“Look at Benghazi, our ambassador. He wired her 500 or 600 times asking for help.”
— Donald Trump, interview on Fox News, Sunday, Dec. 13, 2015
We’re using this Donald Trump quote as a jumping-off point to explore a figure that has been widely cited since the House Select Committee on Benghazi held a hearing in October featuring former secretary of state Hillary Clinton — that there were “600 requests” for security upgrades from U.S. officials based in Benghazi, Libya.
As usual, Trump wildly exaggerated the figure. A key point that Republicans on the committee have tried to make was that Ambassador Chris Stevens — who perished in the 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities that left three others dead — did not directly communicate with Clinton on her private email system. (Generally, ambassadors would send messages through the chain of command.) So none of these came directly from Stevens to Clinton, “asking for help,” as Trump put it.
Yet Trump is not alone. Few in the media or the political world have understood what this figure is supposed to mean, and in fact have almost always described it incorrectly. The Fact Checker has spent several weeks exploring this figure with both Republican and Democratic staffs of the Benghazi panel and was given a rare opportunity to examine aspects of the underlying data. This is the result of our inquiry.
Let’s first stipulate that there is no debate that security was inadequate in Benghazi. Four Americans died. Even the State Department Accountability Review Board report that many Republicans say is a whitewash is unsparing in its portrait of Washington’s indifference to the crumbling security situation. The report said the security posture was “grossly inadequate” to deal with the attacks:
“The number of Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) security staff in Benghazi on the day of the attack and in the months and weeks leading up to it was inadequate, despite repeated requests from Special Mission Benghazi and Embassy Tripoli for additional staffing. Board members found a pervasive realization among personnel who served in Benghazi that the Special Mission was not a high priority for Washington when it came to security-related requests, especially those relating to staffing. The insufficient Special Mission security platform was at variance with the appropriate Overseas Security Policy Board (OSPB) standards with respect to perimeter and interior security. Benghazi was also severely under-resourced with regard to certain needed security equipment, although DS funded and installed in 2012 a number of physical security upgrades.”
But the ARB report offers no count of the requests, which is why the committee’s count of 600 has sparked so much attention.
But while GOP members often have frequently shorthanded the information as “600 requests,” the correct phraseology is “requests and concerns,” as shown in the chart below, which was displayed during the hearing. The chart suggests that all of these requests and concerns were from Benghazi to Washington (i.e., “the State Department”). A “concern,” however, is different than a “request.”
“A request is made via email or cable for physical security, equipment, or something related to the compound itself (lighting, barriers, wire, etc),” a GOP congressional staff member explained. “Weeks or months later, the same unresolved issue is brought up again in a discussion. That’s a request and a concern. In general, concerns followed requests. However, some concerns are independent of a request. Such concerns could, for example, be expressed about the delay of issuing visas to DS agents kept out of Libya. Concerns could be expressed about security personnel needing to provide their own holsters or protective gear, etc.”
Requests, meanwhile, were about any specific security-related need in Benghazi. A request for hundreds of sandbags would count as one request.
Officials could not provide a breakdown of the number of requests versus the number of concerns. Left unstated is the fact that at least some of these requests were actually fulfilled. The chart suggests the security posture — in terms of the number of security officers — never improved. But it’s an apples and oranges comparison. Most of the requests and concerns appear to not be about staffing, but about other security upgrades.
As the ARB put it:
“It is incumbent upon the Board, however, to acknowledge that several upgrades and repairs took place over 2012. DS provided additional funding for the Local Guard Force (LGF), February 17, and residential security upgrades, including heightening the outer perimeter wall, safety grills on safe area egress windows that helped save the life of ARSO 1 on the night of September 11, concrete jersey barriers, manual drop-arm vehicle barriers, a steel gate for the Villa C safe area, some locally manufactured steel doors, sandbag fortifications, security cameras, some additional security lighting, guard booths, and an Internal Defense Notification System.”
