The Benghazi hearings: what’s new and what’s not
“I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed”
— Gregory Hicks, former U.S. deputy chief of mission to Libya, testifying on his reaction to U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice’s remarks on the terror attack in Benghazi, May 8, 2013
Readers who are just tuning into the Benghazi story may be a little confused about what is new — and what is not. As a reader service, here’s an effort to help readers through some of the fog of charges and countercharges that emerged at the House hearings on Wednesday.
Reports of Demonstrations
Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Libya at the time of the attack, testified that it was clear from his perspective that this was a terrorist attack. The last words he heard from J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador who was killed in the attack, were: “Greg, we’re under attack.”
But the attack occurred shortly after violent protests outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, which muddied the news reporting and may have shaped official perceptions.
This was the account in The Washington Post on Sept. 12, the day after the attack:
“U.S. diplomatic compounds came under attack in two Muslim countries on Tuesday, with a State Department employee killed in the assault on a consulate in Libya…. In both Cairo and Benghazi, protesters said they were demonstrating against a U.S.-released film that insulted the prophet Muhammad.”
The next day’s story, published Sept, 13, continued the theme:
“At least an hour before the assault began, a stream of cars was seen moving toward the U.S. Consulate in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. By late Tuesday evening, as many as 50 heavily armed militants had gathered outside its high walls. They joined protesters outside the consulate who were demonstrating against an American movie that they believed denigrated the prophet Muhammad. But according to one witness, the new arrivals neither chanted slogans nor carried banners…. Even as evidence was being assembled, the early indications were that the assault had been planned and the attackers had cannily taken advantage of the protest at the consulate.”
On Sept. 15, in a page one story titled “Muslim Fury at U.S. Spreads,” the Post reported: “From Tunis to Cairo to Jakarta, Indonesia, the Muslim world erupted in protests aimed at the United States on Friday as anger over a video that mocks the prophet Muhammad boiled over into assaults on embassies or demonstrations in nearly two dozen countries.”
But it turns out there were no demonstrations in Benghazi; it was a terrorist attack, pure and simple. This has been well established in various official documents, including the Accountability Review Board, which declared: “The Board concluded that there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity.”
A Senate report released in December by then Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) cited the continuing news coverage as one reason why the intelligence community (IC) did not quickly dispel the notion:
While the IC worked feverishly in the days after the attack to identify the perpetrators of the attack, they did not place a high priority on determining with certainty whether a protest had in fact occurred. The IC’s preliminary conclusion was that there had been a protest outside of the mission prior to the attack, making this assessment based on open source news reports and on other information available to intelligence agencies. The IC later revised its assessment.
The Senate report also revealed that internally, many officials early on were certain this was a terrorist attack.
The report cited “two emails from the State Department Diplomatic Security Operations Center on the day of the attack, September 11, and the day after, September 12, 2012, characterized the attack as an ‘initial terrorism incident’ and as a ‘terrorist event.’” Moreover, as early as Sept. 15, the team that had been in Benghazi reported there has been no protest; the FBI also conducted face-to-face interviews with people who were in the compound during the attack and they reported there was no protest.
So it is not new that there was no protest. That’s been officially well established. It is also not new that many officials knew it was a terrorist attack.
What is new is that Hicks has put a human face on previous reporting. He also disclosed he spoke directly to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton the night of the attack, presumably relaying his conclusions.
The hearings also revealed an e-mail written by Elizabeth Jones, the acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, in which she recounted a conversation with the Libyan ambassador on Sept. 12: “When he said his government suspected that former Gadhafi regime elements carried out the attacks, I told him that the group that conducted the attacks Ansar Al Sharia is affiliated with Islamic extremists.”
(Note: an earlier version of this column ended that quote with the word ”terrorists.” The email was read outloud twice at the hearing, once with ”terrorists” and once with “extremists.” A State Department official says ”extremists” is correct.)
One generally presumes that top government officials have access to classified information and firsthand accounts not available to the media. But in this case either their judgments were colored by media accounts as well — or they took advantage of the media’s reporting to obscure some politically difficult news.
Video and the talking points
The administration also has come under fire for repeatedly pointing to an anti-Muslim video as the source of the protests, and thus by implication the attack in Benghazi. We covered a lot of this in our extensive timeline on Benghazi statements, but it is worth noting that in many cases, a direct line between the video and the attack was never quite connected; it was simply implied.
