Benghazi

05.10.13

In Benghazi, CIA Trusted Local Militia That Melted Away

The agency seemed unaware prior to the attack of how unreliable or possibly compromised the February 17 militia actually was, reports Eli Lake.

CIA officers at the Benghazi mission’s annex had responsibility for vetting the Libyan militia that they counted on, but failed to arrive, as one of the first responders on the night of the 9-11 anniversary attacks last September, according to U.S. intelligence officers and U.S. diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press.

Yet the CIA has managed to avoid much Congressional scrutiny as House Republicans turn attention to the dramatic testimony of two new State Department whistleblowers this week that testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

The CIA has been singled out for praise because of the heroic rescue performed by its security contractors at the Benghazi annex. On that evening, two former SEALs—Glenn Doherty and Tyrone Woods—helped lead a team that rescued all but two of the U.S. personnel at the Benghazi mission that evening. U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens and Sean Smith, a communications specialist, died of smoke inhalation after the attackers set the U.S. compound ablaze with cans of kerosene the raiding party found after breaching its gates. Doherty and Woods were killed at around five the next morning by mortar fire.

While CIA operatives showed heroism during the rescue, the agency failed to properly vet beforehand the February 17 Martyr’s Brigade, a local militia comprised in part by Islamist fighters who had fought against Libyan dictator Muammar Gadhafi during the 2011 revolution. The State Department’s own Accountability Review Board (ARB) found most members of the brigade—one of the best armed militias in eastern Libya, with a membership in the low thousands—failed to show up on the evening of the attacks, despite agreeing to be the compound’s “quick reaction force,” intended to perform the role of the Libyan state in a city that lacked mature security institutions.

After the attack began, brigade members declined CIA security officers attempts to join them in mounting a rescue mission, according to the ARB—which also found that three Brigade members who were stationed that evening at the compound failed to provide advanced warning that a mob of attackers with bad intentions was approaching the embassy that night, leaving the five U.S. diplomatic security officers at the compound little time to prepare a defense.

The CIA’s failure to properly vet the February 17 Martyr’s Brigade has not been disclosed by the ARB or an interim report by House Republicans released last month.

“The Benghazi compound was a U.S. intelligence station with State Department cover.”

A U.S. official familiar with the Libya security situation told The Daily Beast, “The host country is responsible for perimeter security, but no one can provide guarantees. No matter how strong a relationship you develop or how many precautions you take, you can’t make an inherently unstable environment completely safe.” The official added, “That night some Libyan militia members bravely and immediately answered the call for help, some didn’t, and others took time to coordinate their eventual support to the evacuation.”

The role of the CIA in the security failure before the Benghazi attack also sheds light on the inter-agency squabble over the talking points drafted by the CIA, but edited by the White House for senior U.S. officials about Benghazi. Those talking points said first reports suggested the attack stemmed from a protest in front of the U.S. facility in Benghazi against an anti-Muslim YouTube video. The CIA initially drafted the talking points, but the State Department objected to some references to prior CIA warnings of terror activity in Benghazi and al Qaeda’s presence in Libya’s second city because of the CIA’s own role in providing security for the Benghazi mission.

The CIA’s role in the Benghazi facility’s security was part of an arrangement with the State Department, according to a November 1 Wall Street Journal story that first disclosed several details about the true nature of the U.S. mission in Benghazi. That piece also said 23 of the 30 people evacuated from the Benghazi compound on the evening of the attack were CIA officers using State Department cover. Other U.S. officials confirmed this to The Daily Beast. “The Benghazi compound was a U.S. intelligence station with State Department cover,” one U.S. official said.

To be sure, the State Department has had similar arrangements with the CIA in other dangerous posts. The State Department did have three full time Diplomatic Security officers stationed at the mission in Benghazi and another two officers at the compound who arrived with Stevens for the visit. The State Department was also in charge of the contract for local, unarmed security guards hired through Blue Mountain Libya, who were also faulted in the ARB for failing to provide warning of the attacks on the anniversary of 9-11 in Benghazi.

But the February 17 Martyr’s Brigade was the weakest link in the security chain on the evening of the attacks. The ARB—which only makes vague mentions of the CIA’s role at the U.S. mission at Benghazi—said it was a mistake to rely on the militia despite the fact that it had performed well in June 2012 after a bomb was placed at the special mission.

“At the time of Ambassador Stevens’ visit, February 17 militia members had stopped accompanying Special Mission vehicle movements in protest over salary and working hours,” the report said

Video screenshot

Eli Lake talks Obama Administration secrecy on MSNBC's All In with Chris Hayes.

A spokesman for the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee did not respond to a request for comment on why the CIA’s role in the security failures has not been a target for the committee.

One explanation for the attention paid to the State Department could be the fact that Gen. David Petraeus—who headed the CIA at the time—is not expected to be a candidate for the presidency in 2016. Hillary Clinton, the former secretary of State, is widely expected to be running for the office as she did in 2008.

Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, who has called on House Speaker John Boehner to form a special select committee to investigate Benghazi, says he is flummoxed as to why the CIA’s role has not been examined more closely. “I think it’s a legitimate question,” he said. “It was a CIA annex and they were involved in the talking points. What were they doing there?”

Wolf has gotten more than half of the House Republican caucus to sign a letter supporting his call for the special select committee on Benghazi. He said retired CIA officers have quietly asked him to meet with whistleblowers inside the CIA. 

“My sense is they want to talk about what happened,” Wolf said. “The reason they have approached me is that I have been pushing the idea of a select committee since December. They know I am interested.”