Eli Lake of Newsweek/The Daily Beast has been a one-man wrecking crew when it comes to demolishing Obama administration misstatements, distortions, and outright fabrications when it comes to the September 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that killed Amb. Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Obama admin officials quickly insisted that the attack was a spontaneously coordinated moment of outrage sparked by the YouTube vid "The Innocence of Muslims" despite facts that undercut such a position. Eventually, Obama's spokespeople acknowledged not only that the event was a terrorist attack coordinated by a group with ties to al Qaeda but that they had been warned about such sorts of attacks.
Now, Lake reports, it turns out that within 24 hours of the attack, U.S. officials not only had information about who carried out the attack, but enough information to "target" at least one of the participants in the attack.
The intelligence officials who spoke to The Daily Beast did so anonymously because they weren't authorized to speak to the press. They said U.S. intelligence agencies developed leads on four of the participants of the attacks within 24 hours of the fire fight that took place mainly at an annex near the Benghazi consulate. For one of those individuals, the U.S. agencies were able to find his location after his use of social media. "We had two kinds of intelligence on one guy," this official said. "We believe we had enough to target him."
Another U.S. intelligence official said, "There was very good information on this in the first 24 hours. These guys have a return address. There are camps of people and a wide variety of things we could do."
A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment for the story. But another U.S. intelligence official said, "I can't get into specific numbers but soon after the attack we had a pretty good bead on some individuals involved in the attack."
This sort of official dissembling is as appalling as it is standard-operating procedure for U.S. governments. Why would it take several weeks for Obama and his administration – the one that was going to be so transparent about everything, right? – to come even vaguely clean about the attack? And even in yesterday's U.N. talk, Obama seemed to be suggesting that recent and rampant anti-American actions in the Middle East had more to do with "The Innocence of Muslims" than with larger issues of U.S. policy in the area.
Some reasons spring to mind, including:
1. Using "The Innocence of Muslims" as the proximate cause for a spontaneous attack – as opposed to a cover for an attack on September 11 (of all dates, for christ's sake) minimizes the adminstration's responsibility for screwup after screwup. Hey, it's not American policy that's causing the problem, it's thoughtless YouTube provocateurs that are stirring up anti-American hatred in the Middle East.
CNN has gotten into hot water with the adminstration for airing portions of Stevens' journal in which he discusses rotten security for him and the American mission in Libya (a State Department official has called this act of journalism "disgusting"). But even assuming the "Innocence" was the cause of the attack on the consulate, that doesn't exonerate American incompetence in protecting its people there.
2. Similarly, focusing on "Muslim Rage" as the root cause of any and all attacks on Mohammed or Islam also allows Obama to play the role he seems to like best: above-it-all soother of pain and bringer of light to dark situations. That's precisely what he did at the U.N. yesterday, speaking out of both sides of his mouth by invoking universal rights such as free speech while also pushing for self-censorship. But what if the concept of an unstoppable "Muslim Rage" at the decadent, secular West is simply a form of Orientalism? That is, it's a fundamentally Western conceit that reduces a huge swath of the world to a pre-rational mob that will have to be dealt with as children or animals?
In a great 2001 Reason piece, Charles Paul Freund argued that the 9/11 attacks and the jihadist mind-set showed that actors such as Osama bin Laden and other radical Islamists were actually enacting the mirror version of the Orientalist critique at the West. The point of this sort of activity is always twofold: First, it revs up the need for drastic and extreme actions (because compromise or cohabitation is impossible given your enemy's thinking) and second, it sanctions any and all violence in the service of the greater good.
Focusing on supposedly immutable Muslim Rage (they hate us for our freedom, our dirty dancing, our same-sex legal rights, etc.) is a great tool for both the Obama administration and retrograde mullahs, clerics, imams, and tyrannical governments. Whether it is in fact a motive force here is incredibly dubious. Certainly it wasn't in Benghazi, which was the work – we know now – of specific terrorist agents.
3. Both the Muslim Rage and Western insensitivity lines of argument allow the Obama administration to maintain its foreign policy status quo, which is not so very different from what the Bush administration was pursuing. The U.S. pullout from Iraq (such as it is, given the thousands of troops and contractors still working there) followed a timetable set by the Bush administration and Obama's Afghanistan plans are following the same sort of vaguely defined nation-building mission until the exact moment we pull out that Bush had started. Throughout the Middle East and in North Africa as the Arab Spring unfolded, Obama was slow to voice support for any of the nascent revolts until it was clear who was going to win (and the rebel victory in places such as Egypt ultimately took down American clients).
By minimizing the role of al Qaeda in Benghazi, Obama can simultaneously continue to claim that al Qaeda is weakened (despite its proxies' ability to kill American diplomats) while not having to revisit the exact reasons for a massive and ongoing U.S. military presence all over the region. If in fact, al Qaeda is no longer the threat it once was, shouldn't the U.S.'s presence in the region be receding? Especially if, as Obama pledged at the U.N. yesterday, we won't be dictating the outcomes of democratic elections in the region? And if al Qaeda is still powerful in the region, then what the hell have we been doing the past decade-plus? Are we still on the globo-cop beat foresworn by George W. Bush as he entered the White House in a pre-9/11 world? And if so, why do so many Americans and other residents of the world seem unhappy with our foreign policy?
If the Benghazi attack was simply the result of a YouTube vid or "Muslim Rage," then, there's no reason to revisit official government policy which, according to the newly elected Egyptian President Morsi, has been pretty consistent: "Successive American administrations essentially purchased with American taxpayer money the dislike, if not the hatred, of the peoples of the region." (Note, of course, that Morsi isn't requesting a reduction in that taxpayer money.) We can keep on keeping on. And so can our enemies interested in destabilizing the region and blaming the Great Satan for all the woes of the Middle East and beyond.
Given all the reasons it has to misdirect attention if not actively lie about what happened and why in Libya, I can't imagine the Obama administration getting more honest about foreign policy any time soon. Lucky for Obama that his competition for president won't be able to hold him accountable (Romney after all seems hell-bent on bombing stuff for whatever reason). But that lack of accountability is bad news for the rest of us, here and abroad.