The bipartisan Senate report (“Flashing Red: A Special Report On The Terrorist Attack At Benghazi“) released on Monday by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the Benghazi debacle certainly adds to our understanding of the events leading up to the murder of four Americans and the confusion that followed. For that its chairman, Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), and ranking member, Susan Collins (R-Maine), should be commended.
While it is less than specific in explaining senior officials’ particular roles and why certain events occurred (e.g., the false cover story about the anti-Muslim film), it moves the ball forward despite blatant stonewalling by the White House. (“To provide a full account of the changes made to the talking points, by whom they were made and why, DNI [James] Clapper offered to provide the Committee with a detailed timeline regarding the development of the talking points. At the time of writing this report, despite repeated requests, the Committee had yet to receive this timeline. According to a senior IC official, the timeline has not been delivered as promised because the Administration has spent weeks debating internally whether or not it should turn over information considered ‘deliberative’ to the Congress.”) Moreover, the president, his national security adviser and other top White House officials have not been queried as to their actions.
That said, the report is a stern and broad rebuke of the entire administration:
In the months leading up to the attack on the Temporary Mission Facility in Benghazi, there was a large amount of evidence gathered by the U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) and from open sources that Benghazi was increasingly dangerous and unstable, and that a significant attack against American personnel there was becoming much more likely. While this intelligence was effectively shared within the Intelligence Community (IC) and with key officials at the Department of State, it did not lead to a commensurate increase in security at Benghazi nor to a decision to close the American mission there, either of which would have been more than justified by the intelligence presented.
The report confirms that the administration had available information about the rising Al-Qaeda threat in Libya but did not take appropriate action to protect its personnel, reply to security requests, rethink entrusting security to unreliable local forces or pull our people out, as a number of other countries and international groups had done. The question as to how officials missed the thundering stampede of elephants in the room ( i.e. the degeneration of Libya into a haven for terrorists) has yet to be answered. Plain incompetence? Pre-election nervousness? Refusal to give up on the “we put Al-Qaeda back on its heels” group think? We simply don’t know. One former national security official described the problem this way: “Susan Rice said what they all wanted to believe, which was that AQ was dying, and that the mayhem in the Middle East was merely the result of people getting temperamental about a video at a time when basically good things were happening around them. They cling to that narrative, in many ways, and it is an acute form of strategic blindness.”
As for the dissembling after the attacks, the report provides a blow-by-blow account of the inconsistent explanations for the attack coming from the president and his aides. Left unsaid is why this occurred and whether the president intended to mislead the American people. (“Although the September 11, 2012 attack in Benghazi was recognized as a terrorist attack by the Intelligence Community and personnel at the Department of State from the beginning, Administration officials were inconsistent in stating publicly that the deaths in Benghazi were the result of a terrorist attack.”) Part of this stemmed from the endemic refusal to name our enemy:
One of the key lessons of this Committee’s six-year focus on the threat of violent Islamist extremism is that, in order to understand and counter the threat we face, we must clearly identify that threat. During the Committee’s investigation into the Fort Hood massacre, for example, we found systemic problems with the way the military addressed violent Islamist extremism in its policies and procedures (treating this specific threat within the broader context of “workplace violence”).
Similarly, while we welcomed the Administration’s release last year of a national strategy and implementation plan for countering radicalization domestically, we expressed our disappointment in the Administration’s continued refusal to identify violent Islamist extremism as our enemy. The enemy is not a vague catchall of violent extremism, but a specific violent Islamist extremism. It is unfair to the vast majority of law-abiding Muslims not to distinguish between their peaceful religion and a twisted corruption of that religion used to justify violence.
There are related lessons to be learned from the Administration’s public comments about Benghazi, which we believe contributed to the confusion in the public discourse after the attack about exactly what happened.
In this specific instance, the report makes clear that the administration knew much more and knew better than its lame cover story:
In short, regardless of questions about whether there had been a demonstration or protest outside the Temporary Mission Facility in advance of the attack, the extent to which the attacks were preplanned, or the role of an anti-Islamic video which had sparked protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and elsewhere earlier on September 11, there was never any doubt among key officials, including officials in the IC and the Department of State, that the attack in Benghazi was an act of terrorism.
As one old Middle East hand put it to me, “The decisions throughout 2012 NOT to reinforce security in Benghazi cast a wider net of responsibility, including the White House and State. Lots of blame to go around.” What awareness the president had of all this and what influence his chest-thumping about the Libya “success” played in deterring officials from responding to the deterioration in security are unknown, for unlike State and the Pentagon, the president has yet to come clean on his own role.
It is also noteworthy that the report also takes the administration to task for failure to position military assets in the increasingly dangerous North African region. It therefore recommends that we readjust our forces:
Because Africa has increasingly become a haven for terrorist groups in places like Libya and Mali, DOD should provide more assets and personnel within range on land and sea to protect and defend both Americans and our allies on the African continent.
When a debacle is traceable to so many sectors of government (intelligence community, State, Pentagon) and so many different types of errors (in strategy, communication, management) something is very wrong, particularly with the national security council that is charged, in essence, with running herd over the executive departments. If they have not been asked to leave, national security adviser Tom Donilon and his senior aides should be canned. They didn’t do their jobs and they contributed to the misleading of the American people.
But once again we have to ask: Where was the president? Did any of this make it into his briefings? As in domestic budget fights, President Obama is always there to take a victory lap but never around when things go wrong. Congress should demand a full accounting from him and condition confirmation of new senior officials and of appropriations on getting that full accounting.
The media, in failing to doggedly seek answers, share in this shameful episode and have contributed to the complete absence of transparency and accountability. Nothing but blatant bias can explain that.