On Benghazi Confusions and Partisanship

Washington DC

I am back in Washington DC for a few days and am observing with disbelief some of the partisan dictated nonsense about last September’s assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. “Disbelief” is an exaggeration: having lived and worked in Washington for years and having covered U.S. politics and Capitol Hill for more than a decade, I know full well how partisans here can twist almost anything into a pretzel, helped by journalists and commentators who are too lazy to delve much and prefer to ignore inconvenient facts.

Take for example Thomas Sowell’s latest punditry – here is a link to the full article. He says the claim that the attack started out as a protest against an anti-Islamic movie and then ran amok was made up by the Obama administration.

He writes: “This ‘spontaneous protest’ story did not originate in Libya but in Washington. Neither the Americans on duty in Libya during the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, nor officials of the Libyan government, said anything about a protest demonstration.” Sorry Thomas they did and I reported it at the time. 

The protest story started in Tripoli and came from top Libyan officials, including then Libyan Prime Minister-elect Mustfa Abushugar. In my coverage from Tripoli and Benghazi I expressed some skepticism pretty much from the start about the protest line but I did report what Abushugar and others were saying and noted the total confusion in Tripoli about who was responsible and what occurred.  

Here is a quote from a September 15 Daily Beast article I wrote based in part from an interview with Abushugar’s then adviser and spokesman Mohamed Al Akari.

“Akari says that the Libyan authorities have found no evidence of direct (Al Qaeda) participation in the consulate attack. ‘So far we really believe that this was a violent demonstration mainly against the movie that swung out of control. The protesters saw on television what was happening in Egypt and decided to have their own protest. We have no evidence at all that this was Al Qaeda.’”

Abushugar and his aides repeated this line for several days – the prime minister-elect did so with me during several conversations and he made clear that this was what he was telling the Americans.

Admittedly, not all of Libya’s top officials agreed with that line: the president of the General National Congress, Mohamed Magarief, said he believed the assault was planned, was Al Qaeda connected and involved foreigners. He was eager to shift the blame away from Libyans and to dispute a homegrown angle. The outgoing Prime Minister, Abdurrahim Abdulhafiz El-Keib, shifted from pinning the blame initially on “remnants of the former regime” to suggesting that the consulate attack was a “despicable act of revenge” for 9/11.

Confusion and contradiction persisted for days in Tripoli after the assault and the death of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. I noted in an article on September 13 this:

“As members of Libya’s national assembly elected a new Prime Minister, U.S.-trained engineer Mustafa Abushagur, conflicting reports persisted about how Ambassador Christopher Stevens died during the storming by armed militants of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Some American and Libyan officials say the attack that led to the death of four diplomats and the wounding of several others was more coordinated than originally thought but they cautioned much still needs to be pieced together.”

And I also reported this:

“There were some indications of advanced planning mixed in with opportunism, they say, pointing to the fact that the heavily-armed assailants came well equipped with rocket-propelled grenades and anti-aircraft guns and were able to maintain sustained firefights with Libyan and American security guards at two separate locations—the main consulate compound, a walled-off villa in an upscale district in the city that housed the small temporary mission, and another building a mile away where some staff made for to escape the attack.”

It is hardly any wonder there was confusion in Washington when officials were getting contradictory statements from their Libyan interlocutors. 

Do I see no fault with the Obama administration then? From my perspective there were serious security lapses. The consulate wasn’t a building easy to defend. The reliance on local militias for security was a mistake. Christopher Stevens shouldn’t have been overnighting in Benghazi – in fact he planned to stay five days. There were plenty of warning signs with previous attacks on Western targets, including an assassination attempt on the British ambassador that came very close to killing him, that should have deterred the American ambassador from visiting Benghazi. And to go there during the anniversary week of 9/11 was an astonishing decision, a point made by several Libyan rebel leaders who were close friends with Stevens.  

