Mrs Clinton’s road to the White House and the big bad Benghazi Bend

With the release of the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on Benghazi, the disaster that included deaths of four Americans (including the ambassador) has been exhaustively evaluated by both an internal State Department investigation as well as a major Senate inquiry. Meanwhile, the New York Times carried out its own, separate examination of the events. Broadly speaking, these three essentially reached the same conclusions. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a closer look at what they found and contemplates what it may portend for Hillary Clinton’s presidential chances.

Two weeks ago, Daily Maverick reported on the preparations of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s supporters to position the potential candidate for a final run for the Democratic Party’s nomination for the presidency in 2016, as well as Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s initial efforts to position himself to capture the Republican nomination.

But this was just a few days before the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence released its report on the Benghazi attack on 15 January. Benghazi is now shorthand for the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other staffers at the Consulate in that Libyan city on 11 September 2012, when the building came under attack with fatal consequences. To conspiracy theorists and right-wing Republicans alike (and there is some overlap), the Obama administration’s actions after the attack were efforts to cover up its fumbles and mistakes.

From various corners, some of the more stridently repeated charges had been that suspiciously, no fighter jets, attack drones, Navy Seals, Justice League superheroes or whatever had been dispatched to save the situation (“Terms of Engagement” movie-style); that CIA operatives champing at the bit to come to the rescue had been told to “stand down” and not go to the aid of the beleaguered officials; that the State Department had refused to provide funding for a stronger guard force to the Benghazi Consulate in the months leading up to the attack when it knew things were starting to come apart; that Secretary Clinton had declined to solve this problem in time by virtue of her bureaucratic ineptitude; and that then-National Security Advisor Susan Rice had – deliberately – misled the nation during multiple appearances on national television news discussion programs, claiming that an anti-Muslim video produced in California had instigated the rioting, when, instead, she should have admitted it had been a despicable, well-planned al Qaeda attack. And, all of this had been orchestrated somehow to shield Barack Obama’s presidential campaign from any effective criticism over its foreign policy positions in the final months of the 2012 election.

Conspiracy theorists have had their moments in American politics throughout history. As historian Richard Hofstadter had explained in his influential essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, written some fifty years earlier at the height of the Cold War, “In the history of the United States one finds it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today….” And such a believer sees “the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilisation. He constantly lives at a turning point.”

Not every critic of the Obama administration’s handling of Benghazi has been one of those apocalyptic conspiracy theorists. Nevertheless, there have been sufficient elements of such thinking – with a caricature Barack Obama weakening the US, covering up al Qaeda’s responsibility for the incident, or even Obama’s desires for re-election allowing him to sacrifice diplomats to achieve this – so as to poison the well for real public discourse on the causes and circumstances of something like the Benghazi attack.

Republican Congressman Darrell Issa, from his perch as chair of the House of Representatives’ Government Oversight Committee, for example, has repeatedly linked the Benghazi killings with an international plot by al Qaeda operatives. In his appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press on 29 December last year, Issa said, “They [the Obama administration] went out on five stations and told the story that was at best a cover-up for the CIA or at worst something that cast away this idea that there was a real terrorist operation in Benghazi.”

But the recent release of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s 15 January report on Benghazi – along with an exhaustive New York Times study of the events, as well as an internal probe by the State Department led by a highly regarded, retired senior diplomat and a former Chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff – have now painted a rather different picture than the Issa-style charges. Yes, the attack and the killings were – theoretically – avoidable, but the American Consulate in Benghazi was in a very rough part of the world, and bad things sometimes happen even when one tries to prevent them.

The Senate report, in particular, has been clear on several things that go at the heart of the conspiracy theories. They concluded that there was no way American forces from beyond Benghazi could have ridden to the rescue – there was no cavalry to come over the hill in the nick of time. No jet fighters, no drones, no Seal teams, no nothing close enough to make a difference. There was, moreover, no “stand down” order – despite such charges on a now-discredited TV news show report – to any CIA team in their more secure location in Benghazi that was ready to make a run to the consulate to save the day.

Moreover, that vilified anti-Islamic video – the subject of attacks on Susan Rice by her Washington critics – actually did have a role to play in the disaster. On the day of the attack, it was apparently played on one or more Egyptian satellite television broadcasts that were easily watchable by any number of people in Benghazi. And they would have, most likely, also learned about the attack on the US Embassy in Cairo on the same day in the same way, as well as through still other broadcasts. Then there is the matter of the responsibility for the actual attack. Despite claims by some, the committee found no evidence of an orchestrated terror campaign from abroad for this attack.

