What Happened in Benghazi?
Before the spin
Tonight's foreign policy-themed presidential debate, apparently focusing almost exclusively on terrorism and the Middle East/North Africa, will certainly hit upon the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. The topic was brought up in last week's town hall debate, with President Obama and Mitt Romney vigorously arguing over whether the president characterized the Benghazi incident as a terrorist attack the next day. Even the moderator, Candy Crowley, joined in, though her bungled and unsure interjection had the effect of taking the conversation off track rather than providing any clarity to the facts.
Afterwards, Crowley admitted she was wrong , that Romney was "right in the main" about President Obama and his administration's evolving narrative on Benghazi but that Romney "picked the wrong word"—Obama said he called the Benghazi attack an "act of terror" at the Rose Garden on September 12 and Romney seized on that. Obama did, however, say in those remarks that "[n]o acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for."
However, this 9/12 characterization came within the context, the Administration insisted, of anti-American demonstrations (including a purported one at the Benghazi consulate) spurred by an anti-Islamic film whose trailer could be found on YouTube. Whether or not Obama considered the Benghazi assault a "terrorist attack" is immaterial, he and his administration also undeniably pushed the narrative that the violence in Benghazi, and in Cairo, and in Yemen, and, in fact, all the anti-American demonstrations occurring the week of 9/11, were ignited solely by the YouTube clip.
And, most importantly, Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, went on the major Sunday political talk shows to push just that narrative: that the 9/11 attack "began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo," where violent demonstrations had taken place. The brother of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in fact, claimed credit for coordinating the assault in Cairo. The next day the embassy in Yemen was also stormed.
The 9/11 attack on the Benghazi consulate, now believed to have been coordinated by the militant group Ansar al-Shariah, was preceded by at least two others in the previous three months. The attack, of course, took the life of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. It began at the consulate and ended at another building, which may have been a CIA base, and over which drones may have been flying at the time. A report in the Independent just three days later portrayed a complex attack that included theft of specific documents. Nevertheless, the CIA talking points given Ambassador Rice before her appearance on the Sunday talk shows referred to a spontaneous attack that did not appear organized or planned. The Washington Post quotes an unnamed senior official characterizing the 9/11 attackers as a "flash mob with weapons," and claiming the only part of the talking points he'd revise is changing spontaneous to "opportunistic." The best intelligence money buys.
How much of this will be drawn out at tonight's debate remains to be seen, but the chances are bleak that any of the underlying premises of American intervention in Libya, beginning with American and NATO involvement in last year's civil war, without Congressional approval of any sort no less, will be questioned. You can have an Irish car bomb if they are.