?

General John Allen is now back in Kabul, directing a major military campaign involving 68,000 U.S. troops and 37,000 allied troops. But he would have to be superhuman to keep his focus entirely on the war effort, for he is still under fire from the home front. According to the New York Times, “some 15 investigators” are “working seven days a week in the Pentagon inspector general’s office,” poring over emails exchanged between Allen and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, who struck up friendships with many senior military officers.

The question is: Why? Is there some credible evidence that Allen somehow compromised our national security by his interactions with Kelley? Is Kelley suspected of being an al-Qaeda mole? Is Allen suspected of being another Benedict Arnold? Not that I’m aware of. To judge by the numerous leaks that have accompanied this puzzling investigation, an outgrowth of the same investigation that already forced David Petraeus’s resignation as CIA director, the worst that could have occurred is that Allen and Kelley might have exchanged a few emails judged to be flirtatious or even salacious. Is this really a matter that should be occupying the full-time attention of 15 investigators—and diverting the attention of a general in command of a war zone?

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General John Allen is now back in Kabul, directing a major military campaign involving 68,000 U.S. troops and 37,000 allied troops. But he would have to be superhuman to keep his focus entirely on the war effort, for he is still under fire from the home front. According to the New York Times, “some 15 investigators” are “working seven days a week in the Pentagon inspector general’s office,” poring over emails exchanged between Allen and Tampa socialite Jill Kelley, who struck up friendships with many senior military officers.

The question is: Why? Is there some credible evidence that Allen somehow compromised our national security by his interactions with Kelley? Is Kelley suspected of being an al-Qaeda mole? Is Allen suspected of being another Benedict Arnold? Not that I’m aware of. To judge by the numerous leaks that have accompanied this puzzling investigation, an outgrowth of the same investigation that already forced David Petraeus’s resignation as CIA director, the worst that could have occurred is that Allen and Kelley might have exchanged a few emails judged to be flirtatious or even salacious. Is this really a matter that should be occupying the full-time attention of 15 investigators—and diverting the attention of a general in command of a war zone?

Unless there is some bombshell here waiting to explode, the answer is a definitive no. So why did Attorney General Eric Holder and FBI Director Robert Mueller permit the FBI to waste time on this investigation—and why is Defense Secretary Leon Panetta wasting time on it now? I can’t answer those questions, but Congress should ask for itself and demand answers.

The biggest scandal in the whole Petraeus-Allen affair is that we are wasting taxpayer resources hounding two great generals who have dedicated their lives to defending our country over purely personal matters of no concern to their public duties.

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CBS: DNI Changed Talking Points

CBS reports that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence removed references to terrorism from the CIA talking points before distribution:

CBS News has learned that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) cut specific references to “al Qaeda” and “terrorism” from the unclassified talking points given to Ambassador Susan Rice on the Benghazi consulate attack – with the agreement of the CIA and FBI. The White House or State Department did not make those changes. …

However, an intelligence source tells CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan the links to al Qaeda were deemed too “tenuous” to make public, because there was not strong confidence in the person providing the intelligence. CIA Director David Petraeus, however, told Congress he agreed to release the information — the reference to al Qaeda — in an early draft of the talking points, which were also distributed to select lawmakers. …

The head of the DNI is James Clapper, an Obama appointee. He ultimately did review the points, before they were given to Ambassador Rice and members of the House intelligence committee on Sept. 14. They were compiled the day before.

Brennan says her source wouldn’t confirm who in the agency suggested the final edits which were signed off on by all intelligence agencies.

First, the CIA answers to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, so the whole notion that the CIA “agreed” to the changes is moot. They “agreed” to the changes because they were told to by the ODNI. Second, Clapper is clearly sprinting from this — the responsibility for the changes is pinned vaguely on the “Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” without much mention of him. The article actually leaves open the possibility that somebody else within the ODNI changed the talking points without running the changes by Clapper first, as if that’s believable.

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CBS reports that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence removed references to terrorism from the CIA talking points before distribution:

CBS News has learned that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) cut specific references to “al Qaeda” and “terrorism” from the unclassified talking points given to Ambassador Susan Rice on the Benghazi consulate attack – with the agreement of the CIA and FBI. The White House or State Department did not make those changes. …

However, an intelligence source tells CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan the links to al Qaeda were deemed too “tenuous” to make public, because there was not strong confidence in the person providing the intelligence. CIA Director David Petraeus, however, told Congress he agreed to release the information — the reference to al Qaeda — in an early draft of the talking points, which were also distributed to select lawmakers. …

The head of the DNI is James Clapper, an Obama appointee. He ultimately did review the points, before they were given to Ambassador Rice and members of the House intelligence committee on Sept. 14. They were compiled the day before.

