An in-depth examination of the 2012 attack on an American outpost in Benghazi, Libya, is not the exoneration of President Barack Obama and his foreign policy team that some allies have hailed it to be -- even if the administration's noted failings have little to do with the preferred topics of Republican critics.
The report, written by The New York Times' David Kirkpatrick, with reporting from the paper's extensive local team in Libya, outlines the ways in which the competing narratives about the roots of the attack, which left four people dead, including American ambassador Christopher Stevens, are flawed.
In one such narrative, the attack was a spontaneous affair, fueled by an anti-Islamic video that had recently popped up on the Internet. In another, advanced by Republicans, it was a highly orchestrated attack coordinated by al Qaeda elements that President Barack Obama refused to acknowledge still existed. Neither, the Times argues, were fully true.
In particular, the report's conclusion that al Qaeda played no role has been seized upon by defenders of the president as evidence that his national security team's initial claims about the attack were not so far off, and decried by conservatives who consider it a "whitewashing" of more compelling evidence.
But even if the al Qaeda part is correct, the article doesn't exactly give the White House or the State Department a pass. Instead, it underlines three troubling aspects of the attack that deserve much more attention, and that probably should have raised serious questions about Obama's foreign policy team.
1. A fundamental failure to understand the nature of post-Gaddafi Libya.
Throughout their time in Benghazi, American diplomats and their counterparts in Washington failed to recognize the changing reality of allegiances in post-revolution Libya, and were far too prone to rely on shortcuts and aid packages to buy loyalty. This, Kirkpatrick notes, included a failure to discern friends from foes, and an overemphasis on the distracting hunt for al Qaeda.
When the Americans moved into Benghazi, they sought out as many "friendly" local militia leaders as they could, with a particular emphasis on supposed "moderates." One of the favorites was Fawzi Bukatef, a leader of a large militia called the February 17 Brigades.
Bukatef, Kirkpatrick writes, was constantly at the American compound in Benghazi, or at another facility run by the British, where he regularly participated in pick-up basketball games. "It was like he was my best friend," one American diplomat tells Kirkpatrick. The Americans, he concludes, had come to depend on people like Bukatef to help keep them safe -- to tip them off if any threats were mounting. But he never did.
It's possible Bukatef betrayed the Americans. It's also possible he simply knew nothing about the plot. Time and time again, particularly in conflict zones, American diplomats seem to fall into this same trap: they come to rely far too heavily on the people who will meet with them -- the ones who speak English and seem like (or can act like) amiable moderates. Less friendly figures rarely intersect with foreign service officers, either because the meetings tend to be fraught, or because they are prohibited by U.S. law, which bars Americans officials from meeting with anyone who is linked to a designated terrorist group. (In Lebanon, for instance, American officials are forbidden from meeting with Hezbollah figures -- a group whose political arm represents something like half of the population of the country.)
What that means, beyond the obvious failure to grasp looming threats, is that American diplomats are frequently recipients of a rosy version of politics in a country where they are stationed -- and when they hear something different, it often confounds them. Kirkpatrick notes two examples of this, one involving a young foreign service officer who met with Libyan militia leaders in Benghazi just days before the attack, and the other involving Stevens, who, Kirkpatrick writes, "remained optimistic" despite signs of a gravely deteriorating security situation.
Taking stock of the deteriorating security situation on Aug. 8, 2012, a cable titled “The Guns of August” and signed by Mr. Stevens struck an understanding tone about the absence of effective policing.
It noted that Libyans were wary about the imposition of a strong security apparatus so soon after they expunged Colonel Qaddafi’s. “A diverse group of independent actors” — including criminals and “former regime elements” as well as “Islamist extremists” — was exploiting the vacuum, the cable said. But it found no signs of an organized campaign against the West.
“What we are going through — and what people here are resolved to get through — is a confluence rather than a conspiracy,” the cable concluded.
When Kirkpatrick and his team interview Ahmed Abu Khattala, who is suspected to have led the Benghazi attack, they are struck by how little regard he seems to have for Stevens, a man who was supposedly beloved by all sectors of Libyan society. "I did not know him," the militia leader tells the Times. Far from being castigated from Benghazi society, in the aftermath of the attack, Abu Khattala has been sheltered by many of the figures Americans thought they could trust.
2. The secret role of the CIA.
No accounting of the Benghazi episode can be complete without considering the role and failures of the CIA. It is now openly known that the so-called "consulate" in Benghazi where Stevens and his colleagues were killed was not actually a State Department mission, but a CIA station operating under cover. Half a mile away from the offices and residence where the attack took place, 20 CIA agents -- some of them contractors, many of them experienced commandos -- were stationed in an "annex," where their role and duties remain murky.
Still, it's clear from Kirkpatrick's article -- and many others in the past year -- that the State Department had come to rely on the CIA to help secure the compound, and to provide backup in the case of an attack. “I knew the backup guys at the Annex, who were quite heavily trained and equipped,” an administration official tells the Times.
They failed to play this role, and we still don't know why.
As Christopher Dickey has outlined for the Daily Beast, some of these failures happened before the attack itself. For one thing, despite devoting much of its resources to intelligence gathering, the agency simply failed to uncover any hint of an organizational plot behind the attacks. That wouldn't have necessarily been a full-scale operation organized by al Qaeda central -- it could have been a local plot, or even an uptick in grumblings about the American facility. Instead, there were no warnings, only retrospective hints dredged up from social media and other public sites.
Finally, we don't know what impact the CIA's operations in Benghazi may have had on relations with the various militias in the area. At the same time as diplomats were meeting with militia leaders, and trying to secure their allegiance and trust through face time and aid packages, were American commandos carrying out raids in local neighborhoods? Were they interrogating suspects? Waking up families in the middle of the night to take military-age males? Detaining the wrong people? The cross-purposes of a diplomatic mission with black operations in a place like Libya -- as with night raids in Afghanistan, or drone strikes in Pakistan -- is the kind of recurring problem for American foreign policy that deserves more attention, and that may have been exposed by the deadly attack in Benghazi.
3. The State Department's failure to provide sufficient security.
When the Turkish consul arrived at the Benghazi facility to meet with Stevens on the evening of the attack, Kirkpatrick writes, he was surprised to see how lax the security was around the compound. Over the course of the day, Stevens had mostly remained inside, owing to the generalized threat on the anniversary of Sept. 11 and because attacks at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, sparked by the film, were already underway. Still, Kirkpatrick writes:
There was even less security at the compound than usual, Mr. Akin said. No armed American guards met him at the gate, only a few unarmed Libyans. “No security men, no diplomats, nobody,” he said. “There was no deterrence.”
Kirkpatrick doesn't dig deep into the failures of the State Department, particularly officials back in Washington, to properly allocate resources to safeguard the embassy, but -- even taking into account the presence of the CIA team -- it's clear security was far from optimal.
On two occasions, the State Department officers in charge in Washington rejected requests from the field for additional security at the outpost. Stevens himself also reportedly rejected recommendations that the mission beef up with a specialized military detail.
A State Department internal review into failings in Benghazi makes this point as well, faulting "system" problems that led to a "grossly" inadequate security situation. But it stopped short of punishing any of the senior officers responsible for these decisions, dumping blame primarily on junior figures in the bureau. It's still not clear what fundamental changes have been made in the State Department's security review process to prevent an attack like the one in Benghazi from happening again.