December 19, 2012

Fox on Benghazi: Too much? (ESAM OMRAN AL-FETORI / Reuters)

Sixteenth in a suddenly and unexpectedly revived series about Fox News’s Oct. 26 story on Benghazi, Libya.

A much-talked-about Oct. 26 investigative report by Fox News on the Sept. 11 Benghazi attacks finds strong refutation from a just-released internal State Department report on the breakdowns that occurred that night. The unclassified report of State’s Accountability Review Board found that failures at the department’s “senior levels” were responsible for leaving the U.S. diplomatic installation in Benghazi exposed; four American personnel, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, died in the hostilities.

The report’s findings are more grave for the “senior levels” of Fox News than they are for any big shots at the State Department. As the report narrates, the scene was calm outside the Benghazi diplomatic installation in the hours leading up to the assault. “[T]here were no signs of anything unusual, including no roadblocks outside of the compound, and traffic flowed normally,” reads the report.

Just how does that assessment spell retraction for Fox News? Let’s have a look.

The Oct. 26 Fox News story authored by reporter Jennifer Griffin was enormous news, for reasons immediately clear to anyone who read it or saw its presentation on air. It alleged that when the Libyan attackers started their assault on the Benghazi diplomatic compound, a call for help rang at a nearby CIA annex. Then came incompetence and perhaps even cowardice, as Griffin and Fox laid things out:

Fox News has learned from sources who were on the ground in Benghazi that an urgent request from the CIA annex for military back-up during the attack on the U.S. consulate and subsequent attack several hours later on the annex itself was denied by the CIA chain of command — who also told the CIA operators twice to “stand down” rather than help the ambassador’s team when shots were heard at approximately 9:40 p.m. in Benghazi on Sept. 11.

Wow, huh?

That appears to have been the reaction of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). After Griffin’s story hit, the CIA took the unusual step of issuing an on-the-record denial of the story’s core message. The week after, senior intelligence officials conducted a briefing with reporters offering a timeline rebutting many claims in the Fox News story. Among the points in the timeline: “There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support.”
Details in the timeline were key. The distress call from the embattled diplomatic compound came at 9:40 p.m. that night, according to the timeline, and a security team mobilized just 24 minutes later, at 10:04 p.m. Could two “stand down” orders really have been issued in that tight period of time? The Fox News “exclusive” was in trouble.

This exclusive, though, wasn’t finished. Under the byline of Adam Housley, Fox News attempted to punch a hole in the timeline issued by intelligence officials. The notion that official security operators responded to mayhem in less than a half-hour was bunk, the story suggested. Trouble had been gathering for quite some time:

Both American and British sources say multiple roadblocks set up by fighters believed to be with Ansar al-Sharia were in place in Benghazi several hours before the 9:40 p.m. timeline and that communications also alluded to “heavily armed troops showing up with artillery.” Fox News was told by both American and British contacts who were in Benghazi that night that the CIA timeline rolled out this past week is only “loosely based on the truth” and “doesn’t quite add up.”

Now have a look at how the official State Department report puts things:

At approximately 1940 local, Ambassador Stevens and an accompanying ARSO escorted a Turkish diplomat to the SMC’s main exit at the north C1 gate, where nothing out of the ordinary was noted. Some 30 minutes later, between 2010 and 2030 local, a UK security team supporting a day visit by British diplomats dropped off vehicles and equipment at the SMC (per arrangements made after the UK diplomatic office in Benghazi suspended operations in June 2012). When the UK security team departed via the C1 gate at about 2030 local, there were no signs of anything unusual, including no roadblocks outside of the compound, and traffic flowed normally.
Ambassador Stevens and IMO Sean Smith retired for the night to Villa C at about 2100 local, while ARSO 4 watched a video in the Villa C common space. ARSOs 1, 2, and 3 were sitting together outside and behind Villa C; the TDY RSO was working in the workspace building referred to as the “Office” or “TOC” (Tactical Operations Center), near the Villa B compound, which was connected to the Villa C compound by an alleyway.

Glossary: ARSO stands for assistant regional security officer. SMC stands for special mission compound. Wading through the officialspeak, the idea comes through: Folks were winding down and things were quiet on the night of Sept. 11 just before the attackers descended. This was not a gradual operation.

And note the direct contradiction. Fox: multiple roadblocks. State Department: no roadblocks.

The State Department by no means stands alone in its pre-attack assessment. Sample the reporting from Time magazine on just what the ARSOs were doing on the night of Sept. 11:

At around 9:30 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2012, the four guards at the compound entrance—Nasser, Ubayd, Abdullah and Anwar–were casually eating sandwiches and talking about a recent soccer game, trying to pass the time on another monotonous night of watch duty. This one seemed no different from the others before: days and nights staring at the high walls that obscured the luxury villas in the posh Benghazi neighborhood where the American mission was located. But on this night, the silence of the secluded streets was dramatically shattered.

The credibility of the entire Fox News reportage on Benghazi hinges on a chaotic scene in the hours before the attack. Hues of irony and contradiction come into the picture here: Fox News, after all, has spent the better part of the fall shouting down official accounts that the Benghazi attack grew out of a scene of commotion and protest in front of the diplomatic compound. Host after host and guest after guest on the network’s air have criticized U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice for going on the Sept. 16 Sunday talk shows and mentioning the protests that were allegedly encircling the compound.

Fox’s reporting, to be sure, alleges that “fighters,” not protesters, were gathering in advance of the attack. Yet its conclusions on pre-attack activities at the compound bear some resemblance to the original Rice version that it has so mercilessly discredited. Maybe a clarification is on the way.

The Series So Far:

First: Media outlets fail to follow Fox News.

Second: Does Fox story stand up to government timeline?

Third: Geraldo blasts story line that government didn’t try to protect personnel

Fourth: Fox contributor decries politicization of Benghazi

Fifth: Fox News’s “laser” allegation: For real?

Sixth: CIA no-comments new blast from Fox News

Seventh: Why exclude Fox News from intelligence briefing?

Eighth: Fox News picks fight with State Department

Ninth: Fox getting excluded from briefings?

Tenth: Fox, Hannity and “real-time” video

Eleventh: Fox News invited to Benghazi briefing

Twelfth: What about those alleged Benghazi prisoners?

Thirteenth: Why didn’t Fox News ask the president about its own Benghazi reporting?

Fourteenth: Fox News Benghazi report gets some backup

Fifteenth: Fox News mangled huge Benghazi story

Erik Wemple writes the Erik Wemple blog, where he reports and opines on media organizations of all sorts.