Brennan says her source wouldn’t confirm who in the agency suggested the final edits which were signed off on by all intelligence agencies.

First, the CIA answers to the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, so the whole notion that the CIA “agreed” to the changes is moot. They “agreed” to the changes because they were told to by the ODNI. Second, Clapper is clearly sprinting from this — the responsibility for the changes is pinned vaguely on the “Office of the Director of National Intelligence,” without much mention of him. The article actually leaves open the possibility that somebody else within the ODNI changed the talking points without running the changes by Clapper first, as if that’s believable.

It’s not the first time Clapper has tried to distance himself from his own office, either; back in September, DNI spokesperson Shawn Turner issued a statement in September about the “changing assessment” on Benghazi, and it was noted at the time that this statement did not come from Clapper himself.

This quote in the CBS article, from Turner, also raises more questions:

“The intelligence community assessed from the very beginning that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack,” DNI spokesman Shawn Turner tells CBS News. That information was shared at a classified level — which Rice, as a member of President Obama’s cabinet, would have been privy to.

So President Obama, Rice, Clapper and others were aware this was a terrorist attack “from the very beginning.” Why wouldn’t they acknowledge this publicly for nearly two weeks? What’s more, Turner’s comment contradicts that same DNI statement he issued on Sept. 28:

In the immediate aftermath, there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo. We provided that initial assessment to Executive Branch officials and members of Congress, who used that information to discuss the attack publicly and provide updates as they became available. …

As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists. It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to al-Qa’ida.

CBS reports the White House wasn’t aware of the talking point changes, but is that believable? There were signs in the past that the DNI position was being politicized and micro-managed by the Obama White House, an atmosphere that eventually led to Dennis Blair’s resignation. Shortly after the failed Christmas Day bombing, Blair seemed to hint at the political pressure publicly during a House Intelligence Committee hearing. “I just can’t control all of the politics,” he told the committee. “The political dimension of what can be [and what] ought to be a national security issue has been quite high…I don’t think it’s been very particularly good, I will tell you, from the inside in terms of us trying to get the right job done to protect the United States.”

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Did White House Edit CIA Talking Points?

David Petraeus reportedly told Congress on Friday that the original CIA talking points linked the Benghazi attack to terrorism, but that part was edited out by unknown officials before distribution. The question is, who edited the talking points, and was it politically motivated?

According to Senator Saxby Chambliss, every agency that could have made these changes also pleaded ignorance at Friday’s closed-door hearing. The one entity that wasn’t at the hearing and could have changed the talking points? The White House

Leaders from the State Department, FBI, CIA, including former CIA Director David Petraeus, testified on Thursday and Friday. Regarding the allegations that the original CIA talking points had been changed so that terrorist involvement was not included, Sen. Chambliss said, “Everybody there was asked do you know who made these changes; and nobody knew. The only entity that reviewed the talking points that was not there was the White House.”

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David Petraeus reportedly told Congress on Friday that the original CIA talking points linked the Benghazi attack to terrorism, but that part was edited out by unknown officials before distribution. The question is, who edited the talking points, and was it politically motivated?

According to Senator Saxby Chambliss, every agency that could have made these changes also pleaded ignorance at Friday’s closed-door hearing. The one entity that wasn’t at the hearing and could have changed the talking points? The White House

Leaders from the State Department, FBI, CIA, including former CIA Director David Petraeus, testified on Thursday and Friday. Regarding the allegations that the original CIA talking points had been changed so that terrorist involvement was not included, Sen. Chambliss said, “Everybody there was asked do you know who made these changes; and nobody knew. The only entity that reviewed the talking points that was not there was the White House.”

That’s not exactly proof the White House made the edits. It could turn out the FBI, State Department or CIA weren’t being totally up-front at the hearing, and one of them was responsible for the changes. Both the State Department and CIA would have had at least some motive to play up the “spontaneous demonstration” narrative. State, because of all the security red flags it ignored prior to the attack, and the CIA because it didn’t want its Benghazi assets exposed.

