Thursday, October 18, 2012

Benghazi and the Phantom Demonstration

US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, pre-9/11/12
    Ever since the attack on the US Consulate and Benghazi which resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others, questions have swirled around what the State Department and our intelligence agencies knew and when they knew it.   These questions extend back to what was known about the conditions in Libya beforehand and what was done to strengthen (or not) security in Libya.  Even more contentious have been the questions about what role, if any, the "Innocence of Muslims" movie trailer played in the Benghazi incident.

    The consensus on that latter question is settling around "none."  A background briefing given to reporters last week by two unnamed Senior State Department Officials (transcript here) revealed that no evidence of a demonstration or protest before the Benghazi attack is visible on the security camera video recently recovered from the shattered compound.  Nor have any of the surviving personnel from the attack reported any such demonstration or even unusual activity outside the consulate that evening before an explosion and gunfire split the silence.  From all appearances now, the attack seems to have been planned and unrelated to the film.

    But the question remains: why would the diplomats and staff in Benghazi have been so unprepared that night, given the anniversary date and given what was taking place at that very time right next door in Egypt?  The State Department's OSAC division put out the following warning on 9/11 before the "spontaneous" Cairo protests had even begun:
Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens: Cairo (Egypt), Demonstrations
Riots/Civil Unrest
Near East > Egypt > Cairo
Several different groups are calling for demonstrations in both downtown and Garden City this afternoon to protest a range of issues. These groups may gather in front of the U.S. Embassy, or Egyptian government buildings such as the People’s Assembly and Ministry of Interior, beginning in the early afternoon and continuing into the evening.  It is unclear if large numbers will take to the streets, but clashes may occur should two opposing groups come into contact with one another. Large gatherings and non-essential travel in and around Downtown and Garden City should be avoided this afternoon.
 U.S. citizens should avoid areas where large gatherings may occur.  Even demonstrations or events intended to be peaceful can turn confrontational and possibly escalate into violence.  U.S. citizens in Egypt are urged to monitor local news reports and to plan their activities accordingly.
    The State Department in Washington was well aware of the situation in Cairo as the transcript of the Daily Press Briefing for 9/11/12 shows.  This is a rather lengthy excerpt, but I believe it helps illustrate the State Department's mindset at the time [emphasis mine.]
QUESTION: I’d like to talk about Cairo. Apparently, there’s a developing issue at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. There are about a thousand protestors outside the walls trying to attack the Embassy, U.S. guards at the Embassy firing into the air, and there are some photos on Twitter with the al-Qaida flag being possibly waved at the U.S. Embassy. I don’t know what that’s about, but can you tell us about the situation there right now?
MS. NULAND: We did have reports just before I came down here that we had a protest outside our Embassy in Cairo. We had some people breach the wall, take the flag down, replace it – what I heard was that it was replaced with a --
QUESTION: With an al-Qaida flag, I believe.
MS. NULAND: With a black flag, a plain black flag, but I may not be correct in that. We are obviously working with Egyptian security to try to restore order at the Embassy and to work with them to try to get the situation under control.
QUESTION: I mean – but just in general, I mean, is the situation of what’s happening with the public there – obviously, you’ve been trying to work with the Muslim Brotherhood regardless of what religion or anything like that, but – and it does seem as if there is a growing anti-American sentiment in Cairo, and as evident as our – on our trip with Secretary Clinton. And I’m just wondering how concerning these continued protests are.
MS. NULAND: Well, there have been, as you say, these – there were some protests when the Secretary was there. They’ve had these protests. But I would hasten – I would urge you not to draw too many conclusions because we’ve also had some very positive developments in our relationship with Egypt.
As you know, Deputy Secretary Nides was there earlier this week, over the weekend, with some hundred businesspeople from the United States, working with Egyptian counterparts in big business, medium, small to try to support the renewal of the Egyptian economy, to cut new deals. And that was a very, very successful conference that was very much appreciated by the Egyptian business community. We’re also working with Egyptian civil society and with the government on a broader package of support going forward.
So obviously, one of the things about the new Egypt is that protest is possible. Obviously we all want to see peaceful protest, which is not what happened outside the U.S. mission, so we’re trying to restore calm now. But I think the bigger picture is one of the United States supporting Egypt’s democratic transition and the Egyptian Government very much welcoming and working with us on the support that we have to offer.
QUESTION: Well, why do you think, though, that that message isn’t getting out? I mean, do you think that you – that the Embassy and this Department need to do more efforts at public diplomacy? I mean, certainly it’s true that you have kind of outreached the Muslim Brotherhood; you are doing a lot with the business community, with the debt, helping them with other financial institutions. So why do you think that that message isn’t getting through?
MS. NULAND: Well, I think we can always do more. The Egyptians can always do more. But I think the message is getting through, as more and more partners across Egypt want to work with us. It’s rarely the case that you please all of the people all the time in any country, and we certainly respect the right of peaceful protest, as long as it’s peaceful.
QUESTION: Do you think that Egypt’s becoming increasingly hostile towards the United States?
MS. NULAND: I haven’t seen the polling data in the recent period, Said, but I don’t have any reason to think that this is a dangerous trend, if that’s what you’re asking.
QUESTION: This breaching of the wall is a serious thing.
MS. NULAND: No, of course.
QUESTION: I mean, remember when, let’s say, they did that to the Israeli Embassy. It was an initiative from this building, I believe, that called the Egyptians and urged them to defuse the situation, and they did. So what do you do in this case?
MS. NULAND: Well, obviously, in this case, we’re working with the Egyptian security forces to restore order. It sounds like – and I don’t have full details – that this came up pretty quickly, relatively modest group of people, but caught probably us and the Egyptian security outside the Embassy by some surprise.
QUESTION: This was a thousand people. I don’t really think that’s necessarily modest, do you?
MS. NULAND: Well, as compared to some of the things that we’ve seen.
QUESTION: Were there any injuries, do you know?
MS. NULAND: Not that I know of, but we’ll have to see how it develops.
    Obvious Ms. Nuland, while sharing known details of the Cairo situation, was at pains to look at the bright side and downplay the seriousness: "some people"/"modest group of people" was apparently a mob of 1,000 or so; "I don’t have any reason to think that this is a dangerous trend", when what began as a protest led to the breach of a wall at the embassy, the US flag being burned and replaced with a black (al-Qaeda?) flag, and warning gunshots fired into the air; and reporters were urged not to "draw too many conclusions" and look at the "bigger picture" of the Egyptian government "welcoming and working" with the United States.

