Benghazi -- No Independent Counsel Need Apply
Much to our nation's detriment, we are dangerously close to falling back into the pattern of a democracy that can self-destruct by means of self-investigation. After Kenneth Starr's independent counsel pursuit of President Clinton ended without much purpose other than distracting the president and the wasted expenditure of tens of millions of dollars, Republican and Democrat alike (Mr. Starr included) conceded that the independent counsel process was largely a way to transform policy disagreement into allegation of wrong-doing for partisan advantage. The law authorizing these politicized witch hunts was allowed to slip quietly out of the code books.
Our Constitution is as close to a work of genius as can be imagined to match the American human nature, and while there are a few quirky items like the electoral college, the framers knew how to separate power and have the ambition of one branch check the ambition of another. The Government Operations, Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees are that means for a review of the attack on our diplomatic post at Benghazi. The members and permanent staff of these committees have every incentive to examine the conduct of the defense of our diplomatic effort, and by design these committees have the historical perspective to give an objective assessment of the work of the executive. And, of course, the executive who is concerned with its own performance, is assisted in answering the legislative inquiries by internal accountability reviews and the integrity of the inspector general. To argue for a select committee or independent counsel in light of these resources is to ask for delay and publicity, not greater clarity. Chris Stevens would have relied upon the established lines of investigation.
What are the main questions to be examined?
Benghazi has presented questions that need honest answer, principally,
• Did the president authorize Ambassador Susan Rice to deliberately mislead the public in television appearances, by having her highlight an ugly anti-Islamic, film as contributing basis for the skirmish?
• Did the FBI fail to advise in a timely fashion, the Congress and the public of the CIA director's marital affair and its investigation into the mishandling of classified information in order to retain maximum leverage over the CIA in an effort to cover-up the terror-related aspects of the attack in Libya?
• Did the president or another high ranking administration official unconscionably "abandon" or "ignore" the slain ambassador's call for assistance on the night of the skirmish?
The Emerging Outline of an Answer
An outline of the answers is already emerging from the committees' work, and they can be summarized as: Ridiculous; More Ridiculous; Absurd
First, a reminder: the work of the American foreign service in the Middle- East extending into the Mediterranean is difficult, and often, dangerous. The particular risks of working in Libya were well-reported to the Department of State in cable and in person by Ambassador Stevens, who, readers of this column know, was a fellow diplomat serving in neighboring country. To meet Chris is to instantly like him and I grew ever more admiring. I know from conversation with Chris dating back to spring 2011 that he was well aware of the risks in his assigned mission. Chris understood the primary risk to be the absence of any governmental tradition.
Gaddafi maintained absolute power to enrich himself from oil revenues and virtually every other commercial endeavor sought to be undertaken during his 40 year rule. His method of control left no room for a governing legislature, local governments, or really very many cultural supports beyond tribal relations. Gaddafi was only too delighted to stoke tribal conflicts to keep a nation from awakening to the unity of displacing him.
This tribal disunity was overcome -- at least temporarily -- by the Libyan yearning for freedom, Facebook which allowed some tribal differences to be surmounted and ultimately money, weapons and a U.S. and NATO no fly zone.
But unity for one purpose is not immediately unity for all, and Chris knew the primary problem for the new Libya would be getting beyond the cultural and tribal divisions Gaddafi aggravated, and to a far lesser degree, are aggravated today by al Qaeda equivalents -- Ansar al Sharia -- which as a Libyan militia in all likelihood has little to no direction or relationship with the remnants of the bin Laden hate factory, which itself was and certainly is today a loose and highly variable amalgam of causes and beliefs sheltered by fundamentalist Islam.
Chris Stevens dealt with Libya's long oppression with his characteristic openness and uncommon courage. Nevertheless, it was the nature of Chris' optimism to believe that the source of the risk in Libya could be overcome by his personal outreach in the near-term, the enhanced likelihood for democratic outcome from nascent, but increasingly accountable governmental structures in the mid-term, and enhanced trade and investment in both public and private project in the long term.
Gaddafi was never an ally of the United States or anyone beyond himself for that matter; but the stability he supplied was arguably to be preferred over the allowance of the spread of al Qaeda. Gaddafi played his anti-al-Qaeda cards brilliantly, and past administrations allowed him to leave some notable injuries against world order (e.g., Lockerbie bombing) not fully rectified in exchange. It was a Faustian bargain, but it worked as an expedient -- until the "Arab Spring."
What does all this mean for Susan Rice?
That when she was handed a "talking points" summary prior to Sunday talk shows, the proposition that the intelligence was still inconclusive and the attack in Benghazi could just as easily be the result of local tribal anger would make complete sense. Moreover, sketchy reports or drone images of the attackers being well-armed would have been unsurprising as well. The effort to recover the weaponry supplied to defeat Gaddafi was only partial, and unfortunately, heavy weapons remain in some distinctly unorganized hands.
By comparison, David Petreaus apparently testified that he surmised the attack to be the work of terrorists from the beginning. This testimony has been heavily relied upon by Obama skeptics as proof of some kind of nefarious cover up of terror activity. Respectfully, that is not a reasonable inference. With or without the email system being clogged by General Allen's chats with Jill Kelley, a close look reveals that former director Petreaus cannot say with certainty even today that the "terrorist activity" was the work of al Qaeda. He most assuredly has not brought proof that al Qaeda was deliberately targeting Chris or his colleagues.
