Trying To Get To The Bottom Of Benghazi

Congressional hearings are underway into the storming of the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the killing of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.  The hearings are interesting — both for what they are telling us about what happened in Libya and within the U.S. government itself as the attacks unfolded, but also for what they are telling us about the twisted, hyper-partisan world of Washington, D.C.

During yesterday’s testimony, which the New York Times described as “riveting,” a veteran U.S. diplomat named Gregory Hicks gave a detailed account of the night of the attack.  Hicks, a 22-year Foreign Service veteran, became the head State Department official in Libya after Ambassador Stevens was killed.  He testified about how a Special Operations team wanted to fly to Benghazi to help but was overruled by officials in Washington, who concluded it could not arrive in time to help.  Hicks also described being “stunned” and “embarrassed” when Administration officials, including UN Ambassador Susan Rice, initially portrayed the attack as a response to a YouTube video and how such comments angered the president of the Libyan National Assembly, who had called the attack a preplanned terrorist act.  Hicks testified that the Libyan government’s feeling of being undercut may have delayed their cooperation with Americans investigating the incident.  Furthermore, he said that when he raised questions about Rice’s comments, he was effectively demoted and led to understand that he should stop asking questions.

The testimony of Hicks and two other officials, Mark Thompson and Eric Nordstrom, indicate that there is still information to be uncovered and lessons to be learned about Benghazi.  When four Americans, including an ambassador, are killed, their deaths deserve a detailed inquiry and a careful evaluation, at the congressional level.  Such an evaluation should determine whether changes in law, security arrangements, staffing, or emergency response procedures are needed to prevent such an incident from ever happening again.

Unfortunately, in our modern government, things are never quite that simple.  The Times story linked above reflects that unfortunate fact, because much of the article is devoted to the “politics” of what should ideally be an apolitical, objective fact-finding exercise.  It’s ludicrous, and disheartening, and it is happening on both sides of the aisle.  Republicans should stop portraying every incident as “another Watergate”; it just allows their opponents to dismiss hearings such as yesterday’s as a politically motivated witch hunt.  And Democrats should stop trying to downplay the significance of Benghazi and resist every inquiry about why four Americans died.  That much, at least, is owed to the memories of those four Americans — and to the many other Americans who serve their country in diplomatic posts in dangerous parts of the world.

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Mr. President, Please Don’t Shoot Yourself In The Foot!

Can President Obama actually be considering nominating Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State?  Some are reporting that Rice is his choice, and at a press conference yesterday he forcefully defended her against criticism by John McCain and other Senators. The President said Rice has done “exemplary” work at the UN and that if he decides she would be the best choice, he will go ahead and nominate her.

It seems inconceivable that Rice would be on the President’s short list for the most visible position in the Cabinet.  For many Americans, she is the face and voice of what they consider to be an unconscionable attempt to mislead and cover up the truth about the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya.  When Rice went on the Sunday talk shows and attempted to blame the Benghazi attacks on a YouTube video, she was presenting a false narrative that, increasingly, has been shown to be at odds with the facts known to many in the Administration — that the Benghazi incident was a planned and carefully executed terrorist attack, not a a spontaneous mob reaction to an incendiary video.  As a result, many angry Americans view Rice as either a know-nothing shill who was out of the loop but faithfully presented the phony talking points given to her or a knowing participant in an effort to deceive the American people.  Either way, she has little credibility with them.

If the President nominates Rice, he will be guaranteeing a bruising confirmation fight and extended hearings into what Rice and others knew about the attack.  Why run that risk?  Rice may be capable — although I’m not sure what has been “exemplary” about her service at the UN — but there undoubtedly are hundreds of people who also could capably serve as Secretary of State.  Can’t the President pick someone who won’t serve as a lightning rod for criticism about an ugly, poorly handled foreign policy disaster that involved the death of four Americans?

I cringed when I read the President’s statement that “[i]f Sen. McCain and Sen. Graham and others want to go after somebody, they should go after me.”  We don’t need silly macho posturing right now.  When the President won re-election, people wondered whether he would be more of a compromiser in his second term, or whether — freed from the need to ever again stand for election — he would demand that things be done his way, no matter what the opposition.  If the President insists on nominating Rice, he will be indicating that he is following the latter course, which in turn will just harden the opposition and make compromises less likely.  If the President shoots himself in the foot by sending Rice’s name to the Senate, we may be in for more long years of bickering, gridlock, and inability to tackle our debt, deficit, and entitlement problems.  We can’t afford that possibility — and the President can’t either.

Many Questions To Be Answered, Publically And Quickly (IV)

I’m glad to see reports that Senate Democrats are joining their Republican colleagues in asking the Obama Administration to answer questions about what happened in Libya that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

As the story from The Hill linked above shows, the Obama Administration’s story about the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi remains vague and unfocused; today Administration aptly described the Administration position as “evolving.”   The Administration seems to have backed away from its initial position that the attack was the result of unplanned demonstrations about a YouTube video, and has begun to use words like terrorism and even, apparently, al Qaeda to describe the attack.  It’s long past time that full disclosure should be made, including communications between Ambassador Stevens and the U.S. State Department about security and terrorism issues in Libya and planning related to security at U.S. installations.

