This morning, I spoke with Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who had just returned from Libya, about the Benghazi debacle. He was animated and clearly flabbergasted at the administration’s reaction. “It baffles me that the vice president of the United States would continue to say things that don’t square with the facts on the ground, “ he said in reference to VP Joe Biden’s remarks in the debate Thursday night. He reiterated, “There was no protest. There was no reaction to the [anti-Muslim video], and they knew it in 24 hours. I don’t understand what they are doing.”
This week he had extensive meetings with the FBI and intelligence officials on the ground in Benghazi as well as officials from the Libyan government. He was emphatic: “What I know is our intelligence officials on the ground in real time and also in Washington within 24 hours knew what had happened.”
Corker, who with the departure of Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) is next in line to chair the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has tried to jump-start hearings in the Senate. However, he conceded, “There is no way before the election [to have hearings] with the majority that doesn’t want them.” The game plan here for Democrats, it appears, is to sweep the scandal under the rug until the election.
From Corker’s standpoint, the explanation for the administration’s public dissembling is plain. He told me, “It is strictly my opinion but the president has gone around the country spiking the football on Osama bin Laden.” Once it became clear that his boast of “vanquishing” al-Qaeda was proven false, the president, according to Corker, “panicked.” He continued, “The president worried it was going to affect the election.”
Corker is known as a workhorse in the Senate and as meticulous on the facts. In this case, he was both irate and insistent: “When four Americans are killed, it’s just not possible that the president didn’t know [it was a terrorist assault].. . . There is not a cell in my body that doesn’t earnestly believe that the administration didn’t know within 24 or 48 hours.”
Biden’s effort in the debate to lay this off on the intelligence community isn’t winning over national security experts either. The Romney campaign put out a statement by former CIA director Michael Hayden and former Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff that read: “During the Vice Presidential debate, we were disappointed to see Vice President Biden blame the intelligence community for the inconsistent and shifting response of the Obama Administration to the terrorist attacks in Benghazi. Given what has emerged publicly about the intelligence available before, during, and after the September 11 attack, it is clear that any failure was not on the part of the intelligence community, but on the part of White House decision-makers who should have listened to, and acted on, available intelligence. Blaming those who put their lives on the line is not the kind of leadership this country needs.”
In fact, Corker explained that the U.S. government had information for some time about the internal security breakdown in Libya. He noted that Foreign Relations Committee had hearings in which the Libyan security situation was referenced. But the administration, Corker believes, still clung to the story that Libya was doing just fine. He said, “That narrative is the reason you are seeing the administration acting the way it is.”
As for Libya itself, Corker told me, “It is hard for me to believe the country is functioning as well as it is. It is really a tribute to the Libyan people.” That said, he described a country without a functioning centralized government. He explained that when there is a security problem, the Libyan government calls local militia to deal with it. Some of these are effective, and some aren’t. “Some go overboard,” he said. He continued, “There are no institutions. There is no court system.”
He resists calling Libya a “failed state.” He did, however, say, “It is incredibly fragile. . . . It is very, very dicey at this stage.” He explained, “The greatest threats are the security conditions inside, [where] jihadists, we knew from hearings, have been moving in for some time and second, moving through the constitutional process.” He cautioned, however, that this is not a case where, as in some Arab Spring countries, “the population’s not fond of the U.S.” He noted that in Libya there is “a general appreciation” for the United States.
So what can we do? He was adamant that we don’t need boots on the ground and can’t be seen as directing the political process. “What we cannot do is take away from Libyan sovereignty,” he said. He continues, “We can help with institution building. [They must build] a country from scratch — creating a real court system, a command system, dealing with internal security.” He stressed that the U.S. role in this should be to provide technical assistance, which is “relatively inexpensive.” He cautioned that it is necessary to “weave” local militias into a unified security operation. “But the militias are not about to put down their arms until there is a vision about what the country is going to be.” That requires a new constitution and election of officials with popular support.
Corker deferred to his colleagues on the issue of his chairmanship (or rise to ranking member) on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The committee makes that decision, but I hope that’s going to be the case.” He promises a “robust” committee that will look at “the State Department and USAID top-to-bottom” and that will help define what exactly are our national security interests. (He says that under Obama, figuring out our national security interests has been very “ad hoc.”) For now, he’s a man on a mission to get to the bottom of the Libya fiasco and to help guide U.S. policy so Libya can, in fact, be a success story.
This blog post was updated at 12:52 p.m., Oct. 12.