LIBYA

05.17.13

Truth, Justice and Benghazi

Why the CIA bears the main responsibility for the intelligence failures that led to the atrocity in Libya last year. By Christopher Dickey

On September 12 last year, President Obama made a vow in the White House Rose Garden. The previous night attacks on a U.S. diplomatic outpost and a nearby CIA base in Benghazi, Libya, killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens. “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation,” Obama declared. “We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done.”

Of all the questions being asked in Washington these days about what happened in Benghazi, the most important should be this: Has justice been done? And the answer to that is ‘no.’

And so, if not, why not?

There are hints that action may be imminent. Earlier this month the FBI posted photographs of three men, apparently taken by security cameras the night of the attack in Libya. “These individuals may be able to provide information to help the investigation,” says the FBI wanted poster. And this week the Italian government announced that at least 200 U.S. Marines are being transferred to Sigonella Air Base in Sicily to help assure the security of U.S. personnel in Libya and possibly carry out evacuations. That would be prudent in any case, given the ongoing levels of violence, but it could be urgent if there’s reaction to arrests or other actions taken against the suspects in the September attacks.

Meanwhile, Congress has spent eight months indulging in an inside-the-Beltway circle jerk about talking points and political plotting. So it’s not surprising most of the American people have decided it’s about time to move on. A survey by Public Policy Polling published earlier this week showed folks would rather see the Hill focused on immigration reform or background checks for gun owners. People who identify themselves as Republicans are passionate about “Benghazi” —41 percent think it’s the biggest scandal in American political history!—but of those, 39 percent couldn’t identify the country where Benghazi is located. The pollsters didn’t even ask whether justice is likely to be done.

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Acting CIA Director Michael Morell arrives at the Capitol last November to attend closed-door meetings about the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Yet amid all the Congressional posturing and public ignorance, some shreds of information have emerged that do give a clearer picture of what happened in Benghazi and in Washington at the time of the attacks—and why it’s taking so long to nail the people responsible for the murders that night.

The Central Intelligence Agency is the elephant in the room, big and clumsy and bumping into everything, even though everyone tries to avoid mentioning it. The CIA misjudged the security threat in Benghazi and contributed mightily to the confusion afterwards. The ass-covering of then-CIA Director David Petraeus, particularly, muddled the question of what could and should be told to the public.

On Wednesday, the White House released 100 pages of emails about the preparation of the Benghazi talking points in the days after the tragedy. They were written and edited for use by members of the intelligence committees on the Hill, and only later passed along, almost as an afterthought, to UN Ambassador Susan Rice for her much-criticized appearances on Sunday talk shows.

If you actually slog through the whole stack, a couple of points become apparent:

First of all, nobody in any of the drafts that were zipping back and forth between the CIA, the White House, the State Department and the FBI on September 14 questioned the central assertion of the first bullet point of the first CIA version: On the basis of the scant evidence available at that time, it said, the attacks in Benghazi “were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US embassy in Cairo” and evolved into a “direct assault” on the outposts in Benghazi.

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In a press conference Thursday, President Obama demanded congressional help to prevent future tragedies like Benghazi.

Republicans are passionate about “Benghazi”—41 percent think it’s the biggest scandal in American political history!—but of those, 39 percent couldn’t identify the country where Benghazi is located.

This was clearly an important point for the CIA to make because it had failed completely to come up with any actionable intelligence of an impending attack in Benghazi before the event. And given the very substantial presence of the CIA in Benghazi at that time—a presence the agency actively tried to obscure in all subsequent reporting—that failure was hard to excuse. But if the attack were “spontaneous,” of course there wouldn’t have been a warning to give.

So the initial CIA drafts for the talking points were full of generalizations suggesting the agency really was aware of the overall threat environment (as was everybody else in Libya). In several early versions the agency kept making the point that it had warned the embassy in Cairo the night before the demonstrations that there were “social media reports” (my italics) “encouraging jihadists to break into the embassy.” That is, the embassy in Egypt, not Libya.

The early CIA drafts said the crowd that attacked in Benghazi “almost certainly was a mix of individuals from across many sectors of Libyan society. That being said, we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to Al-Qa’ida participated in the attack.”