As the participation of Senate Democrats indicates, what happened in Benghazi is not a partisan political issue.  Instead, it is a national security issue, a sovereignty issue, and also an issue of fairness to American diplomatic personnel across the world.  We need to ensure that our people are adequately protected and that our government is reacting prudently and appropriately to threats and warnings.  As far as I am concerned, meaningful congressional hearings into the disastrous Benghazi incident cannot begin soon enough.

Many Questions To Be Answered, Publicly and Quickly (III)

We continue to get news about the murderous attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya and its aftermath — and none of the news is good.

The Obama Administration now concedes what seemed obvious from the outset:  that the attack in Benghazi was not a mob action but instead was a terrorist attack.  That leaves the question of why the Administration and its spokespeople, like the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, insisted for days that the attack was purely a response to The Innocence of Muslims YouTube video.

It’s also become clear that the burnt-out shell of the consulate was left unprotected for days, making the place ripe for loss of intelligence information.  Three days after the attack, for example, CNN found a journal kept by murdered U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens on the floor of the consulate.  The U.S. State Department has criticized CNN’s use of the journal, but the fact that it was found days after the attack by people wandering through the consulate raises serious issues about the competence of the State Department and its security arrangements.  Weren’t procedures in place to destroy sensitive information?  Why wasn’t the area secured more quickly?  If CNN was able to find the journal by rummaging around the site, what classified information might have been acquired by the terrorists who plotted the attack?

Finally, the New York Times has an article about the catastrophic effect of the Libyan attack on U.S. intelligence gathering activities in the Middle East.  As a result of the attacks a number of CIA operators and contractors had to bug out, leaving the U.S. as if it had its “eyes poked out.”  The large CIA presence in Benghazi puts the inadequate security arrangements in sharper focus, and heightens concerns that the names of confidential informants and sources, tentative conclusions reached by our agents, and other significant intelligence information may have been acquired by al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations.  If Benghazi was a major intelligence-gathering center, shouldn’t the security arrangements for the U.S. operations have been far more robust?

The State Department has created a “review board” to examine the attacks, and the FBI is apparently investigating.  That’s all fine, but Congress needs to get involved and begin prompt hearings into the incidents in Libya and Egypt — and, particularly, the many apparent failures in U.S. operations there.  We need to determine whether advance warnings were ignored, why our security arrangements were so woefully inadequate, why we were unable to secure the area for days after the attack, and what we need to do to ensure that such planned attacks on U.S. installations cannot happen again.

Many Questions To Be Answered, Publicly And Quickly

Many Questions To Be Answered, Publicly And Quickly (II)

Many Questions To Be Answered, Publicly And Quickly

The more we learn about the deadly attacks on our diplomatic installations in Cairo, Egypt and Benghazi, Libya, the more questions arise.  Those questions need to be answered — and quickly.

Was the attack in Benghazi really just a spur-of-the-moment response to an obscure, homemade movie posted on the internet, or was it a planned, coordinated attack by a trained group of well-armed men?  Why was the security at the Benghazi consulate so inadequate — on 9/11, of all days?  Were U.S. security forces really equipped with guns with no bullets?  Did the U.S. receive any intelligence that warned us that an attack might be forthcoming?  Why didn’t the State Department respond to the attacks on the U.S. embassy in Cairo by immediately increasing protection at our other diplomatic outposts in the Middle East?  Was there an intelligence leak that allowed the attackers in Benghazi to determine where the ambassador was?  How did the U.S. somehow lose track of where Ambassador Chris Stevens was during the attacks?  How much sensitive information was lost when the Benghazi consulate was overrun?

The Justice Department and FBI are investigating and the State Department now is declining to answer questions about what happened in Benghazi because it considers the situation “a crime scene.”  The State Department won’t talk, it says, until the Justice Department investigation is concluded.  In my view, that’s not acceptable.  The Benghazi incident wasn’t a domestic criminal act, it was a foreign affairs fiasco that resulted in the first murder of a U.S. ambassador in more than 30 years.  The decisions that produced the death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans need to be examined publicly, not hidden behind the guise of a “criminal investigation.”  The Senate Homeland Security Committee apparently has called for hearings, and the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee should do likewise.  Those hearings should move forward quickly, so that we can determine how to prevent these kinds of incidents from happening again.

What happened in Benghazi and Cairo, and more recently at other U.S. diplomatic missions elsewhere in the world, is not a political issue — it is a crucial, threshold matter of national sovereignty and national security that shouldn’t be swept under the rug or deferred because we are in the midst of a presidential campaign.  We need to promptly determine where we fell short and decide what the United States must do to be able to adequately protect its embassies and diplomats on foreign soil.