When it comes up in the presidential candidates’ foreign policy debate Monday night – and it certainly will – President Obama will have some serious explaining to do about the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, last month.
His answer could be pivotal in the debate, perhaps even in the election. Meanwhile, new information about what happened that night – the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States – and in the weeks afterward continues to emerge.
David Ignatius, the Washington Post’s well-regarded foreign policy columnist, reports that initial CIA “talking points” supported UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s early contention that the attack in Benghazi – which took the life of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other embassy personnel – was tied to region-wide protests against a crude anti-Islam YouTube video.
According to the CIA account, provided to Mr. Ignatius by a senior US intelligence official, “The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US Consulate and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”
“This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed and as currently available information continues to be evaluated,” the Sept. 15 CIA document continued.
“We believe the timing of the attack was influenced by events in Cairo,” the senior official told Ignatius. “The attackers were disorganized; some seemed more interested in looting. Some who claimed to have participated joined the attack as it began or after it was under way. There is no evidence of rehearsals, they never got into the safe room … never took any hostages, didn’t bring explosives to blow the safe room door, and didn’t use a car bomb to blow the gates.”
It was, the intelligence official said, “a flash mob with weapons,” adding that the only thing he would change in the CIA’s initial talking points would be to drop the word “spontaneous” and substitute “opportunistic.”
“This may sound like self-protective boilerplate,” Ignatius observes, “but it reflects the analysts’ genuine problem interpreting fragments of intercepted conversation, video surveillance and source reports” – in essence, the “fog of war” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton referred to earlier this week.
The issue has become highly politicized, Republican challenger Mitt Romney claiming it to be a major Obama administration failure, congressional Republicans holding highly charged hearings as the White House and the Obama campaign scramble to defend their initial (and subsequent) statements about the attack.
Some of it seems politically petty – whether Obama called the violence at Benghazi an “act of terror” (he did), whether that was a generic reference to terrorism or he specifically meant the attack that took the life of a US ambassador.
In a letter to the White House Friday, Rep. Peter King, chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, requested all intelligence community reporting and analysis of the event, including radio traffic, instant messages and emails, operational cables, intercepts, and images.
Meanwhile, House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa “compromised the identities of several Libyans working with the US government and placed their lives in danger when he released reams of State Department communications,” according to a report Friday in Foreign Policy magazine.
Rep. Issa has been particularly aggressive in his search for “a full explanation from this administration about these events,” as he put it in a letter to Obama Friday.
“Information supplied to the committee by senior officials demonstrates that not only did the administration repeatedly reject requests for increased security despite escalating violence, but it also systematically decreased existing security to dangerous and ineffective levels,” Issa and national security subcommittee chairman Rep. Jason Chaffetz wrote.
“We have been told repeatedly that the administration did this to effectuate a policy of ‘normalization’ in Libya after the conclusion of its civil war,” Reps. Issa and Chaffetz wrote. “These actions not only resulted in extreme vulnerability, but also undermined Ambassador Stevens and the diplomatic mission” – charges administration officials vigorously deny.
The letter included 166 documents and photos described as “sensitive but unclassified.” This includes information critics say could endanger important intelligence sources in Libya.
"Much like WikiLeaks, when you dump a bunch of documents into the ether, there are a lot of unintended consequences," an administration official told The Cable, a Foreign Policy blog site. "This does damage to the individuals because they are named, danger to security cooperation because these are militias and groups that we work with and that is now well known, and danger to the investigation, because these people could help us down the road."
Some conservative sources found the release of such information troubling as well.
“Oh my G-d,” tweeted Commentary magazine editor John Podhoretz. “This is inexcusable.”
“OK, Darrell Issa, this is not cool,” tweeted Republican strategist Liz Mair.