Spokesman Ben Rhodes also denied the White House was involved in a briefing Saturday (h/t Erika Johnson):

Now, in terms of — I think the focus of this has often been on the public statements that were made by Susan Rice and other administration officials in that first week after the attack.  Those were informed by unclassified talking points that we — that were provided to the Congress and to the interagency — the rest of the administration by the intelligence community. …

What we also said yesterday, though — because this question came up as to whether the White House had edited Susan Rice’s points and the points that were provided to Congress and the administration — the only edit that was made to those points by the White House, and was also made by the State Department, was to change the word “consulate” to “diplomatic facility” since the facility in Benghazi had not — was not formally a consulate.  Other than that, we worked off of the points that were provided by the intelligence community.  So I can’t speak to any other edits that may have been made within the intelligence community.

This should be fairly easy to clear up, especially if the only entities that reviewed the talking points were the FBI, the CIA, the State Department and the White House, as Chambliss indicates. If the White House knows that the State Department changed “consulate” to “diplomatic facility” — a relatively minor technical edit — then surely somebody at one of these agencies knows who removed the references to terrorism.

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Petraeus’s Phony Critics

The most unseemly aspect of the scandal surrounding David Petraeus is the gleeful Schadenfreude being exhibited by so many who are eager to kick a great man when he is temporarily down. One of the most egregious and nauseating examples is this New York Times op-ed by Lucian Truscott IV entitled “A Phony Hero for a Phony War.” It is insulting not only to Petraeus but to all those men and women who have served valiantly and at great risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Truscott is a West Point graduate with a famous name–his grandfather, Lucian Truscott Jr., was a notable general in World War II. Truscott IV, to judge by his preening description of himself, has rather less achievements to his name; he did not last long in the army and has made a career as a freelance writer and screenwriter, often sniping at the military establishment. He is apparently so in thrall to his grandfather and his contemporaries that he seems to think that no modern general can possibly measure up. “Iraq wasn’t a real war at all,” he sneers, which will come as news to the thousands of Americans killed there and the tens of thousands injured.

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The most unseemly aspect of the scandal surrounding David Petraeus is the gleeful Schadenfreude being exhibited by so many who are eager to kick a great man when he is temporarily down. One of the most egregious and nauseating examples is this New York Times op-ed by Lucian Truscott IV entitled “A Phony Hero for a Phony War.” It is insulting not only to Petraeus but to all those men and women who have served valiantly and at great risk in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Truscott is a West Point graduate with a famous name–his grandfather, Lucian Truscott Jr., was a notable general in World War II. Truscott IV, to judge by his preening description of himself, has rather less achievements to his name; he did not last long in the army and has made a career as a freelance writer and screenwriter, often sniping at the military establishment. He is apparently so in thrall to his grandfather and his contemporaries that he seems to think that no modern general can possibly measure up. “Iraq wasn’t a real war at all,” he sneers, which will come as news to the thousands of Americans killed there and the tens of thousands injured.

Then he attacks Petraeus for supposedly not leading “his own Army to win anything even approximating a victory in either Iraq or Afghanistan,” which rather ignores that Petraeus actually did deliver something close to victory in Iraq under extremely difficult circumstances in 2008–only to have his achievements squandered by the Obama administration. As for Afghanistan, he set the campaign on a course toward success even if he was not given the time–or resources–to see it through to as successful a conclusion as the campaign in Iraq.

Truscott continues: “It’s not just General Petraeus. The fact is that none of our generals have led us to a victory since men like Patton and my grandfather, Lucian King Truscott Jr., stormed the beaches of North Africa and southern France with blood in their eyes and military murder on their minds.” It seems that Patton and old man Truscott “were nearly psychotic in their drive to kill enemy soldiers and subjugate enemy nations”; they “chewed nails for breakfast, spit tacks at lunch and picked their teeth with their pistol barrels,” while “General Petraeus probably flosses.”

There is more of this same risible name-calling, including the truly astonishing claim that Petraeus is too concerned with his personal appearance (“never has so much beribboned finery decorated a general’s uniform”)–as if Petraeus were remotely in the same league as Patton who was known for his riding breeches, highly polished helmet, and ivory-handled pistols.