Or, as David Kirkpatrick, the New York Times reporter who had written his paper’s parallel investigation of Benghazi said on the same broadcast of “Meet the Press” as Congressman Issa had appeared on, Republicans have been conflating local Islamic militant groups with that international terror network founded by Osama bin Laden. “If you’re using the term al Qaeda to describe even a local group of Islamist militants who dislike democracy or have a grudge against the United States, if you’re going to call anybody like that ‘al Qaeda,’ then, okay,” Kirkpatrick said.

And Kirkpatrick had written in his lengthy New York Times article published on 28 December 2013, “The only intelligence connecting al Qaeda to the attack was an intercepted phone call that night from a participant in the first wave of the attack to a friend in another African country who had ties to members of al Qaeda, according to several officials briefed on the call. But when the friend heard the attacker’s boasts, he sounded astonished, the officials said, suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault.”

What the bipartisan Senate committee did criticise vigorously was a major, even critical lack of coordination and consultation between the better protected, more robustly fortified CIA post, the Annex, and the consular officials in their temporary quarters. Moreover, the Senate report called into question an evident lack of priority attention by the State Department’s office of security to repeated requests for beefed up physical security and funds for security staff at the temporary consulate buildings in Benghazi. Finally, even the behaviour of Ambassador Stevens came in for some oblique criticism. Why, for example, was he visiting the consulate and travelling around the city (on 9/11), if security arrangements were so visibly inadequate?

Part of the answer to the latter question, at least, seems to lie in the facts that the ambassador, as one of the State Department’s experts on Libya and a leading Arabist, felt he had a particularly good handle on the local situation and rapport with some of the key Libyan armed factions in control of the town. Moreover, there was the fact he had previously indicated his belief that local guard forces contracted by the consulate would be capable of doing the job. Or, as the New York Times noted, in its analysis of the Senate report, “At times, Mr. Stevens requested additional security personnel from the State Department in Washington. But the inquiry also found that in June 2012, around the time the threats were mounting, Mr. Stevens recommended hiring and training local Libyan guards to form security teams in Tripoli and Benghazi. The plan showed a faith in local Libyan support that proved misplaced on the night of the attack.”

A note of explanation is needed here – while it is usual for many to think the US Marine security detachment assigned to virtually every US embassy (but not consulates) as the troops who will lay down their lives to protect an ambassador and his or her staff, their real function at embassies is to protect access to classified material by restricting access to the premises and making sure the materials are secured properly, to protect the physical security of a building – and to provide a psychological deterrent to would-be troublemakers. This is in contrast to those movie portrayals of Marines holding off thousands at the gates of an embassy.

In fact, the first wave of security at a consulate (and even an embassy) is the locally contracted guard force and the host country’s police. The second tier is the actual physical construction and location of the premises – their reinforced blast walls, those deep set-backs from the street, and location in premises set well-separated from other office buildings in their city. All of this is in response to recommendations drawn up after the bombings of the embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. A collapse of security such as occurred in Benghazi, therefore, seems to have had multiple causes – all of which mutually reinforced each other to produce its catastrophic end.

As the New York Times reported, the Senate committee “concluded that the attack 16 months ago that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, could have been prevented, singling out the State Department for criticism for its failure to bolster security in response to intelligence warnings about a growing security crisis around the city. The report is broadly consistent with the findings of previous inquiries into the attack on Sept. 11, 2012, but it is the first public examination of a breakdown in communications between the State Department and the C.I.A. during the weeks leading up to the deadly episode at the diplomatic compound where J. Christopher Stevens, the American ambassador, died. It is also the first report to implicitly criticise Mr Stevens, raising questions about his judgment and actions in the weeks before his death. Like previous inquiries, the Senate investigation does not cite any specific intelligence warnings about an impending attack.”

“The committee found the attacks were preventable, based on extensive intelligence reporting on the terrorist activity in Libya — to include prior threats and attacks against Western targets — and given the known security shortfalls at the US Mission.” As a result, the real culprits seem to have been the State Department’s office of security, a real lack of coordination between State and the CIA on security issues, and an inability to respond to emergencies like this one at small, isolated diplomatic missions. Anyone who has ever observed State/CIA relations, would be less than totally surprised by these judgments.

