Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Politicization of Benghazi

    Congressional hearings were held this week to attempt to get to the bottom of the terror attacks in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012.  One of the challenges was determining the level of alertness and preparedness at the State Department and other agencies charged with the security of our national interests and citizens at home and abroad.  The answer to that question might provide clues also about the curious response of many in the Obama administration who after the attack clung to the spontaneous protest of a terrible anti-Muslim movie that turned violent explanation in the face of clear and mounting evidence to the contrary.

    I have already written extensively about one report that the State Department issued on 9/6/12 via the Overseas Security Advisory Council.  While the OSAC's function is limited within the State Department, the reports they issue, to be credible and reliable, must be based on the best intelligence available to the State Department as a whole, and consequently must reflect the attitudes and priorities of the Department and its leadership.  The summary of the report which initially appeared in a publicly available menu of reports but subsequently on 9/14/12 was placed behind the subscriber wall reads as follows [emphasis mine]:
Terrorism and Important Dates
OSAC currently has no credible information to suggest that al-Qa'ida or any other terrorist group is plotting any kind of attack overseas to coincide with the upcoming anniversary of September 11. However, constituents often have concerns around important dates, holidays, and major events, Often times, these concerns are the result of increased media attention to the issue, rather than credible evidence of a terrorist plot.
    This position of the State Department, that often concerns are the result of media attention to anniversary dates, stands in stark contrast to their position in 2011 as the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks approached.  This warning was issued last year on 9/2/11 [emphasis mine]:
Travel Alert
Bureau of Consular Affairs
9-11 Anniversary
September 02, 2011
As we mark the 10th Anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Department of State informs U.S. citizens traveling and residing abroad of the continued threat posed by al-Qa’ida and its affiliates.  While we have not identified any specific threats from al-Qa’ida affiliates and allies to attack the United States or our interests on the 9/11 anniversary, U.S. citizens should be aware that al-Qa’ida affiliates and allies have demonstrated the intent and capability to carry out attacks against the United States and our interests around the world.  In the past, terrorist organizations have on occasion planned their attacks to coincide with significant dates on the calendar.  This Worldwide Travel Alert supplements the July 26, 2011, Worldwide Caution, and expires on January 2, 2012.
    In contrast, no travel warnings were issued by the State Department in advance of the 9/11 anniversary that related the warning to the anniversary.  In fact, at a press conference on August 29, 2012, a State Department spokesperson went to some lengths to dispel the notion that a recently issued Pakistan travel warning was in any way related to the upcoming anniversary of 9/11:
MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, Goyal, you are correct that we recently updated our Travel Warning for Pakistan. We do this on a routine basis as events happen on the ground. The latest update, which I think was yesterday or the day before, includes information about some of the attacks that we’ve seen, including the April explosion in Lahore and the suicide attack in Karachi. So it’s just appropriate that we would keep that up-to-date based on events...
QUESTION: And as far as this Travel Warning is concerned, Madam, is this in connection with the, one, 9/11 coming up? ...
MS. NULAND: It doesn’t have anything to do with September 11th. It just has to do with regular updating based on information on the ground, as I stated.
    The bottom line is that the State Department had little to no concern about the 9/11 anniversary.  A search  for "9/11 threat" and "9/11 warning" on the State Department website in the month run-up to September 11th this year yields very few results, and most of those have nothing to do with the anniversary.  The sole exception was the transcript of the press conference I excerpted above, and that was actually to disavow a 9/11 anniversary warning.  Coincidentally, one of the other documents these searches found was not a warning, but rather an IRC Alert Newsletter from the U.S. Embassy in Pakistan that highlighted an article in the Mediterranean Quarterly, Spring 2012 issue entitled "AL QAEDA’S POST–9/11 ORGANIZATIONAL STRUCTURE AND STRATEGY: The Role of Islamist Regional Affiliates".  The article is summarized in part as follows:
"The political transformations under way in the Arab world and the killing of Osama bin Laden raise serious questions about al Qaeda‘s long-term viability. The secular-liberal Arab Spring protest movement appears to be winning the war of ideas over al Qaeda‘s violent religious fundamentalism. Civil disobedience campaigns in Tunisia and Egypt succeeded in forcing regime change in ways that a decade of al Qaeda terror attacks failed to accomplish. While it is too soon to write al Qaeda‘s obituary, its erosion came well before the death of its historic leader...”
    Given the pre-9/11/12 optimism at the State Department and the ambivalence towards the upcoming 9/11 anniversary, the administration's response to the events of that day had to be prepared quickly.  Eli Lake at the Daily Beast and Jake Tapper of ABC News among others have reported on various internal documents, assessments, and talking points that were prepared and used by various government agencies in the days and weeks following the attacks.  Whatever those documents actually said, much of the talk during that time from government officials, up to and including the president, was about the movie, the anti-Muslim trailer on YouTube that apparently provoked the protest at the US Embassy in Cairo, Egypt, on the same day as the Benghazi attack.  But what information did the State Department have in the hours following the attacks that would have led to this initial conclusion?  One of the first responses came from the OSAC who had issued the report on 9/6 that I referenced at the beginning of this post.  It is dated 9/11/12, the same day as the incident and begins as follows:
Emergency Message for U.S. Citizens: Tripoli (Libya) Attack on Consulate in Benghazi
Riots/Civil Unrest
Near East > Libya > Tripoli
Please be advised that the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was attacked this evening.  We strongly encourage all American citizens to take appropriate precautions as the security situation in Libya is volatile.  Review your personal safety plans, remain aware of your surroundings, including local events, and monitor local news stations for updates.  Maintain a high level of vigilance and take appropriate steps to enhance your personal security.
The U.S. Embassy in Tripoli will be closed Wednesday, September 12, 2012.
    Almost the entire report (a repeat of the warning on the website of the Libyan embassy in Tripoli) sounds like a standard report that would be issued in many emergency situations including phone numbers and websites to get additional information, as well as warnings to be extremely careful.  But the first line says that "the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was attacked this evening."  There is no mention of a protest, a demonstration, and certainly nothing about a movie.

