Among the many dismaying aspects of the Benghazi attacks which left our ambassador and three other American dead, there is this point which I have not yet heard publicly debated: that readers of the New York Times and Washington Post probably had a better idea of what happened than readers of the President’s Daily Brief and other highly classified intelligence products.
The office of the director of national intelligence offered the following in a statement issued September 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.”
Yet those who read about the attack in “open source,” unclassified publications had reason to reach a very different conclusion. On September 13, just two days after the attack, the New York Times published an article, datelined Benghazi, by Suliman Ali Zway and Rick Gladstone, which began by quoting a Libyan security official, Wanis el-Sharif, who claimed that there had been two attacks–the first a spontaneous demonstration, the second a planned terrorist attack. But then the intrepid reporters noted:
The controversy over the anti-Islam YouTube film, “The Innocence of Muslims,” isn’t going away. Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri called for mass demonstrations last week, and yesterday thousands of Muslims converged outside Google in London to demand the removal of the YouTube clip:
A protest by 10,000 Muslims outside the offices of Google in London today is just the first in an orchestrated attempt to force the company to remove an anti-Islamic film from website YouTube in Britain. …
Organiser Masoud Alam said: “Our next protest will be at the offices of Google and YouTube across the world. We are looking to ban this film.
“This is not freedom of expression, there is a limit for that. This insult of the Prophet will not be allowed. …
One of the speakers, Sheikh Faiz Al-Aqtab Siddiqui, told The Daily Telegraph: “Terrorism is not just people who kill human bodies, but who kill human feelings as well. The makers of this film have terrorised 1.6 billion people.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb testified that on September 11, after the “full-scale assault” in Libya — “unprecedented in its size and intensity” — began about 9:40 p.m. Libyan time (4:40 p.m. Washington time), she was “in our Diplomatic Security Command Center [in Washington] monitoring multiple open lines with our agents [in Libya] for much of the attack.”
On Friday, a CNN reporter asked Hillary Clinton what she was doing as the attack occurred, and Clinton responded with a 400-word answer that avoided the question. Here was the colloquy:
Amid the burgeoning controversy over what the administration–and who in the administration–knew what, when about Benghazi, Marc Thiessen raises an important point: “the more serious scandal” is “the Obama administration’s utter failure to respond.”
As he notes, it took less than a month for the Bush administration to respond to 9/11 with an invasion of Afghanistan and less than a month (two weeks to be exact) for the Clinton administration to respond to the 1998 bombings of our embassies in Tanzania and Kenya with cruise missile strikes on al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan and on a suspected chemical-weapons plant in Sudan. The latter strikes were utterly ineffectual–but at least the U.S. did something.
Now that the spin-room arguments about debate winners and losers has died down, the most enduring part of last night’s debate may be Vice President Biden’s comments on Libya. Because the administration has been so tight-lipped on the issue, Biden’s remarks are important in piecing together the puzzle of exactly what the White House knew and when.
As Jonathan noted earlier, Biden specifically contradicted the senior State Department officials and whistle blowers who just testified under oath before the House Oversight Committee earlier this week, and also took a direct swipe at the intelligence community. Josh Rogin reports on more:
This afternoon, the Obama campaign’s deputy campaign manager Stephanie Cutter melted down not once, but twice on national television. On a day the Obama campaign anticipated discussing the vice presidential debate, set to take place tonight at 9 p.m., they were instead issuing clarifications and creating a media firestorm.
While on CNN discussing the September 11 attack on our consulate in Benghazi, Cutter remarked, ”The entire reason that this [the Benghazi terror attack] has become the political topic it is, is because of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan — it’s a big part of their stump speech, and it’s reckless and irresponsible.”
Who’s responsible for the security failures at the consulate in Benghazi? According to Dana Milbank, the blame lies with fiscal hawks in the House GOP:
For fiscal 2013, the GOP-controlled House proposed spending $1.934 billion for the State Department’s Worldwide Security Protection program — well below the $2.15 billion requested by the Obama administration. House Republicans cut the administration’s request for embassy security funding by $128 million in fiscal 2011 and $331 million in fiscal 2012. (Negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate restored about $88 million of the administration’s request.) Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Republicans’ proposed cuts to her department would be “detrimental to America’s national security” — a charge Republicans rejected.
If Milbank was right, and this was just the predictable result of budgetary constraints, then the State Department had no business keeping an outpost open in a high-risk area, if it knew it couldn’t provide adequate security. The thing is, the State Department didn’t refuse to send additional security because it couldn’t afford it. It refused to send additional security because it said (and continues to say) that the security situation was adequate based on the knowledge at the time. Meanwhile, Ambassador Kennedy said yesterday that he has no faith in the diplomatic security services ever being able to defend against an attack of that level. “Under that kind of lethality, we’re never going to have enough guns,” hesaid. “We’re a diplomatic service. We are not an armed camp.”