Here, for instance, is Clinton speaking at the transfer of remains ceremony on Sept. 14:
“This has been a difficult week for the State Department and for our country. We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with. It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless, and it is totally unacceptable.”
Note that Clinton never really combines the Benghazi attack and the video, but leaves them as separate elements. It was clearly carefully written — a fact we confirmed with an administration official.
When U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice appeared on the Sunday news shows on Sept. 16, she was much less careful than Clinton, drawing a link that has since been discredited: “It began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video,” she said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
Interestingly, the video was not mentioned in the talking points provided to Rice, though the demonstrations were a central part of the message. The main thrust of these talking points was to point away from a possibility of a planned attack on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. (The investigation still has not revealed the level of planning before the attack.) Here are Rice’s full talking points:
“The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.
“This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed and as currently available information continues to be evaluated.
“The investigation is ongoing, and the U.S. government is working with Libyan authorities to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of U.S. citizens.”
While the political fallout long has been clear from Rice’s appearance on the Sunday shows, what’s new is Hicks’ description of the diplomatic impact — that Libyan cooperation into the probe was greatly hindered because the president of Libya, Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, who also appeared on Face the Nation, was so angry that Rice disagreed with his description of a “preplanned” attack.
Magariaf was “insulted in front of his own people,” Hicks said. “His credibility was reduced. His ability to lead his country was damaged.”
Update: Erin Pelton, a spokeswoman for Rice, provided the following statement in response to the testimony:
“It would have been totally irresponsible for Ambassador Rice to have endorsed on the spot the assessment provided by the Libyan President, knowing that it was inconsistent with our own intelligence community’s assessment that there was not evidence of months-long pre-planning.
On the subject of Libyan government cooperation, it is important to emphasize that the Libyan Government granted visas to the FBI team as soon as their paperwork was received from the United States. The day of Ambassador Rice’s appearance on the Sunday shows (September 16), the Libyan government granted the FBI the necessary visas so that the team could travel to Libya. Their flight clearance was granted the following day, on September 17th, and the FBI arrived in Tripoli on September 18. The team could not travel to Benghazi for some time due to the security situation on the ground.”
Pelton also flagged a comment by Magariaf on Face the Nation, when asked if it was safe for the FBI to travel to Benghazi or whether they should stay away: “Maybe it is better for them to stay for a little while, for a little while.”
.Hicks’ description of his reaction to Rice’s comments — “I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed” — is also rather telling, given that previously administration officials had asserted that Rice’s remarks reflected a consensus that no one would dispute at the time.
Here’s what Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy told reporters on October 10:
“If any Administration official, including any career official, had been on television on Sunday, September 16th, they would have said the same thing that Ambassador Rice would have said. She had information at that point from the intelligence community, and that is the same information I had and I would have made exactly the same points. Clearly, we know more today, but we knew what we knew when we knew it.”
Hicks is obviously a career foreign service officer, making Kennedy’s statement now moot. So that’s also new. Kennedy did not respond to a request for comment.
Update: The State Department provided the following statement on Kennedy’s behalf:
The talking points were developed during an interagency process, led by the CIA, about how to communicate the best and most current information the Administration had about the Benghazi attacks.
As recently as last month [April 18] the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified that the talking points were accurate based on what was known at the time. “They were the best we could do at the time. And also in light of our concerns from both an intelligence and an investigatory standpoint, that is much as we should say at the time. That is illustrative of the dilemma of speaking in public about intelligence things, which is somewhat -- can often be an oxymoron.”
So what Under Secretary Kennedy said in the news briefing and in testimony the next day stands--anyone asked to speak on behalf of the Administration would have delivered that same consensus view on that day.
Hicks provided compelling testimony that he was punished by senior U.S. officials for questioning Rice’s comments and also for agreeing to an interview with House investigators without a State Department lawyer present. (Hicks said the lawyer did not have the proper security clearance.)
He described a phone call by an “upset” Cheryl Mills, State Department chief of staff and close confidante to Clinton, concerning his meeting without the lawyer. And he said that when complained about Rice’s statement, asking “why she had said there was a demonstration, when we had reported that there was an attack,” Jones curtly gave him the sense “that I needed to stop the line of questioning.”
After that, he said, relations with his superiors went downhill, especially with Jones, who gave him “a blistering critique of my management style.” He eventually returned from Libya and was given a job that he described as a significant demotion.
There are obviously two sides to any such exchanges. (The State Department, in fact, disputes these allegations.) But Hicks’ description of the internal dynamics — and reported retaliation for questioning the administration’s public posture — is certainly new.
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