The Uncomfortable Questions Not Raised by Benghazi
The press and Congress are asking the wrong questions
The eight-month controversy over the attacks on a U.S. outpost in Benghazi reintensified last week, as the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Tripoli testified before a panel at the House of Representatives. The hearing, however, seemed to focus not on the attack itself, but rather on what happened afterward: the content of the talking points handed to UN Ambassador Susan Rice, and whether President Obama referred to it as terrorism quickly enough.Indeed, the entire scandal, as it exists in the public, is a bizarre redirection from the serious failures for which no one has yet answered.
The talking points scandal is arguably the least important failure of the Benghazi attack.A recent document dump of the emails by the White House that pertains to how they were drafted shows that, rather than the malicious lying of which they’re accused, what really happened was bureaucratic infighting of the highest order: The State Department and CIA could not agree on whom should be blamed, and their disputes lead to a poorly coordinated messaging campaign by the administration.
But the Benghazi attack is worrying for so many other reasons.Two of the American fatalities, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, were not just embassy security guards but CIA contractors. The Benghazi outpost was not a U.S. consulate, but rather a CIA station operating under the cover of the State Department. Only seven of the 30 personnel evacuated from the station after the attack worked for the State Department; the rest were CIA. Ambassador Chris Stevens, who died during the assault, was visiting the station to evaluate whether the State Department could secure and expand the station so it could be an official consulate in addition to carrying out its intelligence functions.
The mystery deepens, however. The two CIA contractors who died defending the outpost were part of a rapid response team, which was inadequate. Both the CIA and Ambassador Stevens had placed their lives in the hands of an inadequate American response team and a local militia that simply melted away during the assault.
Perhaps out of deference to the dead, there are few who have raised the question of why Ambassador Stevens had such faith in this unreliable militia. In the months leading up the assault, despite growing violence in Benghazi, Stevens repeatedly refused offers by the U.S. military to place more American security forces nearby.
It might have been misplaced trust. Ambassador Stevens was the primary liaison between the U.S. and the Libyan resistance, which largely began and was headquartered in Benghazi. It’s possible he thought that, given his strong ties to the Benghazi militias and the role he played in Gaddafi’s downfall, he would be untouched by the low-level violence roiling the city.
But we don’t know. No one is asking the question.
The CIA, too, has many things to answer for in Benghazi, which are much more germane to the current debate over talking points. In all twelve versions, the CIA placed references to protests spurred by an anti-Islam video circulating the Internet at the time. Moreover, it was CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell, not the State Department, who removed a reference to terror group Ansar al-Sharia by saying such information was classified.If anyone is to blame for the enormous screw-up of the Obama administration’s response to the attack, that person is probably in Langley.
To take things a step further, the CIA’s heavy presence in Benghazi is probably also why security was so light. Stereotypes to the contrary, in many places CIA facilities have surprisingly light building security; they rely more on obscurity than imposing defenses to stay safely hidden. When that obscurity is blown, so, too is their best line of defense. So why was the CIA station’s location so well known in Benghazi? Was tradecraft there so lax that everyone nearby knew what it was? And if so, who thought that was a good idea?
Again, none of these issues are being raised in Congressional hearings or the media, or by the public.The CIA created the facility in Benghazi but barely defended it. They did not have local forces capable of rallying to their defense when they needed it and could not protect two diplomats on whom their cover relied. Then, when the news broke, they manipulated talking points to sell out the State Department and Ambassador Rice, who was told to represent the administration in the media. They have ducked questions in Congress about their conduct, too. Apart from a closed November testimony by ex-CIA director David Petraeus,no one from the agency has had to publicly answer questions the way the State Department has.
The CIA’s conduct during and after Benghazi should be the real scandal here, not the order in which certain keywords make their way into press conferences. It is a tragedy that two diplomats died, including the first ambassador killed in the line of duty since 1979. Sadly, they are part of a growing number of American diplomats hurt or killed in the line of duty. Embassies and diplomatic facilities were attacked 13 times under President Bush, resulting in dozens of dead but little action. If future Benghazis are to be avoided, we need to grapple with why the attack and our inadequate response unfolded the way it did.
Many of those issues were raised in the Accountability Review Board report that the State Department released last December. But to this day, the complicated nature of CIA operations and, more importantly, how they put at risk the other American personnel serving alongside them have gone largely unremarked upon. It’s past time to demand answers from Langley.