Up To Speed

09.11.13

Up to Speed: 5 Things You Need to Know About Benghazi

It’s been a year since an attack on the U.S. mission in Libya killed four Americans. Yet no one has been arrested, and many questions remain unanswered. Eli Lake gets you up to speed.

One year ago a band of Libyan fighters gathered around the exterior gates of the United States mission in Benghazi, Libya, and proceeded to torch the compound. The initial wave of attacks ended up killing U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and a communications specialist, Sean Smith, who both died of smoke inhalation. A second wave killed two former Navy SEALs, Glenn Doherty and Tyrone Woods. The attacks sparked a series of investigations in Congress as well as a State Department independent review, which faulted mid-level officials for not providing adequate security before the attack and for failing to account for a series of warnings about the deteriorating security environment in Benghazi. Nonetheless many questions remain unanswered. Below, five facts to bring you up to speed.

1. The Killers Are at Large

In July, President Obama confirmed that at least one suspect, a militia leader in Benghazi named Ahmed Abu Khattala, had been indicted in secret by a grand jury. But Khattala has yet to be arrested and no other indictments have been filed. In an interview with The New York Times last fall, he said he was at the U.S. mission on the night of the attack and that U.S. guards shot first. This past weekend, Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough, was asked on Fox News Sunday why reporters were able to gain access to Khattala but not law enforcement. His response: “The United States government does what it says, and we will do what we say in this instance, as we do in every other instance.”

2. The Investigation Is Stymied

It’s no surprise, given that no one has been arrested, that the investigation is not going well. From the beginning Obama has treated the Benghazi attack as a criminal act and not an act of war. This means that instead of deploying special operations and covert action, as he’s done in the hunt for al Qaeda in Pakistan and Yemen, Obama has made the FBI the lead agency to track down the Benghazi killers. There have been numerous stumbles. The Bureau was not able to gain access to the Benghazi compound until more than three weeks after the crime. And when some special operations forces in October had the suspected culprits in their sights, no order was given to kill or capture them. The U.S. persuaded Turkey to send Ali Ani al-Harzi to Tunisia, a suspect who fled Libya for Turkey, but the Tunisian authorities released him, reportedly because they didn’t have enough evidence to hold him. Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican who is pushing for a special investigation into Benghazi, told The Daily Beast that the FBI only had three hours to interview al-Harzi after waiting for weeks to get access to the suspect. “Now he is gone, and missing,” he said.

3. It Could Hurt Hillary in 2016

If the former first lady and secretary of State runs for president in 2016, the Republican attack will likely start with Benghazi. It was under her leadership that the State Department declined to send all the diplomatic security resources requested by officials in the field—something that might have saved lives that fateful night. It also didn’t request more back up on the night itself, beyond the CIA contractors who arrived from the nearby annex and later from Tripoli. Yet the State Department’s Accountability Review Board failed to hold any senior officials at the State Department or the CIA accountable. The four State Department employees who were singled out went back to work this summer. Greg Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission at the embassy in Benghazi and one of the whistleblowers who testified before Congress in May, says he has been punished for going public. In an interview with ABC News on Sunday, Hicks said he was given a desk job that is the equivalent of being “put in closet.” On Wednesday, a State Department spokesman disputed that Hicks had been punished, saying, "We appreciate his exemplary service on the evening of September 11 and his long career as a member of the foreign service."

4. The CIA’s Role Is Still in Question

What we know is that the State Department isn’t the only agency that screwed up that night. The CIA was operating in secret from a nearby annex and also had several officers using State Department cover at the Benghazi diplomatic mission. It was the CIA’s job to vet the Libyan militia that failed to protect the compound on the night of the attacks. But little else is known about the CIA’s mission on the ground. Was the CIA engaged in missions against some of the jihadist militias that may have provoked the attack a year ago? Some members of Congress have said the CIA was sending Libyan weapons collected in the aftermath of the country’s civil war to arm Syrian rebels. Senior U.S. officials have denied these claims. Earlier this year, the chief of the CIA base in Benghazi won an intelligence award for his performance there. The award raised some eyebrows among others in the special operations community because he was seen as presiding over an intelligence failure.

5. At This Rate, It Might Be a Dead End

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) currently has 168 fellow GOP House members supporting his resolution to establish a bipartisan commission to investigate Benghazi. Wolf says he wants to know what exactly the CIA was doing in Benghazi before the night of the attack and on the night itself. He told The Daily Beast he wants to have CIA director John Brennan and David Petraeus, who was the CIA director a year ago, testify in open session about Benghazi. While Wolf has most of the Republicans in the House, he does not have House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH), the man who ultimately determines what resolutions and legislation get a vote on the House floor. Wolf also doesn’t have the support of Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI), the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who has conducted his own largely classified investigation of the CIA’s role on the evening of the Benghazi attack. For now, Wolf is saying he won’t let it go.

Editor's Note: This story has been updated with a response from the State Department regarding Greg Hicks.