I search in vain for a serious point here. There is none. Rather this is sheer animus against Petraeus animated by runaway nostalgia for the Greatest Generation, which ignores the fact that most wars before and since World War II could not be ended by marching on the enemy’s capital to demand unconditional surrender. Where, after all, is the capital of the Taliban or al-Qaeda in Iraq? Petraeus and the troops under his command did extremely well in dealing with in dealing with a more diffuse enemy that could not simply be pounded into submission with massive firepower because he did not wear a uniform or control a well-defined territory.

“Guerrilla war is more intellectual than a bayonet charge,” T.E. Lawrence said. Petraeus was smart enough, dedicated enough, and capable enough to rise to the challenge of understanding and fighting that type of war. In the annals of counterinsurgency he is one of the all-time greats. Now, as payback for a lifetime of service, he gets insulted by sideline spitballers like Lucian Truscott IV.

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AP: Petraeus Testified CIA Talking Points Were Altered

During closed-door hearings with the House and Senate intelligence committees today, David Petraeus reportedly told lawmakers that the CIA “talking points” issued after the attack — which supported the “spontaneous demonstration” narrative — were altered by other agencies prior to distribution. AP reports:

Lawmakers said Petraeus testified that the CIA’s draft talking points written in response to the assault on the diplomat post in Benghazi that killed four Americans referred to it as a terrorist attack. But Petraeus told the lawmakers that reference was removed from the final version, although he wasn’t sure which federal agency took out the reference. …

Petraeus testified that the CIA draft written in response to the raid referred to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but those names were replaced with the word “extremist” in the final draft, according to a congressional staffer. The staffer said Petraeus testified that he allowed other agencies to alter the talking points as they saw fit without asking for final review, to get them out quickly.

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During closed-door hearings with the House and Senate intelligence committees today, David Petraeus reportedly told lawmakers that the CIA “talking points” issued after the attack — which supported the “spontaneous demonstration” narrative — were altered by other agencies prior to distribution. AP reports:

Lawmakers said Petraeus testified that the CIA’s draft talking points written in response to the assault on the diplomat post in Benghazi that killed four Americans referred to it as a terrorist attack. But Petraeus told the lawmakers that reference was removed from the final version, although he wasn’t sure which federal agency took out the reference. …

Petraeus testified that the CIA draft written in response to the raid referred to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) but those names were replaced with the word “extremist” in the final draft, according to a congressional staffer. The staffer said Petraeus testified that he allowed other agencies to alter the talking points as they saw fit without asking for final review, to get them out quickly.

The references to a terrorist attack, Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaeda were apparently replaced with the line: “There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.” That changes the entire meaning of the talking points, yet Democrats quickly downplayed the notion that the alteration was politically-motivated:

Democrats said Petraeus made it clear the change was not made for political reasons during President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.

“The general was adamant there was no politicization of the process, no White House interference or political agenda,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. “He completely debunked that idea.”

OK, but if Petraeus doesn’t even know which agency or official altered the talking points, how would he possibly know if the change was political or not? Here’s more from the Democrats:

Schiff said Petraeus said Rice’s comments in the television interviews “reflected the best intelligence at the time that could be released publicly.”

“There was an interagency process to draft it, not a political process,” Schiff said. “They came up with the best assessment without compromising classified information or source or methods. So changes were made to protect classified information.

It’s one thing to remove specific details to protect sensitive information. But the draft references to Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaeda are evidence that at the very least the administration strongly suspected these groups were involved from the beginning. In that case, why not just say the investigation into the terrorist attack was ongoing, and leave it at that until more information could be shared? It seems totally irrational to just chalk it up to a spontaneous demonstration, and then cling to that story for nearly two weeks.

Petraeus’s testimony is puzzling for other reasons. As director of the CIA, it’s hard to believe he wouldn’t know who altered the talking points and wouldn’t look them over before distribution. This is the memo that sets much of the “official” narrative in the wake of an attack. And it’s not like these were minor edits. The gulf between calling it a terrorist attack involving al-Qaeda and calling it a spontaneous demonstration is enormous. As with much of what we learn about Benghazi, we’re left again with more questions than answers.

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Petraeus to Testify “CIA Talking Points” Didn’t Come From CIA?

