Tuesday, October 23, 2012

State Department on 9/12: Protests in Benghazi? You Mean Cairo?

    Over the past five weeks, there has been growing controversy and speculation over what Obama administration officials knew about the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, and when they knew it.  A particularly sore point of contention is the role or lack thereof that Cairo-style protests or demonstrations might have played in the attacks.  The answers have ranged from Susan Rice's assertion on Meet the Press (and other Sunday shows) that the attacks were a direct response to the anti-Muslim Youtube movie trailer...
“This is a response to a hateful and offensive video that was widely disseminated throughout the Arab and Muslim world.”
...to flat denials that there even were any protests, as Eli Lake of the Daily Beast reported on October 12:
[F]our diplomatic-security officers who were at the Benghazi compound and who initially responded to the attack... told State Department investigators in formal briefings that there was no spontaneous protest the night of the attack.
    Conflicting reports continue to filter out.  Just last Friday, the L.A Times reported:
 "There isn't any intelligence that the attackers pre-planned their assault days or weeks in advance." Most of the evidence so far suggests that "the attackers launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo" earlier that day, the official said.
    With a multitude of parties involved bearing varying degrees of responsibility or even possible culpability and many agendas to boot, the truth will be slow to come out and likely will be denied by some even if and when it does.  But at the risk of sounding like I have discovered something that all the professional journalists and amateur bloggers have overlooked or forgotten, I believe I have discovered something that the professional journalists and amateur bloggers have overlooked or forgotten.  On September 12, 2012, the day after the attacks, the State Department conducted a telephone conference call with reporters to try to provide information based on what was known at the time.  Josh Rogin of Foreign Policy was one of the reporters on the call, and he wrote a story that day based on the information given by the unnamed officials.  During the conference call, Rogin asked a question about possible protests, and reported the response as follows:

The briefing left several questions about the Tuesday attack unanswered. The officials wouldn't speculate about the identity of the attackers or whether the Benghazi attack was connected to an earlier protest at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo during which protesters breached the compound walls.
"It was clearly a complex attack," the official said. "It's too early to speak to who they were and if they might have been otherwise affiliated outside of Libya."
 * * * 
The officials could not say whether the attackers were part of the protests outside the embassy walls.
"We frankly don't have a full picture of what may have been going on outside of the compound walls before the firing began," the official said.

    However, the way the unnamed official responds to the question about the protests (see transcript of the conference call) is quite revealing [emphasis mine]:
QUESTION: Thank you very much. First, just one point of clarification. Can you tell us what time in the timeline that [the body of] Ambassador Stevens was delivered to you at the airport? But the larger question is, you didn’t talk at all about the protests. You started your timeline with that the firing began. Can you talk about the timeline of when the protests started, how that fit in with it, and your sense of whether or not the protestors and the assailants were the same?
 * * *
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ONE: ...With regard to the protests – I assume you’re not talking about protests in Cairo, are you? You’re talking about protests in Benghazi?... We frankly don’t have a full picture of what may have been going on outside of the compound walls before the firing began. So I really just don’t have any specifics on that at the moment. I apologize.
    It is clear from the official's response that the Cairo protests were the only protests of which the State Department was aware.  Even though Rogin's question was clearly in the context of Benghazi, the official felt the need to clarify that Rogin was not referring to the Cairo protests.  Indeed, the overall content and tone of the call was such that another reporter, Justin Fishel with Fox News, asked the following later in the call:
QUESTION: ...Do you believe that this attack was in any way related to the incident in Cairo? You suggested this attack in Benghazi was more complex; so is it safe to rule out that this was a reaction to the inflammatory internet video?
 * * *
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: ...With regard to whether there is any connection between this internet activity and this extremist attack in Benghazi, frankly, we just don’t know. We’re not going to know until we have a chance to investigate. And I’m sorry that it is frustrating for you that so many of our answers are “We don’t know,” but they are truthful in that.
    Keep in mind this question was asked before all the controversy erupted about the attacks being pre-planned versus a spontaneous reaction to the video, so likely it was asked sincerely based on the preceding information in the call and not with a gotcha agenda.

    As I wrote last week, it seems to stretch credulity that, given the violence of the protests in Cairo, the State Department would not have been in touch with other installations in the region to monitor possible copycat situations.  And based on this conference calls, the early information suggested that no such copycat protest had happened in Benghazi.  Only in the days and weeks that following came the increasing drumbeat from the administration about spontaneous protests in Benghazi, a drumbeat that increasingly seems to have been political in nature with little basis in reality.

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