If you’re already angry about the administration’s stonewalling on the Benghazi attack, get ready to be furious. Anderson Cooper’s interview last night with the mother of Sean Smith, who was killed in the attack, is simply devastating. She says President Obama, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, and Leon Panetta all promised her they would get to the bottom of her son’s death as soon as possible, but so far she’s heard nothing (h/t Dan Halper):
The mystery of what the administration knew and did both before and after the Benghazi attack continues to deepen. A former official in the Bush administration emails me a list of questions that need to be answered:
1) Why did the Libyan delegation have inadequate security?
2) Were there political or ideological factors that influenced the security decisions?
3) Why was it Susan Rice who spoke for the administration on the Sunday shows? Did the White House choose her, or did Hillary Clinton push her forward? Why was it not Clinton, who had the responsibility for the decisions, rather than Rice?
The Obama administration’s Benghazi response continued to unravel at the House Oversight Committee hearing today, as State Department officials struggled unsuccessfully to get their stories straight.
Ambassador Patrick Kennedy defended UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s claim on September 16 that the attack was part of a spontaneous protest that erupted over an anti-Islam video, saying that anyone at the State Department would have said the same thing as Rice based on the intelligence available at the time. “If any administration official, including any career official, were on television on Sunday, September 16, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said. The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point,” said Kennedy.
But, as Republicans on the Oversight Committee pointed out, that appears to contradict Kennedy’s comments from a September 12 unclassified briefing, when he reportedly called it a terrorist attack.
It only took the State Department a month to acknowledge what the rest of us had gathered weeks ago: there was no random protest outside the Benghazi consulate, unless you consider a group of terrorists armed with heavy artillery a “protest.” According to ABC News, the State Department changed its story now “as part of its investigation,” which tells you just how serious its investigation will be (h/t Allahpundit):
I have a feeling more of these types of exchanges will come to light now that House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa has taken on the case and whistle blowers are stepping up. Jake Tapper reports on an internal State Department email that shows officials rejecting a request for a DC-3 airplane from the Libyan embassy security team in May:
ABC News has obtained an internal State Department email from May 3, 2012, indicating that the State Department denied a request from the security team at the Embassy of Libya to retain a DC-3 airplane in the country to better conduct their duties.
Copied on the email was U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was killed in a terrorist attack on the diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, Sept. 11, 2012, along with three other Americans. That attack has prompted questions about whether the diplomatic personnel in that country were provided with adequate security support.
We already heard that the Obama administration had intercepts linking one of the suspected leaders of the Benghazi attack to al-Qaeda on day one, but the extent of the intelligence wasn’t clear. Now Reuters adds another piece to the puzzle, reporting that the Obama administration received about a dozen intelligence reports tying the attack to AQ “within hours”:
Within hours of last month’s attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, President Barack Obama’s administration received about a dozen intelligence reports suggesting militants connected to al Qaeda were involved, three government sources said.
Despite these reports, in public statements and private meetings, top U.S. officials spent nearly two weeks highlighting intelligence suggesting that the attacks were spontaneous protests against an anti-Muslim film, while playing down the involvement of organized militant groups.
It was not until last Friday that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper’s office issued an unusual public statement, which described how the picture that intelligence agencies presented to U.S. policymakers had “evolved” into an acknowledgement that the attacks were “deliberate and organized” and “carried out by extremists.”
There is an obvious danger lurking for Republicans in the Benghazi affair: The more they attack President Obama for alleged weakness in allowing the U.S. consulate to be attacked and the ambassador killed, the more vulnerable they make themselves to a backlash should Obama act decisively to capture or kill the perpetrators of the attack. This New York Timesarticle suggests such a response may be in the works: It reports the not-terribly-surprising news that the Joint Special Operations Command, home of Delta Force, SEAL Team Six, and other top-tier operators, is preparing “target packages” on those believed to be responsible for this brazen assault. It is not hard to imagine that Obama could well go on TV sometime in the next month to announce that justice has been delivered to Ambassador Stevens’s killers by the U.S. military’s elite forces, thus reinforcing the impression fostered by the Osama bin Laden raid that this is one commander-in-chief who is not afraid to use lethal force against our enemies.
Republicans have been trying to turn Benghazi into another Iranian Hostage Crisis but with such a tough response Obama could turn the analogy on its head. Just imagine what the political fallout would have been if the mission to rescue Iranian hostages had succeeded, rather than ending in a fireball in the Iranian desert. Jimmy Carter could have dispelled in an instant the impression that he was weak and might well have defeated Ronald Reagan.
