I haven’t written much about Benghazi. The story of the attacks on the US mission in Benghazi Libya on Sept. 11 has become such a Fox News anti-Obama meme, I’ve just sort of ignored it as so much election year partisan noise. That’s my general approach anyway: if a story is in constant rotation on Fox, if some issue becomes a major Fox News talking point, I assume it’s probably bogus. Most of the time, it turns out to be bogus. Fox is not a news source, period: they provide conservative spin and bias; they’re a right wing echo chamber; they’re the propaganda arm of the GOP. That’s not to say that I only get my news from MSNBC, or Salon.com, though I do watch Rachel Maddow, and I do check out Salon daily. I get my news from lots of sources, including four newspapers which I read on-line. And I never miss Stewart and Colbert. Fox News is not a source worth consulting.
From the point of view of my Republican friends, Benghazi’s all pretty simple; Obama screwed this up too, like he screws everything up, because he’s a terrible President. Simple; also simple-minded: I think we should resist reductively partisan responses on any issue. I’m also not interested in going all diplomatically passive-voice on it; “mistakes were made.” What I want, first and foremost, is a definite time-line of events. I’ll draw my own conclusions afterwards.
So: a time line. CBS news has provided one. I found it tremendously helpful. A few points:
It’s not true that only five guys provided all the security for Ambassador Stevens. Embassy security is generally the responsibility of the host country, and in this case, Libyan forces on site included the 17th of February Brigade, a militia that’s essentially what Libya has in lieu of an army. Remember, Libya has only been a country for a few weeks. The initial attack began at 9:40; additional CIA forces arrived with Libyan reinforcements by 10:20. And Special Forces were scrambled from Sicily within ninety minutes.
It seems to me that the protestors in Egypt (and elsewhere) initially were what State Department officials focused on. I think they saw the angry mob as the real danger, especially in a country as volatile and important as Egypt. It looks like initial reports conflated those embassy protests with the Libyan attack. Of course, they were very different kinds of incidents; a brutal attack on an Ambassador, and angry mobs protesting a video. Some public statements compounded the confusion. But that’s what happens in a chaotic environment. Contradictory reports are received, interpreted differently, understood variously. It took awhile to sort it all out. Some officials clearly saw the Benghazi attack as a terrorist attack, and said so immediately. Other officials were reacting to other intelligence information.
It’s certainly true that some of the public statements by Jay Carney and Susan Rice about the attacks were either misleading or untrue. What this does not suggest to me, though, is that anyone was lying, or ordered to lie. Why on earth would the President order his Press Secretary to deceive people about any of this, especially in regards to a public event like this where all the information was going to come out anyway? What seems far more likely is that, in a chaotic environment, with incomplete and contradictory information, people screwed up. Made mistakes. Jay Carney’s job is to brief the press; he had imperfect information, and he passed it on. It happens.
Another question: what did President Obama know, and when, and what response did he have? President Obama met with his national security team on this issue at 5:00 pm Washington time, and he was briefed several times thereafter. He ordered a Special Ops team to Benghazi by 6:30. Given how little actual intelligence he had at that point, it does seem as though he responded prudently and quickly. Remember, the CIA guys on-site were accompanied by around 40 Libyan forces. Fox News has been reporting that the CIA officers who attempted to rescue Stevens were ordered to stand down. Apparently this is not true; at least it’s denied by the CIA officers themselves.
Frankly the whole thing reminds of the Beirut bombings in 1983. In those attacks, nearly 300 soldiers were killed. Again, inadequate security enabled terrorists to devastate our forces, and it also took awhile to sort out what had happened and who was to blame. I was always a little taken aback that Reagan took so little heat for Beirut, which was of course a far more serious and bloody attack than Benghazi was.
There are lots of questions that need to be answered, and that will be answered as the investigation continues. Why wasn’t there a Marine guard at the embassy? Well, generally embassy security is provided by the host nation, as was the case here. State was certainly wrong in assessing the security as adequate, but we only know that in hindsight; at the time, Libya did provide forty trained soldiers to guard one Ambassador and four staff. It’s not unreasonable for State to have considered that embassy fairly secure.
Did the US intelligence community know that a terrorist attack in Libya was likely? Did they retain some of the suspects in the case, and then let them go? Was this a massive intelligence screw-up? Right now, an investigation is underway to answer those questions. But certainly an intelligence SNAFU seems probable.
But what does this say about the Obama Presidency? Honestly, not much. He reacted appropriately as soon as he knew what was going on. I have seen nothing that suggests otherwise.