CNN reports that David Petraeus will testify today in a closed-door hearing with the Senate Intelligence Committee that he knew the Benghazi attack was an act of terrorism carried out by Ansar al Sharia “almost immediately.” What’s more, he will reportedly distance himself from Susan Rice’s “spontaneous demonstration” talking points, which were ostensibly given to her by the CIA. Video and partial transcript below (h/t The Weekly Standard’s Dan Halper):

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CNN reports that David Petraeus will testify today in a closed-door hearing with the Senate Intelligence Committee that he knew the Benghazi attack was an act of terrorism carried out by Ansar al Sharia “almost immediately.” What’s more, he will reportedly distance himself from Susan Rice’s “spontaneous demonstration” talking points, which were ostensibly given to her by the CIA. Video and partial transcript below (h/t The Weekly Standard’s Dan Halper):

David Petraeus is going to tell members of Congress that he “knew almost immediately after the September 11th attack, that the group Ansar al Sharia, the al Qaeda sympathizing group in Libya was responsible for the attacks,” CNN reports. …

“When he looks at what Susan Rice said,” CNN reports, “here is what Petraeus’s take is, according to my source. Petraeus developed some talking points laying it all out. those talking points as always were approved by the intelligence community. But then he sees Susan Rice make her statements and he sees input from other areas of the administration. Petraeus — it is believed — will tell the committee he is not certain where Susan Rice got all of her information.”

We’ve known since early October that the initial CIA talking points referred to a “spontaneous reaction” and downplayed the possibility of terrorism. But that clashed with reports that the intelligence community had early indications that it was a terrorist attack involving Ansar al-Sharia. There has been speculation that the unclassified CIA talking points (handed out to members of Congress and administration officials) were more of a political document than an informational one, and may not have originated from the CIA at all. If CNN is right and Petraeus does testify that he had nothing to do with the talking points, the next question is, where did they come from and why didn’t they match the intelligence?

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Petraeus Betrayed the Team

I had meant to write this a couple days ago, but as I was doing so, the motherboard on my 3-month-old laptop died. It’s fixed now, and so I’ve gotten my work back, and I think some of these points remain relevant, even as the story moves on. Jonathan Tobin has argued that Petraeus was right to resign, and I largely agree with his excellent points, but want to add one: I’m not so concerned about how unfair it is that more senior leaders like Bill Clinton not only cheated on their wives, but survived politically with even greater popularity. A military officer like Petraeus should be held to a higher standard than even the commander-in-chief.

Every officer and his or her spouse are a team. At every level of David Petraeus’s career, Holly Petraeus was his often unacknowledged partner not only in terms of personal support, but also in career. Officers’ wives are active not only in the military community, but also in the entertaining and diplomacy, which form an important part of any flag officers’ duties. Had Holly Petraeus not been so capable, her husband may not have achieved such a rapid rise. For an officer to betray his wife reflects not only a personal failing, which is more the business of the Petraeus family and few others, but also the betrayal of a long-standing, professional teammate.

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I had meant to write this a couple days ago, but as I was doing so, the motherboard on my 3-month-old laptop died. It’s fixed now, and so I’ve gotten my work back, and I think some of these points remain relevant, even as the story moves on. Jonathan Tobin has argued that Petraeus was right to resign, and I largely agree with his excellent points, but want to add one: I’m not so concerned about how unfair it is that more senior leaders like Bill Clinton not only cheated on their wives, but survived politically with even greater popularity. A military officer like Petraeus should be held to a higher standard than even the commander-in-chief.

Every officer and his or her spouse are a team. At every level of David Petraeus’s career, Holly Petraeus was his often unacknowledged partner not only in terms of personal support, but also in career. Officers’ wives are active not only in the military community, but also in the entertaining and diplomacy, which form an important part of any flag officers’ duties. Had Holly Petraeus not been so capable, her husband may not have achieved such a rapid rise. For an officer to betray his wife reflects not only a personal failing, which is more the business of the Petraeus family and few others, but also the betrayal of a long-standing, professional teammate.

Max Boot is right to highlight the contributions Petraeus made to the United States and its security. He messed up badly in Iraq when he commanded the 101st Airborne based out of Mosul, but he learned from his mistakes. Certainly, history will thank the general for his subsequent success. But it is important to remember that Petraeus did not achieve his successes alone.

While on one level, Holly Petraeus was one partner, Petraeus was also part of another team: Many of his colleagues—Ray Odierno, Peter Chiarelli, and others—are as responsible, if not more, for the successes the U.S. Army achieved. The major difference between these men and Petraeus is that his colleagues did not spend nearly as much time cultivating the press or think-tankers, or giving public speeches in Washington and New York to be seen and reported upon. That is not to diminish Petraeus; outreach has value. But the hagiography which Petraeus long cultivated necessarily diminished some of his equally talented peers and so could, perhaps, suggest a subtle betrayal of team spirit.

