The September 11, 2012, attacks in Benghazi that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead has been the source of much controversy and speculation. Many critics have gone so far as to characterize the Obama administration’s response to the attack as worse than Watergate or Iran-Contra. And some have even called for the commencement of impeachment proceedings.
The truth is that attacks on U.S. diplomats and diplomatic missions are an unfortunate reality that have occurred with frightening regularity over the years, but, in fact, have been on the decline since the mid-’90s. During the George W. Bush years, there were 13 attacks on embassies, consulates and diplomatic missions around the world, killing around 100 people. And throughout the ’70s, ’80s and early ’90s, attacks were even worse.
An official investigation into the Benghazi attack by the State Department’s Accountability Review Board released a report, concluding, “Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department … resulted in a special mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”
While there is no doubt that much criticism is deserved surrounding this tragic incident, many of the popular claims about the attack range from inaccurate hyperbole to outright falsities.
Myth No. 1: The ‘Consulate’ Was a Diplomatic Mission
The Obama administration, as well as most of the media and punditry, have consistently referred to the facility that was attacked in Benghazi as a “consulate” housing a U.S. diplomatic mission. But you’ll notice here on the State Department’s website that, while there is an American embassy in Tripoli, Benghazi is not listed as one of the U.S. embassies, consulates, or diplomatic missions around the world. The reality is that the facility was a U.S. intelligence outpost operating under State Department cover and that most of the 30-plus people working there were employed by the CIA.
As reported by the Wall Street Journal back in November of last year, “The U.S. effort in Benghazi was at its heart a CIA operation, according to officials briefed on the intelligence. Of the more than 30 American officials evacuated from Benghazi following the deadly assault, only seven worked for the State Department. Nearly all the rest worked for the CIA, under diplomatic cover, which was a principal purpose of the consulate, these officials said.”
Gregory Hicks, who was deputy chief of mission in Tripoli and the so-called whistleblower who spoke before Congress recently, testified that the reason Ambassador Stevens was in Benghazi, as opposed to Tripoli, was because he was hoping the State Department would soon announce a permanent diplomatic mission there. But it is still unclear what exactly the CIA was up to there.
Myth No. 2: The Attack Had Nothing to do With the anti-Islam Video
While it has since proven true that there was not a protest outside the facility precipitating the attack, the notion that the attack had absolutely nothing to do with the YouTube video (a clip showing an excerpt from the anti-Islam film “The Innocence of Muslims” that sparked protests and riots in dozens of countries, many of which outside U.S. diplomatic missions) is simply not supported by the facts. In reality, many witnesses who were interviewed shortly after the attack said that the militants from the Ansar al-Sharia brigade were chanting about the video during the assault on the facility.
As reported in the L.A. Times, “Witnesses said members of the group that raided the U.S. mission specifically mentioned the video, which denigrated the prophet Muhammad.”
The Associated Press reported, “There was no sign of a spontaneous protest against an American-made movie denigrating Islam’s Prophet Muhammad. But a lawyer passing by the scene said he saw the militants gathering around 20 youths from nearby to chant against the film. Within an hour or so, the assault began, guns blazing as the militants blasted into the compound.”
The New York Times reported the month after the attack: “To Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers, there is little doubt what occurred: a well-known group of local Islamist militants struck the United States Mission without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video. That 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.”
This doesn’t mean that the video served as the only reason for the attack. There is some evidence to suggest that perhaps the attack also served as retaliation for the death of Libyan militant and al-Qaeda associate Abu Yahya al-Libi who was killed in a U.S. drone strike three month earlier. But the claims that the attack had nothing whatsoever to do with the video do not comport with the evidence.
Myth No. 3: The Attack Was Pre-Planned and Not Spontaneous
A picture shows the interior of the burnt US consulate building in Benghazi (Getty Images)
A reporter from Foreign Policy arrived in Benghazi on Sept. 13, spoke with locals, surveyed the facility site and concluded that the “attack was haphazard, poorly planned, and badly executed,” and points out that most of the Americans were able to get away by simply using an armored jeep to escape through the front gate and take off down the road which was not blocked—not exactly the hallmarks of a carefully planned assault.
Bloomberg reported that “accounts from U.S. intelligence officials and Benghazi residents, along with evidence in the burned-out American diplomatic compound, point to a hasty and poorly organized act by men with basic military training and access to weapons widely available in Libya.”
And the Washington Post quoted an intelligence source, saying, “There isn’t any intelligence that the attackers pre-planned their assault days or weeks in advance,” adding, “The bulk of available information supports the early assessment that the attackers launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.”
In fact, the official position of the U.S. intelligence community today is still that the attack wasn’t pre-planned. As State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell recently said of UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s much-maligned comments after the attack that she was simply giving the “best assessment that there was not any evidence of months-long pre-planning or pre-meditation, which remains their assessment.”
Myth No. 4: Changing the Talking Points Amounts to a ‘Coverup’
The administration recently released a trove of more than 100 pages of emails showing internal discussion of the talking points concerning the attack going through a dozen different revisions by the State Department and CIA. These are not the emails that were doctored by Republicans and leaked to ABC News, but the actual emails.