But when challenged about how they knew this about Al Qaeda, the authors of the agency talking points backed down. As for the involvement of a shady Islamist group called Ansar al-Sharia, that bit of information had been reported already by journalists on the ground and in the early drafts of the talking points the CIA just cited “open sources,” meaning previously published reports. There was no indication that the agency knew anything directly about Ansar’s involvement.

The next morning all that CYA from the CIA was edited out with a few sweeping strokes of the pen by Michael Morell, the agency’s deputy director. What was left was very little because, in point of fact, the agency had few facts to muster. When Petraeus saw the end result he was disappointed. “No mention of the cable to Cairo, either?” he asked. That is, the cable that quoted the social media about an impending demonstration at the embassy in Egypt.

In December under orders from then–secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the State Department Accountability Review Board issued a report on Benghazi overseen by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Michael Mullen, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In the unclassified version, the Central Intelligence Agency, as such, is not mentioned a single time. There are just references to people in "the Annex."

In fact, the whole picture of the "consulate" in Benghazi, as portrayed in most of the headlines and hearings, is misleading. It was not really a consulate at all by the strict State Department definition of the term, it was called a "special mission" and had grown out of the improvised presence that Chris Stevens had established in Benghazi as the envoy to the rebels during the fighting to overthrow the Gaddafi dictatorship. From the beginning, the agency was there behind the scenes. When a terrorist bomb hit the hotel where Stevens was staying during the fighting in 2011, he and his team just moved in with the CIA at their so-called "Annex."

Even after Stevens officially became ambassador in Tripoli in mid-2012 he did not take the initiative to turn the diplomatic mission in Benghazi into a formal consulate. Partly as a result, it started to fall between the bureaucratic cracks at Foggy Bottom and couldn’t command as many security measures as it should have. as it should have. As one knowledgeable U.S. official told The Daily Beast's Eli Lake, "The Benghazi compound was a U.S, intelligence station with State Department cover." The agency operation run out of "the Annex" involved at least two dozen people. The "mission" was their satellite, not the other way around. And what were the agency people doing in Benghazi? Obviously, among other things, hunting for Al Qaeda—which by last September appeared to be hunting for them, as Newsweek reported in its investigation of the case last October.

State Department security officers were too few and fortifications too weak to withstand a mob attack or a terrorist assault like the one on September 11. And it is not clear how much more like Fort Apache that compound would have had to be in order to hold off such an attack. It's doubtful there would have been enough fortification and firepower under any circumstances. In Cairo that same day, when the mob scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy, tore down the American flag and raised the black flag of jihad, it met almost no resistance, even though the purpose-built compound there is like a fortress. With that evident weakness as an example, it’s not implausible that anyone plotting an attack in Benghazi would think his moment of opportunity had come.

Whether in Benghazi or Boston, good intelligence is the first and most effective line of defense against terrorist acts, and that intelligence is just what was lacking in Libya. But the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, thinly defended as it was, did have the possibility to “call in the cavalry" from the Annex. And that is just what happened the night of September 11. The agency sent one of its security teams, all highly trained and most or all of them combat veterans. They were the only armed force that could intervene in a timely fashion, and even they were too late to save Stevens and another diplomat. They did manage to rescue the State Department bodyguards. Then, several hours later, the Annex itself came under concerted attack and two members of the team there were killed. Could the agency have deployed its people sooner or more effectively? Probably. What were the specific protocols for mutual assistance and protection between the agency and the State Department on the ground in Benghazi? That would be a useful thing to know when deciphering the events of that night.

Why is the agency getting what amounts to a free ride in the current inquisition? Why do we keep hearing about the State Department’s failings and little or nothing about the CIA’s? One reason, presumably, is the administration’s desire to protect its spies and, especially, the work they do. If the CIA and the FBI can bring the Benghazi killers to justice, then what looks like self-serving secrecy now might just look like prudent tradecraft in the future. But the most obvious reason the agency is not in the Congressional hot seat is that the grand inquisitors of the GOP are not so much after truth or justice as they are after Hillary Clinton.

Only one thing is likely bring this tiresome spectacle to an end: a decisive move by the administration to arrest or otherwise eliminate the Benghazi killers.

For my part, I’ll be keeping an eye on Sigonella airbase.