Harder battle over Benghazi



Many conservatives suspect that the U.S. State Department, with the White House in a supporting role, deceived the public about the 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans. This conspiratorial narrative is, in all probability, false.

Even the embarrassing “Cairo-demonstrations-killed-us-in-Benghazi” messages by United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice and President Barack Obama — hers on Sunday talk shows and his before the U.N. — partly sprang from the Central Intelligence Agency’s analytical missteps and from the slow and often-purblind way that Washington works.

To get to the heart of this controversy, a thoughtful observer should first ask much tougher questions of the CIA and especially of David Petraeus, its former director.

The first question should be about why the CIA’s first draft of its now-infamous talking points stated: “We believe based on currently available information that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.”

We know from Gregory Hicks — the former deputy chief of mission in Tripoli — that diplomats sent no telegram suggesting a connection between Cairo and Benghazi.

Hicks knew, as did others at the State Department, that the attack was planned, coordinated and well-armed, and that it wasn’t preceded by demonstrations. CIA officers, who were in Libya in large numbers, knew likewise. So how did someone in Langley, Virginia, several thousand miles away, conclude that something was dubious from the start?

There are three possibilities:

First, Petraeus and other CIA officials had absorbed too much of the speculation on Twitter, and on the website of the U.S. Embassy in Egypt, pinpointing an anti-Muslim YouTube video as the cause of demonstrations in Cairo on Sept. 11, 2012. It’s also likely that officials in Langley received lots of intelligence reports — after the attack — that reinforced the view that Cairo’s heat sparked Benghazi’s fire.

The intelligence from the agency’s clandestine service, through its own sources and foreign liaison channels, has a way of highlighting the wisdom du jour. This isn’t tendentious; it’s just the way human nature plays out in the intelligence business. Cairo’s frenzy just bled into Washington’s analysis of Libya.

A second possibility is that Petraeus pre-empted his analysis because he knew Obama would be happier with the YouTube narrative than with the truth that an al-Qaida affiliate had planned the attack, which killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

This shading can happen subtly in the executive branch, to the extent that officials aren’t conscious that they are doing it. This is “group think,” and it’s hardly unique to the CIA.

The third possibility is a combination of the first and second explanations.

It is a good guess that the first is what happened, and then the rest is history. The administration was destined to run into a buzz saw of criticism, even from thoughtful conservatives, who had grown tired of Obama’s self-preening as the counterterrorist president and of his intellectual lameness in describing Islamic radicalism without reference to Islam.

It isn’t surprising, though it is distressing, that Rice so easily repeated the mistakes of CIA officials. For those who have worked in the classified foreign-policy part of Washington, and especially for those who have served in the CIA, it can be hard to believe how intelligent people, in both the executive branch and Congress, can be deferential to CIA-provided information. They don’t like to gainsay it even when they are pretty sure that it’s unreliable.

While Rice was too deferential to the preferences of her boss, she was bushwhacked by the CIA.

And it must have been particularly galling to the State Department to see the CIA, in its talking points, refer to its earlier warnings about militants in Libya. A real terrorist warning, which the CIA rarely issues, relates to an imminent attack in a certain place within a reasonably short time frame. It was truly audacious, even by the agency’s high standards for protecting itself, to merely list well-known terrorist incidents in Libya and refer to what was on the jihadi group Ansar al-Sharia’s Facebook page, while mentioning how dutifully the CIA reported, on Sept. 10, the possible threats inside Egypt, where local social media could react to the warnings.

The incorporation of this list into the talking points camouflages and pre-empts the real question: Why didn’t the CIA, with its large presence in Libya, have more tactical intelligence on the situation in Benghazi that a diplomatic security officer could actually use? Or another more appropriate question now: Why hasn’t the agency done a better job of catching those who killed an American ambassador?

The State Department was obviously negligent with its security procedures in Benghazi, and people who haven’t been punished probably should be. It’s quite clear now, and was quite clear to working-level diplomatic security officers in Libya and in the department before the attack, that more security was needed.

The State Department’s professional security cadre considers the use of inexpensive local-guard forces for primary defense in most violent or unfriendly countries to be hopelessly ineffective. American staff, and the Western and Gurkha contractors that the State Department regularly deploys, are the only serious forces that can be used to repel well-armed jihadis.

