We Finally Know Where the Buck Stops in Benghazi

We Finally Know Where the Buck Stops in Benghazi

REUTERS/Esam Al-Fetori

Normally, when Congress undertakes an investigation of the executive branch, the committee heading the probe will issue two versions of the findings – one for each party. Partisans on both sides use the political process of oversight to either defend their own or to make hay about their opponents, and astute observers can usually find truth by reading both and looking somewhere in between. Rare are those investigations within the normal committees on Capitol Hill that issue a bipartisan report – and one that condemns an administration for its incompetence.

That’s not to say that the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the failures surrounding the attack on our consulate in Benghazi, resulting in the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, is entirely free from partisan arguments. 

Related: Benghazi Attack Could Have Been Prevented

Democrats (as “the Majority” in the report) concluded that the attempt to claim that the attack was a demonstration over a YouTube video did not constitute a cover-up, but rather resulted from confusion in the intelligence community (IC) that didn’t clarify the issue quickly enough to the administration. Likewise, Republicans included a shot at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the only reference to her in the report, stating that “the final responsibility for security at diplomatic facilities lies with the former Secretary [of State].”

For the most part, though, the conclusions are both bipartisan and damning. The committee found that a string of terrorist attacks in Benghazi against Western targets, especially one three months before the final attack on the US facility itself, should have alerted State to the danger it faced. Furthermore, the committee questioned how State could have ignored its own security standards to approve the use of the building, a decision reapplied in July when State renewed the lease – just weeks after the previous attack. 

These two issues – of the terrorist activity and the inexplicable waivers for proper security – drive most of the bipartisan condemnation of the report. The committee pointedly notes that the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) warned the Obama administration in June 2012 of the growing threat against Western interests in Benghazi in a report with a title that should have grabbed attention: “Libya: Terrorists Now Targeting U.S. and Western Interests.” It listed “recent attacks against the U.S. Mission compound in Benghazi, the growing ties between al Qaeda (AQ) regional nodes and Libya-based terrorists,” and said DIA “expect[ed] more anti-U.S. terrorist attacks in eastern Libya [redacted] due to the terrorists' greater presence there.” 

Related: GOP Lawmaker Disputes NY Times Report on Benghazi

The warnings didn’t end there. The Pentagon admonished the next week that the failed-state environment would “increase Libyan terrorist capability in the permissive post-revolution security environment. Attacks will also increase in number and lethality as terrorists connect with AQ associates in Libya.” The CIA, whose facility also came under attack, issued a report three weeks later on July 6th  titled "Libya: Al Qaeda Establishing Sanctuary."

That month, State signed a lease on the Benghazi facility with a waiver on security requirements. Who signed that waiver? We still don’t have an answer to that question – it’s not answered in the bipartisan portion of the report – but Republicans raise the question in their response. “Although certain waivers of the standards could have been approved at a lower level, other departures, such as the co-location requirement, could only be approved by the Secretary of State.” Senator Susan Collins (R-ME) raises a more direct accusation at Clinton aide Patrick Kennedy:

“Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy testified before the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee in 2012 that the threat environment in Benghazi was "flashing red,'' yet our investigation found that Under Secretary Kennedy, and other State Department officials, failed to ensure that a facility he personally approved in December 2011 had the necessary security to match the heightened threat environment.” 

State doesn’t stand alone in the committee’s crosshairs, either.  The CIA, which helped draft the initial talking points that led the Obama administration to insist for two weeks that the attack was a demonstration that got out of control, somehow forgot that they had warned over the summer about al Qaeda establishing sanctuary in eastern Libya with attacks predicted as a result, and asked to have the mention of the terrorist network removed. Both the FBI and CIA had reviewed the videotape of the compound and determined that there was no demonstration at all, but it took them six days to fix the assessment.

Related: Gunmen Kill U.S. Teacher in Libya’s Benghazi 

Far more consequential was the lack of coordination between CIA, State, and the Pentagon, however. The CIA did not formally share knowledge of the existence of their annex with the Department of Defense. The commander of US Africa Command, General Carter Ham, had no idea that there were more personnel to protect until the attack, leading the Republicans to muse: “We are puzzled as to how the military leadership expected to effectively respond and rescue Americans in the event of an emergency when it did not even know of the existence of one of the U.S. facilities.” 

Not that it would have done much good anyway. Fox’s James Rosen reported earlier in the week that classified testimony to the House Armed Services Committee made it clear that the military considered this a planned terrorist attack within minutes.  Defenders of the Obama administration pointed to additional testimony that debunked the claim that the military had received a “stand down order.” 

That rumor turns out to be false – because the US military had no assets in position to stage a rescue, according to General Ham, despite the escalating terrorist activity and the rather obvious approaching anniversary of the 9/11 attack.  “No attack aircraft were placed on high alert on September 11th,” Fox reported. “Fighter jets were unarmed, and air refuelers were ten hours away in Great Britain.” 

It’s as if the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department set out to ignore the red flags they themselves had been raising all year long. No one was prepared on the anniversary of 9/11 for an attack in the region where everyone knew al Qaeda to be “establishing sanctuary,” openly operating, and where the US predicted attacks would escalate. 

Related: Italy Suspends Activity at Benghazi Consulate, Withdraws Staff 

The State Department in particular didn’t take action to bring its facility into compliance with its own security requirements, purposefully waiving them, in a city where terrorist attacks had already begun to escalate – including one on the facility itself – nor took action to get Americans out of harm’s way, despite the departure of other Western nations from Benghazi earlier in the year.

One does not need a name at the top of this report to know where responsibility rests for this massive failure. Hillary Clinton ran State, Leon Panetta ran Defense, and David Petraeus ran the CIA. But the distributed nature of the failure indicts the Obama administration and Barack Obama himself, too. The White House is responsible for interagency coordination, for one thing, especially when it comes to national security and diplomatic enterprises. 

However, Obama’s responsibility extends farther and more specifically, too. The reason that eastern Libya had transformed into a terrorist haven in the first place was because of the Obama-led NATO intervention that deposed Moammar Qaddafi without any effort to fill the security vacuum his abrupt departure created. 

Four months before the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Daniel Larison warned  that the vacuum left by that 30,000-foot intervention not only meant trouble for the West in eastern Libya, but throughout North Africa as al Qaeda and its affiliates entrenched themselves. Sure enough, al Qaeda infused itself into a Tuareg rebellion and almost topped Mali, an effort which France belatedly stamped out with a boots-on-the-ground intervention – with those boots transported in part by the US Air Force.  At the time, the Financial Times called Mali “among the most embarrassing boomerangs” of American policy, specifically noting “the blowback in the Sahel from the overthrow of Colonel Moammar Gaddafi in Libya.”

The policies and actions of the Obama administration in Libya left behind a failed state, and the incompetent handling of security and readiness afterward left four Americans to die needlessly. The buck stops at the top for this mess. 

Top Reads from The Fiscal Times: