November 2, 2012

NEWS REPORTING about the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, has moved from the political and mostly pointless issue of when the Obama administration had publicly acknowledged that a terrorist attack had taken place to more essential questions: Why was there a security failure at the consulate, and how did U.S. forces in Libya and outside the country respond to the emergency? The result is a host of unanswered questions.

Following a single background briefing, the State Department has mostly refused to respond to inquiries about Benghazi, citing an ongoing investigation by a review board. But considerable evidence has emerged that Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who died in the attack, and his security staff were deeply concerned about what they considered to be inadequate security. Fox Newsreported this week that a secret cable described an Aug. 15 “emergency meeting” at the consulate, at which the State Department’s regional security officer “expressed concerns with the ability to defend Post in the event of a coordinated attack due to limited manpower, security measures, weapons capabilities, host nation support and the overall size of the compound.”

Fox reported that the cable, dispatched to Washington, said the emergency meeting included a briefing about al-Qaeda training camps in the Benghazi area and Islamist militias, including those that allegedly carried out the Sept. 11 attack. In another cable on Sept. 11, hours before the attack, Mr. Stevens described “growing problems with security” in Benghazi and “growing frustration” with the local militias and police, to which the State Department had entrusted the consulate’s defense. Separately, according to a report on ForeignPolicy.com, Mr. Stevens may have dispatched a letter to Benghazi authorities, complaining that a policeman assigned to guard the consulate was photographing it on the morning of Sept. 11.

Fox’s aggressive reporting, though undercut by blustery and often scurrilous commentary, nevertheless seems to have prompted the CIA and Pentagon to provide reporters with their accounts of Sept. 11 — even as the State Department and the White House insist that all should await the official investigation results. From these, and a report Friday by the Wall Street Journal, it emerges that the CIA mission in Benghazi was considerably larger than the consulate and may have been partly responsible for its defense. According to the CIA account, on the night of Sept. 11 a six-member paramilitary force set out to rescue consulate personnel, arriving some 50 minutes after the attack began. Surviving Americans were evacuated to the CIA station, which itself came under attack hours later.

The Pentagon and CIA accounts describe a reaction to the attack that, while inadequate, was the best that could be mustered. Even if so, that leaves the question of why the various agencies were not better prepared for such an emergency, given the clear warnings. Did the Obama administration’s political preoccupation with maintaining a light footprint in Libya lead to an ill-considered reliance on local militias, rather than on U.S. forces? Given the region’s instability, why were no military rapid-reaction assets — such as Special Forces or armed drones — within reach of Northern Africa?

While the agencies separately defend themselves — or not — the White House appears determined to put off any serious discussion of Benghazi until after the election. Sooner or later, however, the administration must answer questions about what increasingly looks like a major security failure — and about the policies that led to it.