Hillary Clinton’s testimony before Congress the other week brought the country’s attention back to the Benghazi attack of Sept. 11, 2012. It is a topic that I find fascinating, less for what it says about U.S. foreign policy than for what it says about domestic politics and the processes of perception and interpretation. In this case, however, rather than examine the Clinton testimony, I would like to focus on a less-noticed report.
Another official report, “Flashing Red: A Special Report on the Terrorist Attack at Benghazi,” was issued just before New Year’s Day. This one came out of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and was attributed specifically to Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) and Susan M. Collins (R-Me.), the chairman and the ranking minority member of that committee. This was one of Lieberman’s last official acts, as he retired from the Senate a few days later.
Most of the report deals with the inadequacies of the security arrangements at the diplomatic mission at Benghazi, and how these might be remedied in the future. Obviously, this is a valid concern and a useful exercise. The report brings renewed attention to some things we have already known and also shines a light on some aspects that are new, at least to me. For instance, it emphasizes the difficulties of getting adequate provisions and staffing for a diplomatic mission that was small and temporary. (The entire mission consisted of one diplomat and three Diplomatic Security agents, all on temporary assignment—elevated to two diplomats and five D.S. agents on the day of the attack—and the lease on the property was to run out at the end of 2012.) It was also difficult to fit into the budget when Congress had not passed a new appropriations bill for foreign affairs since before the mission was established. Still, it seems unlikely that the report’s recommendations will be fully implemented. In some cases, this may be due to shortcomings of the report itself, but more often it is due to the nature of the beast.
The report, for example, repeatedly notes that the security arrangements were not adequate and calls for providing adequate security at such sites in the future. Yet there is no real definition of “adequate.” After the fact, you can say you need enough security to defend against the attack that occurred, but the report concedes that the magnitude of the attack was unprecedented. The report does make a couple of specific recommendations for pedestrian barriers and “mantraps” and mentions some incidents in which the absence of these was associated with problems, but it would have been more convincing if it could have cited episodes in which their presence had prevented problems. Moreover, the discussion never mentions the fact that the U.S. embassy in Tripoli—a two-year-old, state-of-the-art facility—had been rendered useless by a pro-Qadhafi mob the just the year before, despite preparations that must have appeared adequate at the time. (It is also worth noting that the security arrangements for the embassy in Kabul, which—along with Embassy Baghdad and Embassy Islamabad—is infamous for siphoning off the State Department’s security resources, were also being denounced as inadequate that summer.)
The report repeats the list of security incidents in the Benghazi area that preceded the attack. Lieberman and Collins acknowledge that there was no specific intelligence regarding this attack, and even note that it might have been impossible to acquire specific intelligence because the attack apparently involved little or no advance planning, but they recommend that in the future such diplomatic missions should not wait for specific warnings. It would be unfair to say that this amounts to saying “Just know what’s going to happen before it happens,” but it is not a lot better. It might have been helpful if for comparative purposes they had compiled similar lists of escalating security incidents for the other two dozen facilities that were attacked that day—and for similar facilities that were not attacked—so that we could see if and how they actually differed. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 7, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested that the deteriorating situation in Benghazi did not necessarily distinguish it from a lot of other places at the time. In her testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 23, Secretary Clinton pointed out that the department’s attention that day was focused on Cairo and Tunis, where embassies were also under attack. How many of those other outposts also requested security that they could not get? Which ones should have had their security reduced in order build up Benghazi’s? A comparative approach, taking real costs and trade-offs into account, might ultimately produce a way to measure rising risk or tell us if the signs are random, which would also be good to know. Perhaps this would be an appropriate topic for a future report or academic study.
Based on their evaluation of the deteriorating situation, Lieberman and Collins conclude that the State Department’s worst mistake was not to shut the mission down, as the British had done with theirs. Again, this is a valid argument, but it overlooks the costs involved. Securing the personnel’s safety is an important goal, but it is not the department’s only goal. Benghazi, the birthplace of the Libyan revolution and the political center of a still-disgruntled region of the country, was, so to speak, a powder keg within the larger Libyan power keg. It was precisely the city’s volatility that made it important to know what was happening there. Far from trying to leave, Ambassador Stevens, who knew conditions in Benghazi better than anyone in the U.S. government, was trying to find a way to extend the U.S. presence there. No doubt, the British decision to leave was made easier by an assumption that the Americans would stay and keep them informed.
Lieberman and Collins also look at the unarmed private security guards hired by the State Department and the local militia assigned by the Libyan government to provide security for the mission. The report finds that these arrangements were inadequate and recommends that the State Department rely on its own resources or the U.S. military. That makes sense, of course, but the report does not say what to do if the host country objects to the presence of armed private security guards or foreign troops. This appears to have been a problem in Libya (as Kafkaesque as that may seem in a country that necessarily relies on amorphous self-proclaimed militias for national security).
