Brief Issue Analysis: Benghazi

Summary of Findings

  1. There is no evidence that officials attempted to mislead the public regarding the nature of the attacks on the Benghazi mission in the days following the attacks.
  2. There is no evidence of a “scandal” involving the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attacks.
    1. In fact, it might be reasonably asserted that the tone and quality of the report (as outlined below) combined with the obvious lack of any evidence for criminal or otherwise scandalous behavior on behalf of then-Secretary Clinton seem to support her assertions that she has been targeted by a right-wing conspiracy.
  3. For a benchmark comparison, the failures in the State Department which enabled the attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi, Libya are similar to, but less numerous and less severe than, those failures of the Bush administration which enabled the 9/11/2001 attacks (see table below).
    1. These failures are common in large organizations.  It is good for us as a country to learn from them and improve, and perhaps even to hold people accountable for the failures, but in my estimation it is hardly appropriate to argue, in either case, that the top-level leadership is unfit for duty based on either of these incidents.
  4. This is unrelated to political concerns here but:
    1. our actors, including Diplomatic Security Agents, CIA, and others engaged in combat on the ground in Libya behaved extremely admirably, showing on numerous documented occasions extreme self-control, excellent judgment, and a rejection of tactical advantage for the safety of civilians.  Reading their testimonies makes me very proud to be a part of this country.
      1. See I-97, for example, when GRS refused to fire upon attacking forces due to their close proximity to a household with civilians and children inside.
    2. Furthermore, local Libyan civilians were responsible for ultimately finding Stevens and transporting him to the hospital, all without knowing his identity, even going so far as to call numbers on his phone to report to someone he might know his location and status.  That is worth reporting.
    3. Finally, by all accounts, the love for Ambassador Stevens by the Libyan people, which he clearly reciprocated, strikes me as unique among Ambassadors (though if it is not, we truly have an amazing set of officials in them), and his loss is truly tragic.  His inspired among the Libyan people protests and condemnations of the numerous militias vying for power.

What did critics allege of Ms. Clinton and/or the Obama Administration?

Honestly, it is tough to determine.  The accusations seem to be centered around the idea that, though the administration knew the attack was a planned act by extremists, they told the public that it was a spontaneous protest turned deadly as a result of an Internet video.  Allegedly this was done in some sort of attempt to improve the appearance of the administration in the eyes of the public during an election year.

Aside from that primary allegation (which constitutes, I guess, the “scandal” portion of this incident), there are numerous allegations of other systemic failures (summarized in a table at the bottom of this brief) in the preparation for and response to the incident.

Are these allegations true?

The Benghazi report seems to justify the administration’s statements to the public if not merely by virtue of the confusion it documents within the administration…a confusion which they actually seem to have attempted to convey by saying repeatedly that their understanding of the attack would evolve, but that given available evidence, it seemed a violent response to a video was a likely explanation.

And indeed, having read the majority of the report, it seems even by proclamation of the attackers’ commanding officer that this series of attacks was conducted in response to the video.  It was, however, not part of a protest, but a planned attack, so the administration’s initial position was flawed, but not obviously intended as some sort of ruse to fool the public into…what?  Thinking we were caught off-guard?  No matter how this is viewed, it is clear that we were caught off-guard; the important details there, however, are that concerns over the safety of the Ambassador preceded his trip to Benghazi, and he himself determined that he should go in spite of the concerns.

So no, that primary allegation seems false, and the other allegations of failures can be judged in relation to a benchmark case (9/11/2001).  Those failures are both less severe and less numerous, it seems, than those failures which led to the events of 9/11/2001.  See the table at the bottom of this brief for a summary and comparison.

What was the relationship with the “Innocence of Muslims” video?

The Benghazi report notes that on September 10th, 2012 (one day before the attack), Leon E. Panetta informed President Obama that they were “already tracking an inflammatory anti-Muslim video that was circulating on the Internet and inciting anger across the Middle East against the United States” and that they “braced for demonstrations in Cairo and elsewhere across the region.” The focus of the discussion specifically included Tripoli, Libya due to intelligence indicating “demonstrations could erupt in those areas.”

Additionally, calls were actually made on Egyptian television, in Egyptian newspapers, and on social media to protest the denigration of the Muslim faith as depicted in a newly-released Arabic version of the trailer for “The Innocence of Muslims.” In response to this, and additional calls for protest of the imprisonment of Sheikh Omaar abdel Rahman (for participation in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing), a protest of about 2,000 demonstrators assembled at the US Embassy in Cairo on September 11th, 2012. There was even a call to “burn the embassy down,” referring to Cairo. This was a big deal in the State Department, and they coordinated with Egyptian leaders to order most of the embassy employees not to even come to work that day.

