Now What?

Obama Weighs Retaliation for Attacks in Benghazi, Libya, That Killed Chris Stevens

As the clock ticks on a decision about whether and how to target suspects in the Benghazi attacks, intelligence officials say the president might lose his shot if he doesn’t act fast. Eli Lake reports.

President Obama has vowed to bring justice to those behind the Sept. 11 attacks in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, but the president hasn’t chosen what kind of justice that will be. Five administration officials tell The Daily Beast that the White House is now weighing whether to pursue those responsible through law enforcement or via military means like drone strikes or special operations.

The delay from the White House could allow specific intelligence on the locations of suspects to whither on the vine if the suspects flee the country and evade detection, according to three U.S. intelligence officials working closely on the manhunt in Libya. A list of so-called high-value targets is now residing at a Pentagon office responsible for contingency special-operations planning, according to two of those U.S. intelligence officials.

The existence of the list was first reported this week by The New York Times. It was compiled with input from several U.S. intelligence agencies and is being constantly revised and edited as new information comes in to the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center. Some U.S. intelligence officials say there is enough detail to begin military operations to kill or capture 10 of the operatives tied to the planning of the attack.

“These targets are believed to be located throughout Libya,” one U.S. intelligence officer told The Daily Beast. Another senior U.S. defense official acknowledged that some of the early intelligence could lose its value if there is too much delay. But this official also said there were risks in acting too quickly. “There is always the risk of flight in a situation like this,” this official said. “But it’s probably worth doing right and waiting a bit and trying to get more intel on these guys. You have to worry about relationships. If you do the wrong thing, the ramifications could be serious.” The U.S. intelligence officer said the information on the 10 suspects was “good enough to authorize action if this was Pakistan or Afghanistan.”

In those two countries, the CIA and the U.S. military have had quiet consent from the host governments to launch drone strikes on high-value targets. U.S. and Libyan security officials have in recent months negotiated a security cooperation agreement as part of a wider U.S.-led trans-Saharan initiative in North Africa. But there is no agreement between the U.S. and Libya to allow the kinds of drone strikes that have become common in the border provinces of Pakistan and lawless regions of Yemen.

The National Security Council, the CIA, and the Defense Department declined comment on target lists.

The choice facing Obama is difficult. On one hand, any military action could alienate the new government in Tripoli and carry risks if the intelligence turns out to be wrong. There is also a risk that any decision on this front will be seen as a political gambit with less than a month before election. On the other hand, a successful special-operations strike or drone hit could rally the nation around the president.

The special-operations activities in Libya currently under way to this point have been conducted under intelligence authorities separate from the 2001 resolution authorizing war against al Qaeda, known as the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF). That resolution gives the U.S. military broad authorities to kill or capture suspected al Qaeda operatives in Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia, and Afghanistan.

On the law-enforcement front, the FBI only arrived at the Benghazi consulate on Thursday, after news organizations like The Washington Post and CNN had already sent reporters. Several recent reports say the compound and nearby annex have lost much of their forensic value at this point. On Thursday news wires reported that Turkish authorities had arrested two suspects believed to be involved in the Benghazi attack.

Three U.S. officials tell The Daily Beast that the U.S. military has the special-operations forces and other assets in place to begin going after individuals in Libya. The Naval Air Station in Sigonella, Italy, flies surveillance drones and other aircraft that are capable of reaching Libya in a few hours. There is also something known as a joint special-operations task force that operates under the authority of U.S. Africa Command, which two of these officials say have capabilities to begin kill or capture missions in Libya.

“At this point, the capabilities are in place,” one U.S. intelligence officer said. “The holdup is in Washington.”