The undersecretary of state for management is responsible for these matters. Did Undersecretary Patrick Kennedy turn down security-reinforcement requests from American officials in Libya? Did he discuss issues with then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton?

And the Pentagon’s lackadaisical response to sending reinforcements and air support — and its excuses later that it was too dangerous and too politically complicated — really should elicit more scorn. If the diplomats and spies had been U.S. soldiers, the Pentagon surely would have been more forthcoming.

CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell should be praised for realizing that something was inappropriate about the agency’s parading a list of its achievements. Cutting that commentary from the talking points revealed professionalism and a decent respect for the truth.

For those who have never been involved with the government’s interagency discussions, it’s hard to appreciate how the results inevitably lack substance. National-intelligence estimates, the intelligence community’s crown jewels, are mind- numbing consensus-based deliberations.

Personal biases, institutional equities and political spin are always thrown into the mix. When bureaucrats honestly exchange their views, the lowest common denominator usually triumphs. However, the interagency process is always much more bureaucratic than it is political.

If U.S. conservatives really want to fight over Benghazi, they should turn their attention from the talking points to the president’s “light footprint” approach to the Muslim world, a strategy that had lethal ramifications in Libya. But that would be a harder battle because so many Republicans have grown tired of the Middle East and, just like the president, want to pivot to just about anyplace else.

Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former officer in the Central Intelligence Agency’s clandestine service, is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. The opinions expressed here are his own. E-mail: reuel@defenddemocracy.org.

  • michaelrivero

    There is another possibility to Benghazi. And this may explain why the GOP is focused now on emails between the State Department and Obama’s re-election team.

    Polls in September showed the Presidential race neck and neck. Many media outlets were openly predicting a Romney victory. Obama had failed to garner public approval over the killing of a man claimed (but never
    proven) to be Osama bin Laden, mostly because of the manner in which the body was disposed of and the obvious faked photos leaked onto the internet.

    Obama needed a publicity stunt.

    A small team of “Al Qaeda” terrorists, or someone playing at being Al Qaeda terrorists, were supposed to enter the Consulate and take the Ambassador and his staff hostage. Obama would let the drama build
    for a few days, allowing the media to hype the story, then send in the SEAL teams to “rescue” the hostages, then campaign on how he did not let the situation turn into a repeat of the Iranian hostage crisis, which
    would have dovetailed with the Iran bashing (and Argo).

    But the best laid plans of mice and men (and Candidates) gang aft agley, as they say. We know that the CIA operatives at the annex could hear the gunfire from the Consulate. Looking at the consulate through
    Google Earth, one sees heavily populated residential areas less than half a mile to the east and southwest, who no doubt heard the gunfire coming from the consulate as well. Given how quickly sympathetic
    protests erupted across the Middle East during this incident, it is clear that the region is an anti-American powder keg awaiting a spark, which Obama inadvertently provided with his staged terror attack.

    The initial “Al Qaeda” (or reasonable facsimile thereof) was a small group, but were quickly joined by Libyans pouring in from adjoining neighborhoods. What was a planned and rehearsed operation to “kidnap” the Ambassador triggered a spontaneous riot with at least 200 participants on the ground, and spun out of control, leading to the deaths of the Ambassador and others.

    Obama’s carefully prepped operation to make himself look like a hero instantly turned in an epic fail.

    • Masa Chekov

      That’s a fantastic work of total fiction! You tried writing the next Hollywood blockbuster?

  • disqus_aO4KJtxZtF


    Why don’t we treat the Incident at Benghazi as a murder mystery? Let’s forget the Congressional investigation into who changed the talking points. Just make the case simple. Who killed ambassador Chris Stevens?

    We could call in the famous fictional detective Sherlock Holmes to help solve the murder. Holmes, who was really the creation of the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, when not playing the violin or investigating a crime, once remarked, “When you have eliminated all which is impossible, then whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.”

    Odd as it may seem, Holmes may have been on the case longer than we know. The blogger Bookworm wrote in 2012 about the incident at Benghazi, “Sherlock Holmes certainly understood that, when wrongdoing is at issue, silence is as significant as noise:”

    He continued, “The Benghazi cover-up is so huge that the drive-by media isn’t doing it’s usual lying, puffing, and obfuscation. Instead, it’s fallen completely silent. It is pretending that Benghazi never happened.”

