In some cases, the fog of war is initially thick, then dissipates. After the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the facts were initially clear. The fog was a later addition.
Recent congressional testimony by Gregory Hicks, Stevens’s deputy in Libya, established one point beyond doubt: Those closest to the attacks were not confused about their nature. They were responding to a coordinated terrorist assault followed by a “precise” mortar barrage. “The only report that our mission made through every channel was that there had been an attack,” Hicks said. “No protest.” On Sept. 12, according to House members, Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones informed State Department colleagues that she had told the Libyans that “the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.”
Information on the true nature of the attack had traveled the 5,000 miles to CIA headquarters and was incorporated into the agency’s initial talking points. But somewhere in the final few miles between Langley, Foggy Bottom and the White House, the attack was called a “demonstration” and then, according to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, the “direct result of a heinous and offensive video.” The administration’s characterizations became more emphatic as they became less accurate.
In pinning the blame for Benghazi on a crude, anti-Muslim video, confusion moved along the contours of convenience. For the State Department, it shifted attention away from careless security practices in an obviously dangerous place. For the White House, it avoided pre-election discussion of the war on terror that was supposed to be largely won. For whoever made the military decisions on that night, it obscured the timidity of their response when Americans came under attack.
Republicans who see a repeat of Watergate in these events will be disappointed. This was an effort to obscure negligence and incompetence, not criminality.
But the administration’s reaction to Benghazi set a precedent. Judged by its main intention, it was successful. It got the administration past the November election with little damage. This took some effort. Hicks, for example, was discouraged from cooperating with a member of Congress investigating the attacks, was called on the carpet for interacting with him directly and, he believes, was eventually demoted for disputing the official version of events. The media, meanwhile, tended to dismiss every new piece of information as trivial until it could be categorized as old news.
But as the administration’s Benghazi narrative unravels, some additional, second-order effects have become obvious.
First, the administration was willing to shift all the responsibility for its public errors to the intelligence community. During the vice presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz asked Joe Biden why the White House had attributed the death of Stevens to the video. He responded: “Because that was exactly what we were told by the intelligence community.”
Not quite “exactly.” Thanks to Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard, we now know the CIA talking points were significantly modified at the insistence of the State Department and later in the interdepartmental process. The initial judgments of the intelligence community were fairly accurate. Eventual administration statements were inaccurate. Given the importance of U.S. intelligence credibility on Iran and Syria, is it advisable to make our intelligence services look less competent than they are for political reasons?
Second, the administration was willing to undermine a foreign leader in a fragile circumstance. Soon after the attack, Libyan President Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf insisted that “the idea that this criminal and cowardly act was a spontaneous protest that just spun out of control is completely unfounded and preposterous. We firmly believe that this was a precalculated, preplanned attack.” According to Hicks, the administration’s alternative version of events left Magariaf “insulted in front of his own people, in front of the world. His credibility was reduced. His ability to lead his own country was damaged.”
Third, the administration was willing to feed an image of irrational Muslim rage that did not, in fact, apply to Libya. “The video was not an instigator of anything that was going on in Libya,” Hicks testified. “We saw no demonstrations related to the video anywhere in Libya.” Did it serve U.S. public diplomacy to assert, as then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did, that Libyans had joined “the tyranny of a mob,” rather than being victimized by terrorist organizations?
The administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack was politically effective, but not without real-world costs.