Today’s WTF: The Benghazi incident – what went wrong, and what happens next

Over the past couple of days, I have spent a fair bit of time reading up on the investigation into the September 11th attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi. It is a very difficult situation to detangle, with a large cast of characters, conflicting information, and the added extra complication of partisan politics, which always makes these types of situations even more complex, especially in an election year.

I can’t claim to understand exactly what went wrong here. It looks like there are two different areas of concern:

  • Was security adequate for US personnel in Benghazi at the time of the attack? And who was/is responsible for providing and overseeing this security? I have seen a few bits of information which, when put together, do not exactly form a clear picture of events. Certainly the State Department was in regular communication with staff at the Libyan post, and there were also requests for various security measures that were rejected. However, from what I have read, it is unknown what effect, if any, additional security personnel would have had against the specific attack that took place that night. Eric Nordstrom, a security officer who had served in Tripoli until July of this year, mentioned in his prepared testimony that “Having an extra foot of wall, or an extra half dozen guards or agents, would not have enabled us to respond to that kind of assault”. And apparently the amount of security that was on hand the night of the attack was not an unusually small number, as these embassies are generally considered diplomatic and not military in nature, and are not generally outfitted with large contingents of armed defense personnel. To be sure, there had been some concerns voiced by those on the ground that additional measures might be needed, and these requests had been turned down by the Department of State (specifically by an assistant at the Bureau for Diplomatic Security, Charlene Lamb, who personally reviewed and evaluated such requests). It remains questionable as to why these requests went unanswered. Was Lamb correct to follow accepted procedure for the amount of security in that area, or should there have been exceptions made in this case? Yesterday’s testimony also revealed that budget constraints may have been in some way to blame. As pointed out in an article by Dana Milbank in the Washington Post:

“For fiscal 2013, the GOP-controlled House proposed spending $1.934 billion for the State Department’s Worldwide Security Protection program — well below the $2.15 billion requested by the Obama administration. House Republicans cut the administration’s request for embassy security funding by $128 million in fiscal 2011 and $331 million in fiscal 2012. (Negotiations with the Democrat-controlled Senate restored about $88 million of the administration’s request.) Last year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton warned that Republicans’ proposed cuts to her department would be ‘detrimental to America’s national security’ — a charge Republicans rejected.”

  • Why did the administration fumble in their accounts of what exactly had taken place in Benghazi? As the news of the attack first surfaced, it was initially being characterized as a protest against an anti-Islamic YouTube video that grew violent and spun out of control.  Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, was the face of the administration in the days immediately following the attack, and she publicly maintained this narrative for days, even though many other sources had begun to question its validity. Since that time, the administration has acknowledged that what occurred on September 11th in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and not an out-of-control protest. As to when they were certain of this information, and why they didn’t know or say this initially, there is yet to be a clear answer. It is possible that they truly had bad intelligence – which would be a problem in itself. It is also possible that they had an interest in not discussing too many details during the very first days after the attack, for both diplomatic and security purposes. And it is possible that they simply wanted to downplay the incident publicly – again, not the best decision if it meant being less than transparent with the American people.

The information we have is certainly not all the information we WILL have as this investigation continues. My gut feeling, right at this moment, is that there may not be as much blame to assign on the issue of how much security was in place, as there will be for how the administration handled their public communications after the incident. I think that much of the testimony that was involved in yesterday’s inquiry, as well as much of what I have read about the way the embassy was run (and how other embassies in similar areas are run), points to a scenario that was not entirely preventable under the currently existing protocol and budgetary restrictions for diplomatic missions. It is one of those unfortunate incidents where Monday-morning quarterbacking, with the benefit of hindsight, gives the impression that this attack should have been expected and could have been averted, even though the nature of diplomatic security details in such areas dictates that this may not be a realistic assessment.

On the other hand, I feel there is room for a number of legitimate questions about the public response of the administration right after the incident took place. While I understand that these situations can be complex to deal with, I do not feel entirely certain that we heard the whole truth from the administration as they knew it. I feel that Secretary of State Clinton and President Obama need to do everything they can at this time to provide clear answers for the way things happened. After such tragedies as the Benghazi attack, the American people deserve that.