    According to Holmes, what are the impossibilities that must be eliminated to solve the murder of ambassador Stevens? What is the improbably explanation that remains that helps us find the murderers? So far, there have been at least three explanations for the murder of Chris Stevens.

    The first explanation is the explanation put forward by the White House. Ambassador Stevens was murdered by a rioting mob that was protesting an anti-Muslim video. This explanation is impossible and has been discredited by most who have looked into the murder. Holmes would soon learn that the attack at Benghazi was well planned and had noting to do with a video.

    It would become clear to Holmes that the US Congress is wasting its time looking into the morphing of talking points the administration put forward as a smoke screen. All the while Congress is issuing subpoenas, the real murderer is covering his tracks. Holmes had seen this type of misdirection before.

    Next, we have the explanation of a gun running scheme that went bad. Stevens was supposedly involved with members of al-Qaeda in Libya and was illegally moving shipments of guns and weapons, especially ground-to-air missiles, via Turkey to Syria.

    A deal was going down at Benghazi the night of September 11, 2012, but something went wrong. The Libyan rebels, who wanted the arms to support the rebels in Syria, then killed Stevens.

    Glenn Beck thinks there is something to this explanation. “This is why the White House covered,” Beck claims, “because our ambassador was killed by a guy we were running guns to and we are still running guns today,” If these claims are true, then Congress must make the evidence about the gun running public. Beck should testify and tell us all he knows about the Incident at Benghazi.

    Yet, this explanation is also an impossible cause for the murder of Stevens. Even though we are beginning to learn that indeed there was illegal gun running being done at Benghazi and Stevens, as a supporter of the Arab Spring and the Libyan Revolution was involved in it, where is the motive to kill him?

    Why would the Libyan rebels bite the hand that feeds them? Even if the rebels disapproved of Steven’s lifestyle, they had no motive for murder. They were getting what they wanted, either dollars or weapons.

    Furthermore, the attack at Benghazi was well planed, financed and executed. It was not spontaneous. Stevens’ would have known a deal was going badly long before the night of 12 September. Gunning running has to be eliminated as an impossible cause for Stevens’ murder.

    The most improbable explanation for Stevens’ murder, the explanation that remains, is that Stevens was killed as part of a foiled kidnapping plot. Stevens was part of a plan to kidnap an American ambassador, negotiate his release in exchange for the blind Sheik held in a US prison, and then have the US president emerge as a hero and win reelection.

    On October 11, 2012 the author of the blog The Last Refuge claimed, “Benghazi was not an assassination attempt, it was a botched kidnapping…The kidnapping was botched when the two ex-Navy Seals, not aware of the plot, decided to offer resistance…The al-Qaeda goal was to kidnap Ambassador Chris Stevens and ransom him back to the U.S. in exchange for Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman.”

    A complex plan, indeed, but it was a plan that could have been executed in far off Benghazi. A good plan, too, except something went wrong. What went wrong was the fact that some Americans at Benghazi who were not part of the kidnapping plot put up a fight.

    This fight killed many Libyans. The other Libyans felt betrayed and turned on Stevens to torture and kill the ambassador. No one likes to be double-crossed.

    The motive was revenge and they had six hours between attacks to commit murder. There means were the weapons already in their possession. We can imagine Holmes, smoking his pipe and coming reluctantly to this conclusion: Stevens was murdered because the kidnapping plan failed.

    All Holmes has to do now is tie up a few lose ends. We will understand now why the US president was not to be found the night the Benghazi incident was going down. He knew about the plan to further his reelection, so he need not be involved.

    Once word reached Washington that things were going badly at Benghazi, the last thing the administration wanted to do was to send help. That would make a bad situation even worse. So, a stand down order was issued, with the hope that every thing would work out in the end, or be covered up by death.

    As to the video, well that was already set up to offer an explanation for the kidnapping. So why not use it to cover the failure, too? If the kidnapping had been successful and Stevens’ release secured, the media would have focused on the release and would have ignored the video.

    After the blanks are filled in and the role of the US State Department in all this is laid out, can you imagine Dr. Watson saying, “Why Holmes, this is brilliant. The improbable has become the actual.”

    “Elementary, my Dear Watson, elementary.”

    Now, if we can just get Sherlock Holmes to testify before Congress. Then, we may be able to put this mystery to rest. We will have solved the murder of ambassador Stevens and the case of the missing Stingers.