No Cover-Up, Just Confusion: Thoughts on Benghazi and Stevens

According to U.S. lawmaker Frank Wolf the Obama administration has handed the FBI an impossible task in investigating the assault last September on the American consulate in Benghazi that led to the death of ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. “Can you imagine the FBI going up to a door [in Benghazi], knocking and saying, we’re going to take you away? … The only way to [get answers] is to get a select committee that can subpoena [witnesses],” told Fox News.

Well, I would be curious to see Capitol Hill policemen plodding out to Benghazi and knocking on doors handing out congressional subpoenas.

Wolf, though, has a point in criticizing the administration for not making available American survivors of the attack for them to relate from their perspectives what occurred that night; although presumably there are other House committees that could issue subpoenas for survivors to appear without having to set up a special committee.

For those of us who covered the Benghazi assault on the ground, it is frustrating to see the incident reshaped into a pretzel in Washington DC to fit into various Democratic and Republican agendas. Stevens and those who fought to defend the consulate and the nearby CIA annex – Americans and Libyans – deserve better.

Wolf and other Republicans argue there has been a cover-up by the administration – it is a story line Fox News has been flogging for months. But what happened in Benghazi can more be put down to the fog of battle and to the lack of governance in Libya. Hillary Clinton had a point, surely, that on that day and night the State Department was being buffeted by several crises across the Middle East and was finding it had to keep up with hard information in a region where facts can be very fungible.

When it comes to Libya there was total confusion in the government in Tripoli and with the authorities in Benghazi about what was happening – on the night of the attack and in the days following. That was the case from the president of the National Transitional Council, the prime minister and the deputy prime minister all the way down. They were at sea: I know I talked directly with them or their top aides and the story kept on changing. No doubt Washington DC was getting to hear the same confusion.

Clearly there were lapses. As I made clear in reports for Newsweek, Daily Beast and Maclean’s magazine, sadly Stevens has to bear some of the responsibility. He felt immune having played a crucial role in the success of the rebellion that toppled the Gaddafi regime and often threw off most of his security in Tripoli in the afternoons to meet contacts and friends in the souk. Also, as I — and others — reported in the summer before the assault, Benghazi was becoming ever more dangerous with attacks on foreign envoys and NGOs. Stevens was planning to stay in Benghazi all week – a very different approach from European ambassadors who in the months before his death avoided staying in the city for longer than a day.

The consulate was not a fortified compound and was easy to penetrate; there were too few defenders. Stevens bears some responsibility for this – as does the State Department.

Was it an Al Qaeda attack? Despite some media reports from outlets that like to tag reflexively anything involving militant Islamists as AQ, I don’t believe it was. There has been no hard evidence to the contrary. Too much is made of one phone call to an AQ commander. To put this down to core AQ misses a significant trend that has been taking place in the region: the growth of AQ-inspired Jihadist/Salafist groups that don’t take their marching orders from AQ and operate independently. The bacillus has adapted and rather like a virulent flu has many strains.

Stevens Part II: An Inside Job?

“After his men had tied up the morgue supervisor, who had refused to hand over the body, Febrayir, fearful of an attempt to snatch the corpse, ignored instructions about what route to follow to the airport and misinformed his superiors with false updates. His caravan traveled fast, driving straight onto the runaway. Six Americans approached. “They looked totally fatigued. Their faces were blackened,” Febrayir says. “I think they had been in the consulate. One of them clambered onto the back and uncovered Stevens’s face and started to cry.”

From the second part of my Stevens’ investigation for Newsweek. Read here.

No Way To Treat An Ambassador

Benghazi

“At the consulate, smoke in the burning villa was thinning out; crowds of curiosity seekers and looters were moving in. As they rummaged through the building, they came across a blond man in a white shirt and gray pants, his nose and mouth blackened by soot and body fluids. They dragged him out through the window at the back of the villa. ‘The man is alive,’ shouted someone in the crowd. ‘Move out of the way.'” With my colleagues at Newsweek, a take on what happened the night Ambassador Christopher Stevens was killed.