“Based on the best information we have to date ... 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. But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent.... We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.”
— Susan E. Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”
“The way these perpetrators acted and moved, and their choosing the specific date for this so-called demonstration, this leaves us with no doubt that this was preplanned, predetermined.”
— Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, president of Libya’s General National Congress, on the same program.
This column has been updated.
This is a strange one.
Just minutes after Libya’s de facto head of state says that the deadly attack on an American Consulate was “preplanned, predetermined,” the top administration spokeswoman on the same show disagrees with him, saying there is no “information at present” that suggests the attack was planned.
Yet in the same breath, Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, says that “extremist elements” joined in what she calls a demonstration that began “spontaneously” in response to another demonstration in Cairo. That certainly suggests that someone may have been planning to take advantage of any opportunity.
The investigation is in its earliest stages, but let’s explore what we know and why the administration would be eager to play down any suggestion that this tragedy was planned.
The attack that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans took place on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. That may simply be a coincidence, but if so, it would be a pretty big one.
In his interview, Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, the president of Libya’s National Congress, said Libya had arrested 50 people, many connected to al-Qaeda. That would certainly bolster the notion that the date — Sept. 11 — was not a coincidence. He also said a few of those arrested were from other countries.
It is in Magariaf’s interest to emphasize that this tragedy does not reflect anti-American feelings by the Libyan people, especially because Stevens was a well-liked diplomat in the country. But he was also emphatic that “the way these perpetrators acted and moved” and the “specific date for this so-called demonstration” make it clear that the attack was planned.
“It was planned by foreigners, by people who entered the country a few months ago, and they were planning this criminal act since their arrival,” he said.
To some extent, Rice and Magariaf may be speaking past each other. Magariaf is emphasizing a plan in motion for a period of time; Rice appears to be focused on a plan for that particular day, or even an attack specifically on the ambassador. The two positions do not necessarily contradict each other.
For instance, Stevens was known to travel with a relatively small security detail, so the attackers may have planned to take advantage of that. But that does not mean they had a specific plan for that day — until the opportunity presented itself.
Stevens, who died of smoke inhalation, may not have been the target of the attacks in any case. One media report claims that key documents, including one with the names of Libyans working with Americans, were taken from the consulate.
That same report, in the Independent, quotes a Libyan military official as saying that a separate safe house also came under attack:
The building then came under fire from heavy weapons. “I don’t know how they found the place to carry out the attack. It was planned, the accuracy with which the mortars hit us was too good for any ordinary revolutionaries,” said Captain Obeidi. “It began to rain down on us, about six mortars fell directly on the path to the villa.”
Indeed, news services reported last week that Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy, briefing lawmakers last week, said the attack appeared to be planned because it was so extensive and because of the “proliferation” of small and medium weapons at the scene. That also would seem to contradict Rice’s stance.
Finally, ABC News reported that Glen Doherty, one of the former Navy SEALs who was killed, was not there to provide security but was on a mission to track down shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles and destroy them. “Doherty said that he traveled throughout Libya chasing reports of the weapons, and once they were found, his team would destroy them on the spot by bashing them with hammers or repeatedly running them over with their vehicles,” ABC said.
While Rice pointed to anger at an anti-Muslim film that appeared on YouTube as the spark for the demonstration, Doherty’s mission suggests that there were aspects of U.S. policy that may have directly affected militants in the country — and angered them. That also would strengthen the case that this was a planned attack.
The Pinocchio Test
The administration obviously wants to play down the possibility of a planned attack because that would raise broader questions about whether U.S. intelligence and embassy security in Libya were adequate. But Rice’s comments strain credulity, especially after Libya’s president declared without a doubt that the attack was planned.
We also acknowledge being suspicious when an official begins by citing “the best information we have to date” because that suggests other information, such as that gathered by the Libyans, is not being given the same weight. (Rice said FBI agents were not even in Libya yet.) Elsewhere in the interview, Rice used carefully hedged language — “We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated” — that suggests the administration is straining to avoid an obvious conclusion.
Given that this is a fast-moving story with confusion about basic facts, we are going to start out relatively light on the Pinocchios. We may adjust depending on the information that emerges in the coming weeks, but at the moment the publicly available evidence stands in stark contrast to Rice’s talking points. So, as as start, we will award Two Pinocchios.
UPDATE: Administration officials sharply disputed these conclusions, especially the awarding of any Pinocchios so early in the process. They argued we had really jumped the gun. We had considered a “verdict pending,” but had believed the gap between Rice’s statement and other information publicly available made a Pinocchio rating appropriate.
For instance, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said after receiving a briefing from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said that “it was a planned, premediated attack.”
But officials also pointed to a statement by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chair of the Intelligence Committee. “I can say I’ve seen no evidence or no assessment that indicates” this was a planned attack, she said after receiving a briefing from CIA Director David Petreaus.
Part of the issue surrounds the definition of “planning.” Was this something in the works for months, which intelligence had missed, or was this an opportunistic event, planned just 24 or 48 hours earlier, that could not have been prevented? U.S. officials do not discount the possibility of the later, but insist there is thus far no evidence of the former.
“We have no indication that there was actionable intelligence that would have allowed us to predict there would be an attack on the U.S. post in Benghazi,” said Shawn Turner, director of communications for national intelligence.
It is of course in the Libyan government’s interest to point the finger at foreigners, just as it is in the intelligence community’s interest to suggest this tragedy sprung up suddenly, with little or no prior planning. We still think Rice’s statement is bit too categorical, given the the timing of the attack and the statements of the Libyan government. But we also can see an argument for considering this worthy of a Pinocchio, or a Verdict Pending--options we had considered on Sunday.
As mentioned above, we are prepared to revisit this issue in the future, adjusting the ruling as new information emerges. We would welcome reader input as well, since this is a difficult issue to judge. Were we too hasty or on the mark?
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