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.

Ansar Al-Sharia Is Back

My latest piece in Newsweek/Daily Beast explores how  Libya has tapped local militias including the one blamed for the attack on the U.S. consulate—to patrol Tripoli and Benghazi amidst a spiraling crime wave.

“Libya’s leaders have given the go-ahead for revolutionary militias, including the powerful Islamist Nawasi brigade and Ansar al-Sharia—the militia blamed for the assault last September on the U.S. consulate—to combat drug dealers and a crime wave that is disrupting daily life in the capital and in the eastern city of Benghazi.” Read the full article here.

When A Looter Becomes A Hero


Newsweek will be publishing this week a piece I wrote with colleagues Christopher Dickey and Eli Lake on the September storming of the US consulate and the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Alas, print isn’t online and space constraints mean that some interesting side-stories won’t get used.

For example, 10 Libyans were treated for wounds at the Benghazi Medical Center the night of the assault, according to the hospital’s general director, consultant Fathi Al Jehani. Two were attackers and after being treated were whisked off. It isn’t clear by whom — their friends or pro-government militiamen. Of the remaining eight — all of whom were meant to be defenders of the consulate — five were discharged and didn’t need to be admitted. Three were and on Friday October 14 Libyan leaders, with a large press corps in tow, visited them to thank them for their bravery in trying to defend the consulate and the Americans.

In turns out that not all three were deserving of thanks. One of the men, who had been shot in both legs, was not a defender but a looter, who had been trying to steal a fridge from the US mission when he got wounded. The doctors were too embarrassed to let on. “How could we?” Jehani told me. “All the press were there and the politicians and it would have looked bad, so we kept quiet.” Next day after the visit, the looter’s photograph was gracing the pages of domestic and foreign newspapers lauding him as a hero. What happened to the fridge I was not able to discover.

While on the subject of the hospital, I talked with Jehani about right-wing bloggers asserting that Stevens had been sodomized before he died. Of course, no evidence is summoned for such claims. Jehani, who studied and worked in leading London hospitals for 13 years before returning to Libya shortly before the rebellion that ousted Col. Gaddafi, insists the assertions are totally false. “The emergency doctors thoroughly examined the ambassador. There was no evidence of any brutalization. He wasn’t sodomized. There was some lighting bruising consistent with being moved when unconscious. Otherwise he had the classic symptoms of suffocation from smoke inhalation. His face was blue. He was bleeding from the mouth and trachea.”

Of course, facts like these won’t stop the bloggers spouting nonsense.

Jehani told me that though his doctors struggled for 45 minutes to revive the ambassador there was no real hope for him. He wasn’t technically alive when he arrived at the hospital. “If he had been brought to us sooner, may be we could have saved him. But it was too late.”

Jehani had never met the ambassador but he was scheduled to do so on September 12. One of the reasons for Stevens’ visit to Benghazi was to launch formally a tie-up between the Benghazi Medical Center and Harvard’s Medical School. The tie-up consists mainly of an exchange program uto help improve Benghazi’s emergency medicine. For Harvard specialists were in Benghazi for the launch, including Dr. Thomas Burke, a world-renowned emergency medicine specialist. Burke is a Director of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Department of Emergency Medicine and serves on the faculty at Harvard Medical School. He reviewed Stevens’ medical notes the morning after the attack and concluded that the Libyan emergency doctors did all they could to save the ambassador, according to Jehani.

A Series On Christopher Stevens And Ansar al-Sharia


Under the pressure of events and filing a couple of stories a day on the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and its aftermath I have neglected sadly my personal bog. Below are the links to the series of articles I filed for the Daily Beast and Voice of America between September 12 and September 18.

September 12

The U.S. ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens, and three State Department officials were killed last night in a targeted rocket attack, after riots over a U.S. film depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a fraud.

September 12

Despite President Obama’s pledge that the violent assault on the Benghazi consulate that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens would not “break the bonds” between the U.S. and Libya, it would appear to have weakened them. A U.S. official told The Daily Beast on Wednesday that U.S. diplomats are to be evacuated in the coming days. It was not clear whether a skeleton staff would remain, and the embassy could not be reached for comment.

September 13
Heavily-armed assailants waged a five-hour firefight against Libyan and American guards—at two locations. Fury over a film or a planned mission?

September 13

For many Libyans the deaths are shocking enough—and apologies are spontaneously offered to Americans—but underlying the condolences is a fear that the U.S. will reduce its commitment to the Arab Spring.

September 14

Shifting explanations from Libyan officials and contradictory recollections by survivors and witnesses are hampering U.S. officials’ efforts to reconstruct the night of the assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi that left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

September 15

America and Libya should share responsibility for the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in the assault on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, according to the spokesman of Libya’s new Prime Minister Mustafa Abushagur. He says that so far no evidence has turned up that suggests al Qaeda had a hand in the attack.

September 17

An amateur video appearing to show a motionless but apparently still alive Ambassador Christopher Stevens was posted Sunday on YouTube. The video focuses on a window of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where some members of a crowd—it is not clear if they are protesters, looters, or nearby residents drawn to the scene after the attack—discover the mortally injured Stevens and celebrate that he’s still alive.

September 17

Another day and more clashing explanations from different Libyan officials about who was behind the assault on the consulate in Benghazi that left U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens dead along with three other Americans. Not only are the accounts of what happened and who was involved contradictory, so too now are the number of arrests made and whether they are real arrests or just questionings of people known to have been at the protest before the shooting started.

September 18

Senior U.S. security and intelligence officials met secretly on Monday with Libyan counterparts to share information that the Americans have gathered, through electronic surveillance, on the assault on the U.S. consulate that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead.

September 18

Sharp disagreements between senior Libyan officials over who was behind the U.S. Consulate assault in Benghazi are a sign of a “leadership deficit” in Libya that’s undermining the credibility of the newly elected authorities, diplomats and analysts warn.

And Voice of America

September 13

The call to prayer sounded over a subdued Tripoli Thursday as residents of Libya’s capital tried to understand the killings of the U.S. ambassador and three diplomats during the storming of the American consulate in the eastern city of Benghazi.