Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The September Benghazi attack and the new independent review board report on it

I haven't followed every twist and turn of the "Benghazi" controversy. Mainly because the Republicans who have been flogging their own version of it have been pretty hysterical about it and approached it in their now-customary frivolous manner.

But there were always things about the attack and the aftermath that bothered me other than the obvious fact of an American diplomatic post being assaulted and Americans servicing there killed.

Glenn Greenwald early on focused on some of the larger questions about the Libyan intervention that were highlighted - or should have been - by the attack in The tragic consulate killings in Libya and America's hierarchy of human life The Guardian 09/12/2012, the day after the attack:

Drawing conclusions about Libya, and the US intervention there, from this situation would be unfair and far too premature. This does, however, highlight the rampant violence, lawlessness, militia thuggery, and general instability that has plagued that country since Gadaffi's removal from power. Moreover, given all the questions, largely ignored, about who it was exactly whom the US was arming and empowering in that country during the intervention, and what the unexpected consequences of doing that might be, it is vital to know how the attackers came into possession of rocket-propelled grenades and other heavy weaponry.

This event also serves as a crucial reminder, yet again, that merely removing a heinous dictator is not proof that the intervention was successful, just or worthwhile. To assess that question, one must know what will follow in that country, for its people, once the intervening powers have removed the government. Declarations of victory and vindication over the intervention in Libya have always been premature, self-serving and baseless – precisely because that crucial fact is yet unknown. We can only hope that Tuesday's events do not presage a depressing answer to that question.
Glenn's column reflects the early reports that said the attacks followed on a demonstration outside the consulate over the anti-Muslim propaganda film that generated angry demonstrations in Egypt.

The Obama Administration held on to that explanation for a week or so, and from subsequent reporting it appears that the CIA was continuing to present that version to Administration officials. Republicans bitterly attacked the State Department's Susan Rice for presenting that version on TV days later. In noted here on 09/14/2012 (The anti-Muslim propaganda film and protests against America):

This story from McClatchy's Nancy Youssef and Suliman Ali Zway, No protest before Benghazi attack, wounded Libyan guard says 09/13/2012, discusses evidence "that the assault on the compound that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, was a planned attack by armed Islamists and not the outgrowth of a protest over an online video that mocks Islam and its founder, the Prophet Muhammad." The timing may have been related to the date of 9/11 and there doesn't seem to be much indication that protesting the film was even nominally involved in that assault.
Regardless of what the CIA reports were saying, there was an ideological spin on the White House's framing of the attack in the days following it. As Glenn Greenwald observed in Obama officials' spin on Benghazi attack mirrors Bin Laden raid untruth 09/20/2012, which I discussed in Glenn Greenwald on the stories around the Benghazi attack on the American consulate last week 09/20/2012. I also talked about the ideological spin in Al Qa'ida: Bin Laden's band or a mythological tradition? 09/21/2012.

The Republican criticism of Obama's handling of the attack focused on the silly issues of whether Obama and his Administration called the attack "terrorist" soon enough, the issue on which Mitt Romney famously embarrassed himself on one of the Presidential debates.

Now an independent review panel has reviewed the incident, and at least three State Department officials have leftd as a result, according to this report by Three State Department staff resign after scathing report blasts State over Benghazi consulate attacks Global Post 12/19/2012. As Glenn put it in his 09/20/2012 column, using the story about the attack apparently being generated by an anti-Muslim film by a private person minimized any Administration's culpability: "the claim that this attack was just about anger over an anti-Muhammad video completely absolves the US government of any responsibility or even role in provoking the anti-American rage driving it." (I've often seen the Benghazi outpost described as a consulate, which it functionally may have been; but officially it was considered a "Special Mission".)

The unclassified version of the report is available online, Accountability Review Board (ARB) Report (Unclassified) 12/19/2012. The ARB's report also endorses and expansive view of the "al Qaeda" threat:

The Benghazi attacks also took place in a context in which the global terrorism threat as most often represented by al Qaeda (AQ) is fragmenting and increasingly devolving to local affiliates and other actors who share many of AQ’s aims, including violent anti-Americanism, without necessarily being organized or operated under direct AQ command and control. This growing, diffuse range of terrorist and hostile actors poses an additional challenge to American security officers, diplomats, development professionals and decision-makers seeking to mitigate risk and remain active in high threat environments without resorting to an unacceptable total fortress and stay-at-home approach to U.S. diplomacy.
But Republicans have no interest in challenging that narrative.

They are looking instead to promote the notion of recklessness or dishonestly about factual events and a soft-on-terrorism accusation against the Administration.

But the ARB report does suggest some significant bad management by the State Department in handling matters in Libya, problems that may affect other areas of their operations as well. Without excusing or minimizing the responsibility of the managers directly involved, it should also be a reminder of the degree to which foreign policy has been militarized and the State Department generally underfunded at often publicly depreciated, especially since 9/11. Remember back in 2003, when Glorious Warlord George Bush, Liberator of Peoples, was at the height of his prestige and Pat Robertson suggested blowing up the State Department?

But it doesn't seem to justify any attitude of recklessness or neglect on the State Department's part around the September 11 anniversary date or after the attack began:

Post and the Department were well aware of the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks but at no time were there ever any specific, credible threats against the mission in Benghazi related to the September 11 anniversary.

Ambassador Stevens and Benghazi-based DS agents had taken the anniversary into account and decided to hold all meetings on-compound on September 11. The Board found that Ambassador Stevens made the decision to travel to Benghazi independently of Washington, per standard practice. Timing for his trip was driven in part by commitments in Tripoli, as well as a staffing gap between principal officers in Benghazi. Plans for the Ambassador’s trip provided for minimal close protection security support and were not shared thoroughly with the Embassy’s country team, who were not fully aware of planned movements off compound. The Ambassador did not see a direct threat of an attack of this nature and scale on the U.S. Mission in the overall negative trendline of security incidents from spring to summer 2012. His status as the leading U.S. government advocate on Libya policy, and his expertise on Benghazi in particular, caused Washington to give unusual deference to his judgments. ...

The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.
The report does note, obliquely, "Special Mission Benghazi's uncertain future after 2012 and its "non-status" as a temporary, residential facility made allocation of resources for security and personnel more difficult, and left responsibility to meet security standards to the working-level in the field, with very limited resources." I suspect there's more to that story than the unclassified report suggests, i.e., that there were particular reasons that may or may not have justified minimizing overt security measures to keep the consulate low-profile.

In fact, given what the report describes about the situation in Benghazi, it's not too much of a stretch to imagine that the Special Mission was heavily involved in covert operations in some way, though the ARB report does not say that. What it does say is:

While the June IED attack and the RPG attack targeting the UK convoy in Benghazi prompted the Special Mission to reduce movements off compound and have a one-week pause between principal officers, the successful nature of Libya’s July 7, 2012, national elections – which exceeded expectations – renewed Washington’s optimism in Libya’s future. Nevertheless, the immediate period after the elections did not see the central government increase its capacity to consolidate control or provide security in eastern Libya, as efforts to form a government floundered and extremist militias in and outside Benghazi continued to work to strengthen their grip. At the time of the September attacks, Benghazi remained a lawless town nominally controlled by the Supreme Security Council (SSC) – a coalition of militia elements loosely cobbled into a single force to provide interim security – but in reality run by a diverse group of local Islamist militias, each of whose strength ebbed and flowed depending on the ever-shifting alliances and loyalties of various members. There was a notional national police presence, but it was ineffectual. By August 2012, Special Mission Benghazi would evaluate the worsening security situation and its implications.
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