A Scandal in Benghazi?

by John Lawrence

The partisan bias in the investigation of the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three others last September 11 in Benghazi is obvious.  As with the huge increase in the federal deficit, issues that raised nary a GOP eyebrow during the presidency of George W. Bush are fueling GOP outrage and accusations during the Obama Administration.   After all, during the Bush presidency, there were at least 11 attacks on U.S. embassies and consulates around the world, and not only did Republicans launch no investigations, they cut funding for embassy security efforts. 

Certainly, there are legitimate questions about the state of security in Benghazi and what, if anything, might have been done to prevent the loss of American personnel.

But the investigation needs to focus on a series of decisions and events that preceded the attack and the subsequent drafting (and revision) of emails and talking points.  In particular, we need to know more about how Stevens came to be in such a very vulnerable situation, in a lightly defended consulate, in a very dangerous city, on the ominous date of September 11. 

Critics are obsessed with changes made to emails and talking points by the STate Department, CIA or FBI, but such cautious editing and selection of words is essential.  Not everyone involved in the chain of writing memos or talking points might be fully informed about certain security implications as those who must approve and release them.  Extreme care is needed to safeguard U.S. personnel and allies since disclosure of information could expose and jeopardize valuable covert sources.   Prematurely revealing that the Benghazi attackers might have had connections to Ansar al-Sharia, a group with links to al- Qaeda, for example, might well have exposed how we came to know that information, to the extreme peril of informants.  One report has noted that CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell removed references that were classified, and that the FBI was concerned exposure could undermine an ongoing investigation. Would that the CIA analysts who put together materials on the reception awaiting the Bay of Pigs invaders, the Gulf of Tonkien “attack,” or the certainty of Iraq’s possession of weapons of mass destruction had done a little more fact checking and editing. 

Not in dispute is that the situation in Benghazi was extremely perilous, and had been throughout the revolution and its aftermath.  Only a few months earlier, I had visited in Libya as part of an official congressional visit. The instability of the country, and the danger posed by multiple, well-armed militias within Tripoli, let alone elsewhere, was readily apparent.  Our delegation moved only under heavy guard even in areas under the nominal control of the central government.  There was not even a remote possibility of traveling to the eastern side of the country, where the anti-Gaddafi uprisings had begun and the authority of the central government remained extremely tenuous.  We were only allowed to stay in the country briefly, and an overnight stay, or trip outside Tripoli, were out of the question. 

Benghazi was an extremely unstable and dangerous city, lacking either a strong U.S. or Libyan government military security capacity.   In Benghazi, CIA cables note, there had already been five prior serious attacks against foreign interests by September.  Ambassador Stevens certainly was well aware of the weak security in Benghazi, having sent a telegram to the State Department in mid-August, expressing his concerns.   And while critics have focused on the decision by State not to send additional security in response to his warnings, it should be remembered that throughout the Libyan uprising and following the fall of Gaddafi, the Obama Administration wisely decided to minimize the visibility and presence of U.S. forces.  Even in Tripoli, one had the impression the armed U.S. presence was composed mostly of contractors and other non-military personnel.  

Indeed, one source suggests that a reluctance to raise the visibility of the U.S., especially in a remote site like Benghazi, may be why Ambassador Stevens reportedly declined offers for additional security forces for Libya.   As one very familiar with the country and its warring political factions, he knew that few sights could unify distrustful militias as much as the presence of U.S.  boots on the ground.  During the summer of 2012, Ambassador Stevens reportedly twice declined an offer of additional security support from Gen. Carter Ham, who headed the U.S. Africa Command, which controlled operations in Libya.  As reported by Nancy A. Youssef of McClatchy, Stevens “didn’t say why. He just turned it down.”

One of the key questions needing to be answered is why Ambassador Stevens ventured into a city he knew was highly unstable without the level of security  routinely employed by ambassadors, other diplomats and congressional delegations visiting much less volatile foreign sites.  Once in an unprotected situation, he surely knew he would vulnerable to malevolent interests who undoubtedly would learn of the presence of a U.S. ambassador, even one as highly regarded locally as Stevens.  If he was ordered into the city by higher-ups who knew security was inadequate, that’s a serious failure; if he proceeded to Benghazi knowing of the paucity of support, and without a substantial security team traveling with him, that is another matter altogether. 

Once the assault on the Ambassador’s location in Benghazi began, it is likely that rescue options were extremely limited by virtue of the small U.S. presence in the country capable of a such an operation.  Critics have focused on the apparent decision by the State Department not to send several rescuers to Benghazi.  Obama critic Gregory Hicks apparently requested that Special Operations forces be sent in to “rescue” Stevens and the others, and that F-16s be deployed against the Benghazi attackers.  But such actions would have caused the appearance of the militarization of the mission, and the result might well have been more dead Americans, and likely a lot of dead Libyans, with catastrophic implications for the role of the U.S. and NATO  in post-Gaddafi Libya.

The media and press, let alone Republicans on their perpetual mission to undercut the Obama Administration and now Secretary Clinton, desperately want to find a scandal in Benghazi, but the actual explanation of what happened is likely to disappoint any fair observer. Scrambling to write a report in the midst of chaos and following the death of a popular ambassador, it is hardly surprising that theories and explanations were tossed around, investigated, edited, and debated.  Being cautious about using terms that raise specters of terrorism by al-Qaida makes good sense, especially if doing so could compromise intelligence sources.

So, yes, let’s have the full investigation and ask all the tough questions.  Was there good reason to decline requests for additional security forces prior to the attack in Benghazi?  Was the situation in that city safe enough to permit a visit by a high profile American diplomat, and if not, who made the decision made to go anyway, particularly on such a volatile date as September 11?  And was there any practical way to extricate Stevens and others once the attack in Benghazi on September 11th had begun?  All reasonable and important questions, as compared to the hysterical search for scandal that has been the hallmark of the so-called “inquiry” thus far.

May 20, 2013