Once the protest was under way, AFRICOM (United States Africa Command) observed and became concerned that it would incite other protests in the region (including neighboring Libya).  However, to State Department staff located in Tripoli and Benghazi, there appeared to be little response to the video in Libya. They had, however, been monitoring for a response since September 8th 2012.

Ahmed Abu Khattala, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi, was captured by the US Army and the FBI in Libya.  Though interviewed State Department officials are shown in the House report to deny that any protest occurred whatsoever prior to the attack, Khattala has claimed that there were such protests and that the attack was in retaliation for the Innocence of Muslims video.

Who were the attackers?

According to the report: the attackers were a mix of local extremist groups, including the Benghazi-based Ansar al-Sharia, al-Qaida in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb, and the Muhammad Jamal Network out of Egypt. Members of al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaida in Iraq and Abu Ubaydah Ibn Jarah Battalion also participated.

Any other important information about which one might not know to ask?

One really important piece of data to come from the Benghazi commission’s findings is that Ambassador Stevens was passionately involved in his job and it was he, himself, who rejected concerns about his safety in going (as testified by his Diplomatic Security Agent in Triploi). Additionally, he was identified (with his agreement) by the State Department as the only person who could go to Benghazi and get a clear picture of the political and security situation of the area.

A Note on the Quality of the Benghazi Report

Additionally, the quality of the Benghazi report is poor in comparison with the 9/11 Commission report.  The 9/11 report, when read, strikes the reader as a clearly bipartisan, respectful attempt at investigating the relevant incident.  It even begins with an observation of the benefit of hindsight and an explicit concern for appearing overly critical.  Though it is a bit melodramatic on more than one occasion, it appears free of grammatical and typographic errors and seems professional.

The Benghazi report, on the other hand, is fronted by an overtly partisan website that seems more like a right-wing conspiracy site on the Internet than an official product of the United States government.  These are actual press releases from the site:

In line with that, as one might suspect, the Benghazi report takes a castigating tone at nearly any opportunity, often undercutting its credibility on account of its seemingly obvious stretches for inappropriate conclusions.

Further, the report actually contains a noticeable number of typographic and grammatical errors.  Larger editing errors, such as quotations which are included both at the end of a section and the beginning of the subsequent section, or mislabeled Q-and-A sessions (with the Q or A incorrectly labeling the text) exist as well.

How does the Benghazi incident compare to other terrorist attacks against the United States?

Given that I have at my disposal two large studies composed on these issues, let us compare the 9/11/2001 attacks against the US with the Benghazi Mission attack. I found the failures involved to be similar in quality:

Issue 9/11/2001 Terrorist Attacks Benghazi Mission Attack
Poor dissemination of gathered intelligence ·         Information linking those involved in prior terrorist activities to future actors in 9/11 attacks was not shared between intelligence agencies
Poor response to actionable intelligence ·         No link was made between the arrest of an Al Qaeda operative in America (Zacarias Moussaoui) for seeking flight training for the purpose of using an airplane in a terrorist act to heightened indications of a large-scale Al Qaeda attack ·         Despite knowledge of the poor security situation in Benghazi (and the importance of the post to the State Department, as evidenced by the report), only three Diplomatic Security Agents were stationed at the post.

·         A Diplomatic Security Agent was informed the day before the attack that the Benghazi Mission was being photographed by a member of the local police force assigned to the Mission. It was reported to the Libyan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but that was it.

Poor execution of extant mitigating practices ·         False statements on visa applications were not discovered

·         Fraudulent passports were not discovered

·         Actors were identified for searches by automated screening systems (CAAPS), but they were not searched

Poor understanding of threat ·         No preparation existed for suicide-missions aimed at turning passenger aircraft into weapons

o   This had been hypothesized by NORAD, but only in relation to aircraft hijacked from overseas locations

·         Upon arrival, Stevens was surprised at the deterioration of Benghazi and the large presence of competing militant factions.
Poor prioritization of issues ·         The threat from Al Qaeda was known for many years, and was identified during that time (by the 9/11 commission report) as perhaps the most dangerous foreign enemy facing the US
Poor military response ·         Even after the “shoot-down” order was given, pilots who were scrambled were scrambled too late and without knowledge of their targets or mission (seriously). ·         No military force was stationed near enough to Benghazi to provide any hope of a response time low enough to intervene in an attack of the kind under which the Mission came.

·         The Secretary of Defense’s order to deploy assets was not relayed to those assets until two hours after it was given.

Ineffective leadership ·         DCI Tenet issued a directive indicating “We are at war. I want no resources or people spared in this effort, either inside CIA or the Community”, yet it had no appreciable effect on mobilizing the CIA. ·         The Department of Defense placed its forces on “higher alert” on September 10th, 2012, but this effected no actual adjustment in its posture for assets that could respond to a crisis in North Africa.

 

 

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