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“Shirtless FBI Agent” Photo Was a Joke

The Seattle Times got its hands on that much-hyped “Shirtless FBI Agent” photo, and it’s not at all what we were led to believe. Apparently the photo was a joke the agent sent out to multiple friends, including Jill Kelley and a Seattle Times reporter, back in 2010. It shows the agent outside of MacDill Air Force Base, posing in between two SWAT target dummies that look a lot like him. The caption reads: “Which One’s Fred?”

The Seattle Times, which also interviewed the shirtless agent (real name: Frederick Humphries), reports:

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The Seattle Times got its hands on that much-hyped “Shirtless FBI Agent” photo, and it’s not at all what we were led to believe. Apparently the photo was a joke the agent sent out to multiple friends, including Jill Kelley and a Seattle Times reporter, back in 2010. It shows the agent outside of MacDill Air Force Base, posing in between two SWAT target dummies that look a lot like him. The caption reads: “Which One’s Fred?”

The Seattle Times, which also interviewed the shirtless agent (real name: Frederick Humphries), reports:

The picture, which was sent to a reporter at The Seattle Times in 2010, was taken following a “hard workout” with the SWAT team at MacDill Air Force Base. He’s posed between a pair of target dummies that have a remarkable likeness to the buff agent. The caption on the photo, which was sent from a personal email account, reads, “Which One’s Fred?” …

Humphries, 47, said he sent the photo to Kelley and others in the fall of 2010, shortly after he had transferred to the Tampa office from Guantánamo Bay, where Humphries had been an FBI liaison to the CIA at the detention facility there.

Indeed, among his friends and associates, Humphries was known to send dumb-joke emails in which the punch line was provided by opening an attached photo.

[Retired FBI agent Charlie] Mandigo confirmed he received a copy of the photo as well and described it as “joking.” The photo was sent from a joint personal email account shared by Humphries’ wife. Humphries said that, at one point, his supervisor posted the picture on an FBI bulletin board as a joke and that his wife, a teacher, has a framed copy.

Unless there’s more to this, the FBI has some explaining to do. Not only is Humphries being investigated for by the Office of Professional Responsibility for what now appears to be a non-issue, but anonymous FBI sources have also spent days dragging his name through the mud by implying the photo was inappropriate and a sign he was “obsessed” with Jill Kelley. Again, maybe there’s something we’re missing, but it’s starting to sound like his infraction was simply being a whistle-blower to Congress. Considering President Obama’s professed support for national security whistle-blower protection, it will be interesting to see what the White House has to say about this.

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Report: Petraeus Clashed With Agency Heads in Final Days

This morning’s Wall Street Journal sheds light on why the FBI’s discovery of David Petraeus’s affair may have been enough to lead to his downfall

In David Petraeus’s final days at the helm of the Central Intelligence Agency, his relations with chiefs of other U.S. agencies, including his boss, National Intelligence Director James Clapper, took a contentious turn. …

Mr. Petraeus wanted his aides to push back hard and release their own timeline of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi and a nearby CIA safe house, seeking to set the record straight and paint the CIA’s role in a more favorable light. Mr. Clapper and agencies including the Pentagon objected, but Mr. Petraeus told his aides to proceed, said the senior officials.

By all accounts, the driving force behind Mr. Petraeus’s departure last Friday was the revelation about his extramarital affair with his biographer. But new details about Mr. Petraeus’s last days at the CIA show the extent to which the Benghazi attacks created a climate of interagency finger-pointing. That undercut the retired four-star general’s backing within the Obama administration as he struggled with the decision to resign. 

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This morning’s Wall Street Journal sheds light on why the FBI’s discovery of David Petraeus’s affair may have been enough to lead to his downfall

In David Petraeus’s final days at the helm of the Central Intelligence Agency, his relations with chiefs of other U.S. agencies, including his boss, National Intelligence Director James Clapper, took a contentious turn. …

Mr. Petraeus wanted his aides to push back hard and release their own timeline of the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi and a nearby CIA safe house, seeking to set the record straight and paint the CIA’s role in a more favorable light. Mr. Clapper and agencies including the Pentagon objected, but Mr. Petraeus told his aides to proceed, said the senior officials.