Finally, nearly a third of the report is devoted to the controversy over whether and when the administration described the incident as a “terrorist attack.” In connection with this, let me note that Lieberman was supportive of Ambassador Susan Rice with regard to her remarks about Benghazi in televised interviews on September 16. Collins was not supportive, but neither did she press the issue in the manner of senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Kelly Ayotte. Let me also note that the report appropriately separates this question from the “issues” of whether the attack was preceded by a demonstration or protest and whether the infamous Internet video played a role. There are numerous other commentators who seem to believe that any reference to a demonstration (there was none) or any mention of a possible role played by the video (still not ruled out) constitutes an effort to deny the existence of a terrorist attack. In fact, none of these things are mutually exclusive.
The report, however, sends mixed messages on the “terrorist attack” issue. While it does not follow the lead of critics who assert that Rice should have ignored her talking points and declared the “truth” of what happened, it is critical of her failure to state explicitly on September 16 that the incident was a terrorist attack. On the other hand, it acknowledges that on that same day the FBI was still debriefing U.S. personnel who had witnessed the attack. The report also concedes that the talking points provided to Rice and to Congress included references to a demonstration and that the intelligence community took these references from open news sources that were wrong. (The intelligence community apparently still considers the talking points to have been basically correct apart from the reference to a demonstration.) Then, at least from my perspective, the report basically castigates the intelligence community for wasting its time on more important issues (like trying to find out what actually happened and who had done it) when people in Washington were still confused about the “terrorist” and “demonstration” controversies. Evidently, the intelligence community did not consider these controversies worthy of attention or, more likely, did not consider them issues at all. (One might also add that the intelligence community generally avoids commenting on public political debates, which frequently involve questionable facts and interpretations and sometimes involve politicians who, for reasons of their own, would prefer not to be corrected.)
Lieberman and Collins seem to consider a public statement by the Office of the Director of National Security, issued 17 days after the incident, to be an example that gets the story right. What does that statement say?
“As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists. It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attack, and if extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. However, we do assess that some of those involved were linked to groups affiliated with, or sympathetic to al-Qa’ida.”
So, there you have it. Some of the people were linked to groups, and those groups were affiliated with al-Qa’ida, or maybe they were just sympathetic, and the group leaders may or may not have actually told them to participate. Rice, on the other hand, speaking before the assessment had been revised to reflect new information, had said that the facility was attacked by extremists and that al-Qa’ida may have played a role but we don’t know for sure yet. The revisions in the assessment concern whether there was a demonstration first, which is irrelevant; the degree of spontaneity, which remains a question of degree; and some firming up of a possible role for al-Qa’ida-related groups, but it seems we still don’t know for sure. If there is a fundamental contradiction between the ODNI’s version and Rice’s version, it is difficult to ferret out.
The report goes on to conclude this section with two recommendations that, to my mind, are themselves contradictory. First, it says that in such cases administration officials must speak clearly and consistently about what happened. The problem is that the administration will not know what happened in a clear and consistent manner, and when facts emerge slowly, consistency can then be the enemy of truth. Pressure to give early explanations of what happened in a sudden, chaotic, and confusing situation is precisely what gives rise to misinformation and controversies like this one. (Remember, practically everything we learned from the press and public officials on the day of the Dec. 14, 2012, mass shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, turned out to be wrong.) Rather than demanding consistency, we should learn to recognize that the world is not consistent, that the collection and evaluation of evidence take time, and that explanations of events like this are going to evolve.
Perhaps realizing this at some subconscious level, the report’s authors issue a second recommendation that seemingly negates the first. The intelligence community’s talking points caused “confusion and division,” so the intelligence community should avoid issuing talking points for public discussion. This leaves it rather up in the air as to how the administration is supposed to come up with its clear and consistent story line. And after all, it was Congress’s request for information to use in public—not anything the CIA forced on people—that led to the issuing of the Benghazi talking points. Regardless of what this report recommends, when the next situation arises, political leaders are going to demand answers about what happened and why, they are going to demand to have them immediately, and they are going to use them (or some of them) in public. They will not appreciate it if the intelligence community, taking a page from the Jack Nicholson character in A Few Good Men, responds with “You can’t handle the truth!” They will simply have to accept, and point out to the public (as Ambassador Rice did), that the story is incomplete and subject to change.
Investigating incidents like Benghazi is important, and I do not mean to dismiss Lieberman’s and Collins’s contribution out of hand. They have valuable things to say. At the same time, investigators should be aware of the danger of hindsight. There will be facts and interpretations that appear to be so true after the fact that people will forget that they were not obvious before the fact. As sociologist Duncan J. Watts says in the title of a recent book, Everything Is Obvious . . . Once You Know the Answer. I would add that in some cases, despite being obvious to many people after the fact, they may still not be true. Finding out if they are true is what the investigating process is about.