    The second report was issued the next day by the OSAC.  The entire report is available here.  There is analysis and further information following the paragraphs I have reproduced below, but what follows are the facts as they were being reported at the time.  Note that the official symbol of the State Department/OSAC heads the page (pictured here on left.)  Also note the disclaimer at the bottom of the page says: "The contents of this (U) presentation in no way represent the policies, views, or attitudes of the United States Department of State, or the United States Government, except as otherwise noted (e.g., travel advisories, public statements). The presentation was compiled from various open sources and (U) embassy reporting."  While it may be true that the following "in no way represent the policies, views, or attitudes of the United States Department of State," it nonetheless does represent what the State Department knew, or at least what it was willing to make public, about the events in Benghazi on 9/11/12.
September 12, 2012
On September 11, the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi was attacked by armed militants, some wielding rocket propelled grenades (RPGs) and assault rifles, at approximately 3:50 p.m. The assault breached the consulate and resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three U.S. officials. Several more personnel were reportedly wounded in the attack that left the consulate burned and ransacked.
 Background According to preliminary open source reporting, approximately 20 armed militants gathered outside the U.S. Consulate on September 11, possibly in protest to the anti-Islam film “Innocence of Muslims.”. Following a series of warning shots from security guards attempting to disperse the crowds, American and Libyan security forces were overpowered. The armed mob was able to penetrate the consulate, resulting in the death of Ambassador Stevens, Information Management Officer Sean Smith, and two security personnel. Libyan doctors who treated Ambassador Stevens reported the cause of death was severe asphyxiation from smoke inhalation. Witness reports describe the use of RPGs, homemade bombs and grenades being thrown inside the consulate, sparking several fires.
Hours before the attack on the Benghazi consulate, demonstrators gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to protest the controversial anti-Islam film the “Innocence of Muslims.” Demonstrators scaled the walls of the Embassy, tore down and burnt an American flag, and attempted to raise an Islamic banner with the words, “There is no God but God, and Mohammad is his messenger."
    Note that there is no actual evidence of a protest or demonstration in Benghazi as there was in Cairo.  While the movie is mentioned, it is pure speculation.  There were no banners in the Benghazi report, and as far as I have read, no widespread reports of "armed militants" in Cairo at the Embassy.  Also, unlike the huge gathering in Cairo, the "crowd" at Benghazi consisted of "approximately 20 armed militants" who were apparently greeted fairly quickly with warning shots from inside the compound, indicating that those inside immediately sensed extreme danger.  During the Cairo protests, the staff sent out the now infamous tweet and press release condemning those who would "hurt the religious feelings of Muslims," a reference to the anti-Muslim movie.  But in Benghazi, the staff was quickly preparing for a fight for their lives, which for four of them turned into a fight to the death.

     So why did the administration react as it did?  In September 2011, Osama bin Laden's death was only months old and tensions were still high.  But as the year passed and the election drew closer, the White House built its foreign policy credentials on the end the war in Iraq and "winding down the war in Afghanistan", Osama bin Laden's death, al-Qaida's decline, and the successful ouster of Gaddafi in Libya.  Both the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan were already showing signs of deterioration, and now in a single day, 9/11/12, the remaining three legs of the foreign policy stool were shaken.  Around the Arab world, protesters were reportedly shouting “Obama! Obama! We are all Osama!” and the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, was brutally attacked with overwhelming force, presumably with al-Qaida's involvement.  The foreign policy of the Obama administration was crashing down around it in a single day.

    Then, three days after the attacks, on 9/14/12, the OSAC withdrew the 9/6/12 report behind its subscriber wall and Jay Carney mentioned the "video" twelve times at a press conference, saying at least three times,"unrest around the region has been in response to this video."  Carney went on to say, "We do not, at this moment, have information to suggest or to tell you that would indicate that any of this unrest was preplanned."  UN Ambassador Susan Rice repeatedly cited in the video in later interviews and the president and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton brought it up more than once when discussing the Benghazi attacks.  Recently revelations have proved that there was no demonstration or protest at the US Consulate in Benghazi, only an outright and determined attack.  A more realistic look at the evidence would have made this the natural conclusion to draw in the aftermath rather than defaulting to "the video."

    The US Weather Service may have to visit the scene of a weather disaster to officially designate a "tornado," but those who have lived through them can look at flattened buildings and cars in trees and be quite certain what happened.  The Obama administration refused to acknowledge the evidence before its eyes in a political attempt to salvage a foreign policy, and possibly and election, that was quickly slipping away.

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