The Senate report went on, saying, “Intelligence suggests that the attack was not a highly coordinated plot, but was opportunistic. It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attacks or whether extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. Some intelligence suggests the attacks were likely put together in short order, following that day’s violent protests in Cairo against an inflammatory video.”

In theory, the combined impact of the State Department’s report, the Times’ story and the new Senate report should take much of the pressure off the administration for any presumed dissembling over the deadly incident. Columnist David Ignatius, writing in the Washington Post, noted, “The deeper message of the bipartisan report was that Republicans in Congress wasted a year arguing about what turned out to be mostly phony issues. The Republican Party’s Benghazi obsession was the weird backdrop for foreign-policy debate through much of last year. Sen. Lindsey Graham (S.C.) used it as a pretext for blocking administration nominations. Rep. Darrell Issa (Calif.) used the issue to impugn the integrity and independence of a review conducted by retired Adm. Mike Mullen and former ambassador Thomas Pickering.”

Still, as the New Yorker observes, “The Senate Intelligence Committee report on what happened in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, is, in many ways, a catalogue of what can happen when one decides to act as though a situation is what one wishes it to be, not what it is. Benghazi, the report sensibly points out, was a dangerous place, and a lot of people knew it. But it was also supposed to be an enchanted place, the birthplace of a rebellion America had generously fostered and the home of scrappy militias who were grateful to us.” Life is usually less generous than that, especially in a strife-torn country like post-Qaddafi Libya.

But, given former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s putative front-runner status within her party for the 2016 nomination, the failure of her department to respond effectively, pre-attack, with beefed up security in Benghazi (as well as the less than empathetic tone of her testimony before Congress about the attack, just as she was leaving office) will continue to be parsed thoroughly by Republican strategists (and perhaps even a contesting Democratic Party rival) for any possible impact or leverage point for a coming presidential campaign.

What is not nearly as clear is whether such attacks will have the desired electoral impact. Presumably, any Republican looking for a reason to distrust Hillary Clinton has already found one and no amount of Senate reports will disabuse them of such feelings.

Looking back over American history, Hofstadter reminds us, “Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination. In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.”

Historically, US presidential elections have been about domestic issues, much more than international ones, absent a major shooting war like World War II, Vietnam or Korea. And so, if the economy continues to improve and unemployment continues to drop, if the Affordable Care Act’s provisions finally work to promised specs and generate a flow of good news about people now covered for medical care for the first time in their lives, the Democrats may well be sitting high in the 2016 saddle. And if the current administration actually achieves a sense of progress with US-China relations, that real breakthrough implementation of the Iranian nuclear fuels limitation plan, or even a bit of progress on Israel/Palestine or North Korea, that will be even more of a bonus.

Moreover, if the Republicans have a real, bare knuckles, knock-down, drag-out slugfest for their nomination among such people as Senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, Governors Bobby Jindal, Scott Walker, and maybe, still, Chris Christie, while Hillary Clinton coasts to her nomination, the ghosts of Benghazi may well be stilled for her in large part. But if she falters along the way in some other pothole, or if the incumbent president has a major foreign policy misstep between now and 2016, the campaign may well hear much more about Benghazi – even if the real purpose for such commentary is just to rattle the candidate from her stated position that she is the experienced hand the country needs. DM

Read more:

  • The Paranoid Style in American Politics by Richard Hofstadter in Harpers;
  • Issa stands by claims of al Qaeda-affiliation in Benghazi attacks at NBC News;
  • Benghazi Attack Called Avoidable in Senate Report at the New York Times;
  • A Deadly Mix in Benghazi at the New York Times
  • Senate intelligence report takes GOP tirades about Benghazi head-on, a column by David Ignatius in the Washington Post
  • Senate Select Committee On Intelligence, Review Of The Terrorist Attacks On U.S. Facilities In Benghazi, Libya via Wall Street Journal
  • State Department’s Internal Review of the Benghazi Attack
  • Senate Benghazi Report Spreads Blame – Panel Findings Say 2012 Attack Was ‘Likely Preventable’ at the Wall Street Journal
  • The Blame in the Senate Report on Benghazi in the New Yorker.

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