As my wise and dear old mother used to say, “There are none so blind as those who will not see.” That would seem to be the case of those who continue to insist there are dark secrets hidden in the tragedy of Benghazi. Perhaps it is the notorious fog of war. More likely it is the pall of partisan politics that obscures their vision.
Ever since the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in which Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed, there has been a bitter partisan debate in this country. The central question has been: Was the storming of the consulate the result of a spontaneous demonstration set off by Muslim anger over a YouTube video that denigrated the prophet Mohammed — or was it a terrorist attack involving elements of al-Qaida, planned to mark the 11th anniversary of 9/11?
A perfectly plausible answer to that question appeared last month in America’s two leading newspapers, which now appears to have the additional virtue of being the truth. It doesn’t quite fit the way the question was framed, so perhaps it has been ignored because it requires a grasp of nuance that seems beyond most of our politicians and pundits. However, as reported by David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times and David Ignatius of The Washington Post, what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack inspired by the YouTube video. In the words of a senior American official quoted by Ignatius, “It was a flash mob with weapons.”
I have no personal connection with either David. But I was impressed by Kirkpatrick’s work during the recent Egyptian revolution. And I consider Ignatius to be among the top columnists covering the intelligence community. These were some of the key details they reported a month or more ago.
Kirkpatrick (New York Times, Oct. 15):
“To Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers, there is little doubt what occurred: a well-known group of Islamist militants (the ultra-conservative Ansar al-Shariah) struck without warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video. This is what the fighters said at the time, speaking emotionally of their anger at the video without mentioning Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or the terrorist strikes of 11 years earlier. And it is an explanation that tracks with their history as a local militant group determined to protect Libya from Western influence.”
“Most of the attackers made no effort to hide their faces or identities, and during the assault some acknowledged to a Libyan journalist working for The New York Times that they belonged to the group (Ansar al-Shariah). And their attack drew a crowd, some of whom gawked, some of whom just cheered, and some of whom later looted the compound.”
“The fighters said at the time that they were moved to act because of the video, which had first gained attention across the region after a protest in Egypt that day. The assailants approvingly recalled a 2006 assault by local Islamists that had destroyed an Italian diplomatic mission in Benghazi over a perceived insult to the prophet.”
“At a news conference (a day after the assault) a spokesman for Ansar al-Shariah praised the attack as the proper response to such an insult to Islam. ‘We are saluting our people for this zeal in protecting their religion ...’ he said. ... Other Benghazi militia leaders who know the group say its ideology and leaders are all homegrown. ... (They) say it was capable of carrying out the attack itself with only a few hours’ planning.”
I would note that much has been made about the weapons used by the attackers — heavy machine guns, mortars and rocket-propelled grenades. In fact, since the overthrow of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi, Libya essentially has been ruled by numerous militias that are awash in a whole range of such weaponry (as is much of the country) as there was no authority to take control of the bulging arsenals left behind by his retreating mercenaries. Ignatius (The Washington Post, Oct. 19):
“‘Talking points’ prepared by the CIA on Sept. 15, the same day that (U.N. Ambassador Susan) Rice taped (several) television appearances, support her description of the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate as a reaction to Arab anger about an anti-Muslim video prepared in the United States. According to the CIA account, ‘The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. Consulate and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.’”
But then comes the real gem in the Ignatius column, which explains a great deal.
“The senior intelligence official said the analysts’ judgment was based in part on the monitoring of some of the Benghazi attackers, which showed they had been watching the Cairo protests live on television and talked about them before they assaulted the consulate.”
In other words, the CIA had some of the attackers under such close surveillance that it knew they had seen the Cairo events on television, which evidently inspired them to take things much further in Benghazi. This is still relevant today because critics of the administration continue to claim that it had deliberately misled the American people about the true cause of the attack. What Mitt Romney and friends were implying, but mostly shied away from saying explicitly, is that the White House was trying to play down the possible al-Qaida link because it would undercut its claims that by killing Osama bin Laden it had marginalized his group.
Friday in his closed-door testimony to congressional intelligence committees, outgoing CIA Director David Petraeus told lawmakers that the assault on the consulate was obviously a terrorist attack. But he explained that the names of the groups thought to be responsible — the local Libyan group Ansar al-Shariah and several men identified as members of al-Qaida’s North African franchise — were removed from the initial public explanations (such as the talking points given to Rice). But Petraeus went out of his way to stress that this was not done for political reasons but to avoid tipping off members of these groups that American intelligence was closely tracking them. According to Democrats who heard his testimony, “The general was adamant there was no politicization of the process, no White House interference or political agenda.”
I suspect this will not satisfy those still wishing for a scandal — certainly not the likes of Sen. John McCain, who seems to have lost all sense of proportion. Last week he was railing that the Benghazi “cover-up” deserved the same level of intense congressional investigation as previous epic scandals such as Watergate and Iran-Contra.
McCain also vowed to block any attempt by President Obama to name Rice to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state — on the grounds that Rice not only misled the American people but was incompetent. This from the senator who was willing to put Sarah Palin one heartbeat away from the presidency.
Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News now living in Charlotte.
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