In the emails it is clear that the CIA insisted the attack be referred to as spontaneously inspired by the protests in Cairo and following a protest outside the facility. The State Department wanted references to “Al Qaeda” and “Ansar al Sharia” removed. However, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland explained the reason for this in the emails, stating, “Why do we want [Congress] to be fingering Ansar al-Sharia, when we aren’t doing that ourselves until we have investigation results?”
Ben Rhodes, who was then-Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications, also stated in the emails, “We need to resolve this in a way that respects all of the relevant equities, particularly the investigation.”
While there certainly may have been some politics at play here, all of the evidence in the emails suggest that this was the best assessment of the intelligence available at the time and that the State Department and White House were concerned about saying too much before the facts of the investigation were available, while also expressing some concern over Republicans in Congress making political hay out of the attack. All of this is totally not indicative of a cover-up, but simply politics as usual.
In fact, when Rice spoke on the Sunday shows, she prefaced her comments with the statement, “First of all, it’s important to know that there’s an FBI investigation that has begun and will take some time to be completed. That will tell us with certainty what transpired.”
And, “So we’ll want to see the results of that investigation to draw any definitive conclusions.”
So, in hindsight, perhaps it would have been prudent had Rice not said anything at all, but her comments are not indicative of a cover-up. And it now seems the only thing Rice stated that was incorrect concerned the notion that a protest precipitated the attack. Everything else she said, from the attack being inspired by the video to the attack being spontaneous and not pre-planned, is still supported by the evidence.
Also, it was the administration itself that called for the FBI investigation into the attack and released the complete unclassified findings of the Accountability Review Board’s critical report — not exactly the actions of people wanting to engage in a coverup.
Myth No. 5: There Were Military Response Teams That Could Have Reached Benghazi in Time to Save Those Who Were Killed
Transfer cases are carried into a hangar during the Transfer of Remains Ceremony for the return of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three Americans at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, after they were killed in the attack on the Benghazi facility. (Photo by Molly Riley-Pool/Getty Images)
Some have claimed that a response team was at the-the-ready to respond to the Benghazi attack while Americans were being killed but were told to stand down, implying that perhaps the stand-down order was politically motivated—though to what end is unclear.
Gregory Hicks testified that a four-person team was ready to fly to Benghazi but was unable to get the proper clearance for the mission. However, even Hicks acknowledges that the team would not have reached the attack site in time, and Stevens and the other three Americans were already dead at that point.
In fact, according to the ARB report, the U.S. embassy in Tripoli immediately began to mobilize a response once they received word of the attack and did send a seven-person team to Benghazi. Unfortunately the team arrived just as the second attack began at the nearby CIA annex, as mortar rounds struck the roof and killed Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
The four-person team to which Hicks was referring was a second team that would have arrived hours after the first, at a time when the four Americans had already been killed. Hicks believes the second team could have helped with the wounded and prevent any further attacks, which is perhaps true.
Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates under both Presidents George W. Bush and Obama also recently admitted that, had he been in charge at the time, the response would have been the same, saying, “Frankly, had I been in the job at the time I think my decisions would have been just as theirs were. We don’t have a ready force standing by in the Middle East.
“Despite all the turmoil that’s going on, with planes on strip alert, troops ready to deploy at a moment’s notice. And so getting somebody there in a timely way – would have been very difficult, if not impossible … The one thing that our forces are noted for is planning and preparation before we send people in harm’s way. And there just wasn’t time to do that.”
The administration may deserve criticism for the inefficient response, but the notion that the second team could have saved the Americans who died or were told to stand down for political reasons is not supported by the evidence.
Bonus Myth: The Attack Was Carried Out by al-Qaeda
Armed masked men stand guard as Osama bin-Laden (center) and Ayman Al-Zawahiri (left) address a news conference in Afghanistan in 1998. (Photo by Getty Images)
The reporting on this issue is varied, but most agree that the attack was carried out primarily by members of the Ansar al-Sharia militant group, which is a Libyan organization made up of former anti-Gaddafi rebels with limited, tangential connections to al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Part of the confusion here perhaps stems from the fact that there are two organizations that go by the name “Ansar al-Sharia”, and the other one operates out of Yemen and has direct connections to AQAP.
CNN reported that at least 3 attackers of the 150 men who stormed the facility were AQAP members, though how exactly they were involved has not been determined. The article reads, “Another source briefed on the Benghazi investigation said Western intelligence services suspect the men may have been sent by the group specifically to carry out the attack. But it’s not been ruled out that they were already in the city and participated as the opportunity arose.”
Another CNN report provides vague details of a phone call placed shortly after the attack from the area near the facility to members of AQIM offering congratulations. Although, the article concedes, “There is no proof that the call was specifically about the attack.”
However, it is not true to say that al-Qaeda carried out the attack. Al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the September 11, 2001 attacks, is now an organization operating out of Pakistan and led by Ayman al-Zawahiri. There is zero evidence whatsoever that this organization had anything to do with the Benghazi attack. And even though Ansar al Sharia’s connections to so-called al-Qaeda “franchise” or affiliated organizations, such as AQAP and AQIM, are tenuous, there is little evidence to suggest such “franchise” groups take their marching orders from al-Zawahiri.
As Steve Coll points out in a recent New Yorker piece, “A franchise is a business that typically operates under strict rules laid down by a parent corporation; to apply that label to Al Qaeda’s derivative groups today is false.”