Now, that is not to say that a later, careful review might not find such planning (though again even today that has not been shown). If Chris as ambassador was targeted we should observe at least that since the government of the United States has successfully targeted and killed high ranking al Qaeda leaders, at least one of which was Libyan in origin, the possibility for revenge is present.
But since Susan Rice was tasked with explaining the attack at an early point, and since the intelligence at best spoke generically of terror -- which could just as easily have been provoked by a reaction to an anti-Islamist video (which, let us remember was occurring simultaneously in Cairo and other embassy locations in Europe), the Benghazi unrest could also be an aspect of revived tribal division with one tribe demonstrating its bravado and strength. Had Rice been asked whether Ansar al Sharia might have contributed support, she likely would have declined comment or conceded the possibility, but that proves nothing. To fault Ambassador Rice for not proclaiming prematurely that what took place was a well-organized assassination effort directed at our ambassador would be to fault her for being the careful, well-spoken diplomat that she has proven herself to be. Indeed, since Ambassador Stevens looks to have succumbed more proximately to an ill-designed safe-room which obviously killed him by lack of ventilation, if we fault Ambassador Rice, can we really leave out for the death, the State Department's buildings division?
Even assuming that al Qaeda had infiltrated the local Ansar al Sharia spin off, there is little mystery why someone in pursuit of accuracy would strike out al Qaeda and insert the broader descriptor of a terrorist organization. This circumspection would have been terribly important to Chris, and it remains vital today. Why? Because in the formation of governments, one spoiled apple does not -- cannot realistically be assumed to -- spoil the whole barrel. The thousands praying and praising the dear Ambassador Stevens the following days and weeks underscores the point and the subtle, interfaith-based diplomacy Chris was seeking to advance consistent with the president's stirring remarks in Cairo in 2009.
The second question; Did the FBI get the goods on Petreaus and then keep them hidden until it could use them as leverage to keep him from disclosing the terrorist origin of the attack? The first question was nonsense; this is nonsense on stilts. Again, despite the nominal difference in characterization between Rice and Petreaus, no one has suggested how the disclosure of terror activity with greater assumed authority would have harmed the president's reelection. Indeed, it would more likely suggest to the reasonable voter impressed by the perseverance of Obama in finding bin Laden that the disclosure of terror origin more clearly would redound to his cause.
But we don't have to speculate here, as Petreaus has categorically stated he was never pressed by the White House to shade his duty or responsibility. I leave to others whether the FBI had a duty to inform Congress earlier. I think it did largely out of comity, but as a former head of OLC, I know the law permits a limited window in which to close an investigation first in order to protect sources and methods. The delay seems attributable to that concern, especially since there is some as yet undetermined tie-in between Petreaus, Kelley and Allen.
The third question -- the allegation of failure to rescue -- is the most serious and sobering. FOX News continues to propagate the insulting notion that the president or the secretaries of Defense or State would deliberately delay or overlook any reasonably available means of rescue. This is so far below the belt that it scarcely merits response, let alone some prolonged political exercise akin to an Iran-Contra investigation which, we should recall, merited no affirmed conviction of the principals, embarrassed us with allies, and undermined executive decision-making in matters of national security for years thereafter.
Is there a need for a separate, free-standing investigation?
Without prejudging, we have been told that the Secretary of Defense regretfully concluded that the fog of war -- especially in a night of chaotic movement observable by drone -- suggested that with available personnel and weaponry, the intervention would have magnified the number of American deaths and placed civilian populations at risk. One can Monday-morning quarterback whether a flyover show of force would have chastened the irrational, but to this writer that notion is more likely an overstated claim based on a Hollywood conception of last minute cavalries than reality.
We owe it to the families not to engage in partisan grandstanding
In friendship and genuine empathy for the loss suffered by each of the affected families, it is well to remember that the families of all who perished in the service of our country deserve the truth of the matter, not some fairy-tale ending served up by someone with no particular military understanding of the location and capabilities of personnel or equipment. Senator McCain does not fall within the latter category, of course, as his life-long support for and participation in our military is merely the latest volume of generations of heroic McCain family patriotism. Chris delighted in Senator McCain's visit, as I can tell you so did Embassy-Malta. Yet, it is because of this mutual admiration that it can be hoped that the senator will make full use of the existing committee structure to detail and assess whether adequate resources for a rescue were present and appropriately held or deployed.
Having done a strategic plan for the embassy in nearby Malta I can tell you that it was most likely that U.S. diplomatic security in Libya was understaffed and underfunded. This was most likely traceable to the still embryonic nature of our diplomatic presence in the country, but also, a systematic underfunding of posts or missions within AFRICOM, a military planning concept that does not fully encompass the region as it exists on the ground. It is perhaps enough to point out that AFRICOM still lacks a HQ in the region itself, and instead operates from offices in faraway Stuttgart, Germany. Finally, as hard as this burden may be, the president and the secretary also needed to consider the likely injury to innocent Libyan nationals and whether their unnecessary deaths would not subvert the very goodwill Christopher Stevens was building, and in volunteering to pick up his work, I would pledge to do as well.
Chris Stevens loved the Libyan people and the Middle East. He also fully appreciated the risks of harm as well as the opportunity for a stronger political and economic relationship between the US and the nations of this region. That opportunity for friendship is vital to our own nation's peace and economic potential, let alone being more reflective of universal human right.