THE FOG of war is no fiction. Anyone who has ever experienced spasms of violent conflict can attest to the draining uncertainty and bewilderment that often come with it. When armed attackers mounted an assault on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, at 9:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, 2012, confusion reigned. Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, died in the hours that followed, but the way the attack unfolded, and why, was opaque.
Members of the Republican Party have made the Benghazi disaster even more difficult to comprehend by advancing a series of bizarre conspiracy theories intended to besmirch the Obama administration. At first, they charged the White House with whitewashing a terrorist attack, then moved on to even more outlandish claims of a stand-down of military aid to the besieged facility or claims that the CIA was using Benghazi for running guns to Syria.
Now, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, chaired by outgoing Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and with Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) as ranking minority member, has published a sober report after a two-year investigation. The report looks primarily at the performance of the intelligence community, but it also concludes that many of the Republican accusations are simply not true.
Rather than malfeasance or incompetence, the House intelligence committee says that many Americans performed courageously in the attack. Officials from State, Defense and the CIA did what they could to save lives, making “reasonable tactical decisions about how to respond to the attacks.” After the first assault on the facility, a team rushed from the CIA base about a mile and a half away to help; another CIA-military team was dispatched from Tripoli; a Predator drone was in the air above the scene in 90 minutes. “There was neither a stand down order nor a denial of available air support, and no American was left behind,” the panel concluded. The panel found that there was “no evidence of an intelligence failure” prior to the attack — the CIA did not have tactical warning that it was imminent. The CIA base in Benghazi was collecting intelligence about groups running weapons to Syria but was not itself running guns, the report says.
The panel confirms that diplomatic security at the Benghazi mission was ill-prepared and that the agents knew they could not defend the compound from an attack. The panel also criticizes the CIA’s “flawed” handling of talking points that contributed to possibly incorrect statements Sept. 16, 2012, by Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. But the House panel noted that even today, “significant intelligence gaps regarding the identities, affiliations and motivations of the attackers remain.”
The House is planning yet another investigation, which will be the eighth into these events. This seems superfluous. The big mistake in Libya policy, the consequences of which are more apparent today than ever, was President Obama’s refusal to support the new government’s attempt to build security after he helped topple the nation’s longtime dictator. Unfounded conspiracy theories on Benghazi only distract from this crucial, and largely unlearned, lesson.