President Obama has promised to bring the perpetrators of the Benghazi terrorist attack to justice, but over two weeks after the attack the FBI still hasn’t made it to Benghazi. According to the New York Times, it’s because the security situation in Benghazi is too unstable:
Sixteen days after the death of four Americans in an attack on a United States diplomatic mission here, fears about the near-total lack of security have kept F.B.I. agents from visiting the scene of the killings and forced them to try to piece together the complicated crime from Tripoli, more than 400 miles away.
Investigators are so worried about the tenuous security, people involved in the investigation say, that they have been unwilling to risk taking some potential Libyan witnesses into the American Embassy in Tripoli. Instead, the investigators have resorted to the awkward solution of questioning some witnesses in cars outside the embassy, which is operating under emergency staffing and was evacuated of even more diplomats on Thursday because of a heightened security alert.
It is good to hear that most partnering operations between coalition and Afghan forces have resumed after a ten-day pause due to the furor over the anti-Mohammad video and a spat of “green on blue” insider attacks. Such operations are absolutely essential in order to improve the combat effectiveness of the Afghan forces; advisers stuck on giant bases, waving good-bye to Afghan troops as they venture outside the wire, would not be nearly as effective in getting the job done as troops who share the same hardships and risks with their Afghan counterparts. Out in the field, our troops can not only teach the Afghans by example; they can also provide the critical enablers (everything from IED-clearance packages to medevac) that allow the Afghan forces to be more effective.
This decision may, unfortunately, increase the short-term risk to coalition troops–but in the long run it will decrease risk because it is the surest method to bring about a more peaceful Afghanistan. Those who suggest a permanent end to partnering are raising the likelihood that the Afghan security forces will be unable to cope with an insurgency which benefits from bases in Pakistan–and thus raising the likelihood of a larger civil war leading, quite possibly, to the Taliban recapture of significant chunks of the country.
For over a week, the Obama administration has tried to dodge questions on the Benghazi attack by saying it’s waiting for information to come in from the FBI. But apparently the FBI still hasn’t made it to Benghazi — at least not as of last night. Instead, CNN reports that the bureau just arrived in Tripoli, and hasn’t been to the scene of the attack that happened over two weeks ago:
More than two weeks after four Americans — including the U.S. ambassador to Libya — were killed in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, FBI agents have not yet been granted access to investigate in the eastern Libyan city, and the crime scene has not been secured, sources said.
“They’ve gotten as far as Tripoli now, but they’ve never gotten to Benghazi,” CNN National Security Analyst Fran Townsend said Wednesday, citing senior law enforcement officials.
Last Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters that an FBI team had reached Libya earlier in the week.
President Obama was expected to discuss the anti-Islam YouTube film during his UN speech today, and he didn’t disappoint. He devoted over 1,000 words to the topic, much of which had already been said repeatedly by the White House, the State Department, UN Ambassador Susan Rice and government-sponsored commercials in Pakistan:
At times, the conflicts arise along the fault lines of race or tribe, and often they arise from the difficulties of reconciling tradition and faith with the diversity and interdependence of the modern world. In every country, there are those who find different religious beliefs threatening. In every culture, those who love freedom for themselves must ask themselves how much they’re willing to tolerate freedom for others. And that is what we saw play out in the last two weeks, where a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. Now, I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity. It is an insult not only to Muslims, but to America as well.
For as the city outside these walls makes clear, we are a country that has welcomed people of every race and every faith. We are home to Muslims who worship across our country. We not only respect the freedom of religion, we have laws that protect individuals from being harmed because of how they look or what they believe.
We understand why people take offense to this video because millions of our citizens are among them. I know there are some who ask why don’t we just ban such a video. The answer is enshrined in our laws. Our Constitution protects the right to practice free speech.
After many dismaying days of watching anti-American protests across the Middle East, galvanized by an obscure anti-Mohammad video made by someone or other, Americans now have a protest to cheer: Libyans have taken to the streets en masse in Benghazi to make clear their anger at the militia groups they hold responsible for the attack that killed the popular American ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues. Fed up that Libya’s nascent, moderate government is unable to disarm militias, the people have taken the task into their own hands, forcibly disarming several militia groups and storming the headquarters of the extremist Ansar al Sharia group. Some 30,000 people marched through Benghazi, bearing signs that included “We want justice for Chris” and “The ambassador was Libya’s friend.” Protesters even chanted at Ansar al Sharia members: “You terrorists, you cowards. Go back to Afghanistan.”
This is, to put it mildly, heartening, and it shows that the people of Libya are hardly the anti-American radicals that many imagine them to be based on the actions of a few hotheads. One obvious takeaway is that the Middle East is not a uniform mass of sharia-spouting, America-hating crazies–which is, alas, the crude stereotype which remains popular in too many corners of the West. There are, in fact, complex forces at play and, while the radicals may grab the headlines, there is a “silent majority”–in the case of Libya, silent no more–that is more interested in peaceful social and economic development than it is in waging jihad against the West.