The two main takeaways I have at this point are, firstly, that it is a shame how politicized this incident is. Of course, I am not naïve, and I understand that one month before an election, it is a great political opportunity to exploit a tragedy such as this one for the good of your own party or candidate. However, although I am not surprised by this behavior, I am fairly disgusted. The finger-pointing and blame game strategy, being employed by both sides of the aisle, is really pointless. It seems there is genuinely a bit of blame to be shared by both Democrats and Republicans, and it would serve the purposes of the investigation so much more to simply acknowledge that reality, and then spend your time and effort on more important aspects of the inquiry.

It also makes me mad to see the sort of rabid hypocrisy that has surfaced among Republicans in response to this incident. I do feel that there will eventually, and rightfully, be at least a few people held responsible for their own specific errors in how this case was handled. I think Susan Rice can forget about escaping this investigation intact, for one, since she was the official who was most publicly associated with the now-disproven “protest gone wild” theory. But when I see comments from both the GOP and the general public about how Hillary Clinton should be strung up and how Obama should be impeached, I have to laugh. There needs to be some perspective on this thing, folks, as hard as it is to maintain perspective when you have such partisan passions. What happened in Benghazi, in all reality, was a terrible and tragic thing. If there are ways to correct or improve the situation for Americans serving in diplomatic roles abroad, then it is imperative that we find out what they are and make them happen. But that WILL NOT happen unless it becomes the number one priority of both Republican AND Democratic leaders in Washington. If their only concern is creating political scapegoats, that does NOTHING to erase past errors, or prevent future errors. Not to mention that we never saw Republican politicians or voters asking for the impeachment of George W. Bush during his presidency, despite the fact that the ORIGINAL 9/11 happened on our turf, on his watch, as well as the fact that on his watch, unconstitutional war was declared against an enemy who had nothing whatsoever to do with 9/11 – war which sapped our nation’s economic resources, stole the lives of thousands of American troops and thousands of innocent civilians, spawned disgraceful incidents like Abu Ghraib and the crimes and negligence of contractors like Blackwater, and remains a stain on our international image among both allies and enemies alike. If you really think Obama needs to be swept from office because of what happened in Benghazi, then I suggest you follow that up by pulling Bush out of his Texas ranch and marching him off to stand trial as a war criminal (and you can drop by Cheney’s house on the way, and Rumsfeld’s house too, and grab them while you’re at it).

My second takeaway, and my final point (THANK GOD, I hear you saying!) is that our president can, and should, take the opportunity to lead on this situation. It was not one of the highlights of his presidency, to put it extremely mildly. But it could become a positive in the way that he moves forward from it, if he chooses to do so. At the risk of offending my die-hard Democratic readers, I would point to the example set by Ronald Reagan in 1983. When a terrorist attack took the lives of 241 soldiers stationed in Beirut, many criticisms were levied against Reagan’s administration. In a newspaper article from that period, it notes allegations of inadequate security at the Marines headquarters where the attack took place, an “increasingly hostile environment” in the area leading up to the attack, and intelligence being inadequate to predict the attack (any of this sounding vaguely familiar yet, folks?). There was room for blame along the entire chain of command, as determined by an investigation conducted by a board of inquiry. But Ronald Reagan decided to take responsibility for the incident, saying:

“I do not believe…that the local commanders, on the ground, men who have already suffered quite enough, should be punished for not fully comprehending the nature of today’s terrorist threat. I accept this responsibility, for the bad as well as the good…if there is to be blame, it properly rests here in this office and with this president.”

While Obama may not need to recycle Reagan’s speech verbatim, it would serve him well to address the American people and assure them that he understands that mistakes have been made, and that he is committed to taking all necessary steps to identify and correct these mistakes. He is the president, and he is the leader in good times and in bad. To see him take as much ownership for these bad times as he does when the unemployment rate drops would be a huge message, to both his supporters and detractors, that he takes this job seriously, and that he has the right character to do it.

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P.S. Sorry this was such a long post – hope it didn’t bore too many of you. It ended up being more than I intended to write! As a result, I am gonna have to look in on all your blogs later today (hopefully) since I have wasted all my WordPress time on writing this. If you don’t see me answering your comments on my posts, or making comments on your blogs, that’s why…but I’ll be back when I have free time again. :)

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