By all accounts, the driving force behind Mr. Petraeus’s departure last Friday was the revelation about his extramarital affair with his biographer. But new details about Mr. Petraeus’s last days at the CIA show the extent to which the Benghazi attacks created a climate of interagency finger-pointing. That undercut the retired four-star general’s backing within the Obama administration as he struggled with the decision to resign. 

This makes a lot more sense. The internal discovery of Petraeus’s affair by the FBI could have been handled two ways: quietly or not quietly. The administration may have decided to go the second route–asking Petraeus to submit his resignation–because of the extent to which he was clashing with officials like Clapper and Panetta in his final month.

It also explains why this very favorable profile of Petraeus, which his office clearly cooperated with, turned up in the New York Times just a week before his resignation. The article quoted friends of Petraeus defending him from criticism over his Benghazi response, praising his management style, and playing up his supposedly warm relationship with President Obama. Petraeus, being the smart media operator that he is, may have been trying to rehabilitate his name through the press. But it wasn’t enough to save his job one week later.

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Why Does Clinton Still Have Her Job?

President Obama held a press conference this afternoon, and both the questions and the answers about the Benghazi consulate attack and the scandal surrounding David Petraeus were revelatory in their omission of one aspect of the story. Obama offered a tetchy response to a question about UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who was tasked with selling the administration’s line that it was an anti-Islam filmmaker who was responsible for the events that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others that night. The president’s defense of Rice was another salvo in the ongoing fight over whether she should even be nominated to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. (Obama’s defiant air seemed to suggest he does plan to submit that nomination.)

And the Petraeus affair is sordid and steamy–a combination we simply cannot expect the press corps to ignore. But the events of the last week have made clear that Clinton is off the hook for what may have been the most consequential mistake of anyone in this episode. Yes, the CIA seems to have made mistakes in Benghazi, and yes, Susan Rice misled the American people (on the administration’s orders, we can presume). But the State Department was responsible for handling the diplomatic mission’s request for more security–a request they denied. Yet no one is suggesting Clinton should tender her own resignation.

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President Obama held a press conference this afternoon, and both the questions and the answers about the Benghazi consulate attack and the scandal surrounding David Petraeus were revelatory in their omission of one aspect of the story. Obama offered a tetchy response to a question about UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who was tasked with selling the administration’s line that it was an anti-Islam filmmaker who was responsible for the events that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others that night. The president’s defense of Rice was another salvo in the ongoing fight over whether she should even be nominated to succeed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. (Obama’s defiant air seemed to suggest he does plan to submit that nomination.)

And the Petraeus affair is sordid and steamy–a combination we simply cannot expect the press corps to ignore. But the events of the last week have made clear that Clinton is off the hook for what may have been the most consequential mistake of anyone in this episode. Yes, the CIA seems to have made mistakes in Benghazi, and yes, Susan Rice misled the American people (on the administration’s orders, we can presume). But the State Department was responsible for handling the diplomatic mission’s request for more security–a request they denied. Yet no one is suggesting Clinton should tender her own resignation.

It’s true that Clinton plans to leave her post soon, but that’s no reason for her to avoid continuing scrutiny over this debacle. What’s more, if Petraeus’s actions deserve his resignation, and Rice’s actions warrant insistence from John McCain and Lindsey Graham that they’ll block her nomination (thus costing Rice the job she expects and covets), it’s hard to imagine how Clinton, who owns the lion’s share of responsibility for this fiasco, can keep her job.

The State Department has responded to the revelation that they denied the security request by saying that no one knows for sure whether the requested security would have saved Stevens and the three others killed that night. But that doesn’t change the fact that, as Jake Tapper reported at the time, the whole episode smacked of unpreparedness and incompetence:

But the question – both for the State Department, which is conducting an internal investigation, and the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which is holding hearings next week – is whether officials in Washington, D.C., specifically at the State Department, were as aware as they should have been about the deteriorating security situation in Libya, and whether officials were doing everything they could to protect Americans in that country.

Just so. Whatever the mistakes of the CIA personnel at the annex and their superiors, the State Department left its ambassador woefully underprotected in a war-torn country and ignored pleas for protection and warnings of danger. Because of the nature of the CIA mission in Benghazi, there is much we still don’t know about the annex. And Rice was almost surely just repeating talking points she was given. That doesn’t exonerate Rice or Petraeus, but it certainly doesn’t exonerate Clinton, who has slipped quietly–and irresponsibly–from the conversation over the ramifications of a tragedy that began with her failure.

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