Many media reports, however, have incorrectly stated that officials in Benghazi made 600 requests for security to Washington — and that all of those requests were denied. Megyn Kelly of Fox News, for instance, asked, “Why would 600 requests for security [be] ignored?” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) wrote a newspaper opinion article that stated: “600 requests for additional security were submitted from Libya, all of which were denied by then-Secretary Clinton’s State Department.”
One reason why people might have been confused is that “requests and concerns” only appeared on the chart. During the hearing, for instance, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) repeatedly referred to 600 “security requests.”
“The chart was displayed in the hearing when the numbers were discussed, so all of the media and anyone else in the room could see it,” said the GOP staff member. “We also provided it to anyone who asked for a copy. As I’m sure you understand, members are often rushed when asking questions due to the limited time allotted them. Since Pompeo was discussing the numbers on the chart when it was right there for everyone to see, there was clearly no intent to mislead.”
As an example of a “concern,” the GOP staff provided a copy of a previously unpublished memo, embedded below. This memo, dated Aug. 28, 2012, or two weeks before the attacks, was written by the regional security officer in Benghazi as a transition memo for an incoming officer.
The memo highlights a number of serious issues about security in Benghazi and includes a list of about 20 unfilled security requests, including one for a belt-fed, crew-served weapon that was first requested in October 2011. But the memo also shows how the security officer had gotten funding for and made some improvements: “The $38,000 fence project has recently been completed. … We purchased new sandbags and constructed three new fighting positions.”
This particular memo, however, was never sent to Washington, according to a State Department statement submitted as part of the record for a January 2013 House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing: “The RSO in Benghazi submitted to Tripoli a preliminary list of proposed security recommendations on August 23rd, but no requests were submitted to Washington before the attacks.”
Democrats on the committee say that Republicans have not shared their methodology for counting the requests and concerns. Democratic staff tried to reconstruct the 600 figure by reviewing cables, emails and other documents, but say they only were able to identify fewer than 200 specific requests. But as noted before, a substantial number of the 600-figure could be what the GOP staff labeled as concerns.
To demonstrate that the 600 figure was based on a count of actual documents, the GOP staff permitted The Fact Checker to view a spread sheet showing the date each document was created, the subject line and “Bates number” — the official State Department coding of the document. We were not permitted to view the sender and receiver. We also could not publicly disclose the subject headings or the Bates numbers.
The number of documents added up to 581, and staff members said classified documents would bring it over 600. A number of documents had the same subject heading; we counted, in one case, 17 with the exact same subject heading. This indicated that concerns were being discussed, as opposed to new requests.
Obviously, the tagging of requests and specifically of concerns is somewhat subjective. A more instructive list might be of unfulfilled requests. The committee’s final report is supposed to list the documents that formed the basis for the 600 figure, allowing people to understand exactly how this number was developed. We are satisfied the GOP staff assembled this list in good faith, notwithstanding how many may have mischaracterized it.
“The committee’s report will lay out the information it has gathered about security requests and concerns made by U.S. personnel in Libya and Washington in the months preceding the Benghazi terrorist attacks,” said Committee spokesman Matt Wolking. “As even the State Department itself has admitted, ‘Washington … fail[ed] to meet Benghazi’s repeated requests,’ leaving security there ‘grossly inadequate’ in terms of both equipment and staffing. The committee’s chart accurately showed that while requests and concerns dramatically increased, the number of security agents was virtually unchanged.”
The Pinocchio Test
As we noted, there is no dispute that security was inadequate in Benghazi and that the State Department failed to respond to all requests for security. But the shorthand description of “600 requests” has left a misleading impression — so much so that many reporters and lawmakers appear to believe that all of these requests were ignored. As Trump indicated, some people may believe these were all requests from Ambassador Stevens, even though few if any are likely from Stevens.
But the committee is counting “requests and concerns.” At least some of the requests were actually fulfilled — and the counting of “concerns” may be subject to dispute.
We look forward to more fully reviewing the record when the final report is released. Trump’s comment, of course, is a whopper. But in the meantime, reporters or lawmakers who fail to note that this is not simply a list of unfilled requests, but a more subjective accounting of requests and concerns, will earn Two Pinocchios.
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