    Does this explain why the State Department (apparently) did not contact the Embassy in Tripoli, Libya, and the Consulate in Benghazi to find out if any protests were developing there?  If 1,000 people rioting in Cairo modest "as compared to some of the things that we’ve seen," shouldn't State have been in touch with every diplomatic post in the Middle East to find out if the unrest was spreading, especially in Egypt's immediate neighbors?  And if such a copycat protest was beginning to bubble up in Benghazi, wouldn't the security staff there have been emailing/calling Tripoli and Washington to alert someone?  I have not seen any reports suggesting any of these things happened.

    Despite UN Ambassador Susan Rice's assertion on Meet the Press on September 16th that...
What happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, prompted by the video[.]
...in fact the two incidents at the time as well as in retrospect appear quite dissimilar.  A recent story by Reuters may shed some light on why the administration was at pains to conflate the two events:
 In the months before the deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, U.S. and allied intelligence agencies warned the White House and State Department repeatedly that the region was becoming an increasingly dangerous vortex for jihadist groups loosely linked or sympathetic to al Qaeda, according to U.S. officials.
Despite those warnings, and bold public displays by Islamist militants around Benghazi, embassies in the region were advised to project a sense of calm and normalcy in the run-up to the anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the United States.
    Tragically, four U.S. citizens paid the ultimate price for what may have been political considerations. Congress must now cut through the fog and get to the truth.

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