WEST PALM BEACH, Florida, November 4, 2012 – Six weeks after the tragic events in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, in which militant Islamists attacked the US consulate and killed Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, details of the events remain murky.
What is increasingly clear, however, is that the entire episode was a colossal government failure. The deficit started in inaccurately assessing the threat to US personnel in Libya and, therefore, providing inadequate security at the consulate. The second failure happened during the incident, when the U.S. government did not respond quickly or strongly enough to protect our diplomats. The third disaster stems from lack of thorough investigation to understand what happened, what went wrong and how to prevent similar disasters in the future.
Benghazi was, first, an intelligence failure. The intelligence community, which includes the CIA, the State Department, DIA, NSA, Homeland Security and other services, grossly misunderstood the threat to American diplomats in Benghazi. The belief that most Libyans and the Libyan government is friendly toward the Untied States blinded officials to the reality that the few radicals continued to present a clear and present threat. Moreover, analysts apparently failed to consider that the al-Qaeda safe haven in northern Mali provided easy passage for militants to enter Libya to attack US targets.
As a result of this assessment, the US consulate in Benghazi was woefully lacking in security. Private security officers rather than Marine Security Guards (MSGs) nominally protected the consulate. Moreover, the Libyan troops working to help provide security fled the scene when the attacks happened.
According to one intelligence source with access to planning sessions on embassy security, it is possible some officials argued against heavy security because of its implications for the new civilian government in Tripoli. That source explained that State Department officials often argue against heavy security in a country friendly to the United States saying it is insulting to the government and suggests lack of trust by the US. Visible security can undercut the credibility of a fledgling government and raise questions about its capabilities.
While there is no independent confirmation that this was the case in Benghazi, it is a possible scenario.
There are also now rumors that a Status of Force agreement between the United States and Libya prohibited US personnel from carrying weapons. Special Forces Officers with access to information say that the reason MSGs were not in Benghazi was that they refused to deploy if they could not carry weapons to protect themselves.
Benghazi was, second, an operational failure. The United States failed to respond quickly and decisively when diplomats were under attack to minimize damage and rescue US citizens.
We now know that when the attack started, CIA officers from a nearby annex responded immediately to the situation. Two of those officers, both former Navy SEALs on contract with the CIA, valiantly saved numerous American’s before they lost their own lives.
Overseas, CIA officers often operate in a separate base, an embassy annex, near but not co-located with State Department staff. This now appears to have been the case in Benghazi.
When CIA officers and contractors responded, the Libyan forces working with them abandoned the Americans, leaving them to counter the mob on their own.
According to recently released documents, support “lit up” the target and the CIA officers called for back up. At that point, they “were told to stand down.
According to Special Forces Officers, the terminology of “lighting up” the target indicates there was air support sent to investigate the situation. Intelligence officers and Special Forces officers familiar with the situation said they believe the US deployed an AC-130 to the site to assess the situation. That aircraft then “lit up” the target to help acquire more information.
The statement that CIA officers “were told to stand down” fails to identify the individual who issued that order. However, according to Special Forces and intelligence officers, that order would not have come from the CIA or General Petraeus.
“First of all, no senior Agency officer would ever have left CIA officers in that type of danger,” according to the intelligence officer.
Equally importantly, they both point out that at the point the CIA team requested assistance, it became a military operation. Permission to engage and to deploy more aircraft had to come from the Pentagon. “It had to come from [Secretary of Defense Leon] Panetta,” according to a former Special Forces officer with an intelligence background.
Now, Benghazi is an investigative failure. While CNN and other news services have sifted through the rubble at the consulate, no official US investigative team has arrived in Benghazi. On the ground sources say papers remain scattered around the site and pedestrians trample through the former building.
After a security incident at an embassy, procedure dictates an immediate investigation. These usually involve multi-agency investigators who swoop in to assess the damage and attempt to understand the situation, primarily in an effort to ensure it does not happen again.
So far, there has been no systematic investigation of Benghazi.
The longer it takes for the government to begin an investigation, the less likely that it will reveal what really happened and what the US needs to do to make sure there is no repeat of the tragedy.
Although it is tempting to blame lack of movement on political motivations, Special Forces officers unanimously say they believe the lack of an on the ground investigation is more out of fear of attack than apathy. There is a large amount of information investigators can obtain from electronic information, interviews and other methods that do not require in country deployment. However, there is little doubt that site investigation is one of the most valuable tools in understanding exactly what happened.
It is, of course, possible that the government is already involved in an investigation, but that the details are currently classified and not available for public dissemination.
American Foreign Service officers and intelligence officers deserve the best protection the United States can offer. They deserve to know the United States government will not send them blindly into dangerous situations, understaff security details or leave them to die in foreign countries surrounded by hostile militants. They deserve to know the United States will defend them and will take all action to ensure their safety.
The United States failed in Benghazi.
The question is, what happens next? What is the United States doing to make sure there is never a repeat of the Benghazi tragedy?
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