Today the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee is holding a hearing on the U.S. intervention in Libya and the September 2012 attack on an American consulate in Benghazi, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans. Watch the testimony here.
Background on the Libya Intervention
In March 2011 NATO, Sweden, Jordan, Qatar, and UAE began a military intervention, thereby implementing United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, aimed against Gaddafi's forces who were battling rebels intent on overthrowing the regime.
Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown in August 2011 and killed in October 2011. Some of those fighting to remove Gaddafi were Islamists. In September 2011 Reuters reported that the U.S. was increasing efforts to identify Islamists who could threaten a post-Gaddafi Libya:
During the half-year campaign by rebels to drive Muammar Gaddafi from power, U.S. and NATO officials downplayed fears that al Qaeda or other militants would infiltrate anti-Gaddafi forces or take advantage of disorder to establish footholds in Libya.
Since then, however, the assessment of top experts inside the U.S. government has sharpened.
"It's of concern that terrorists are going to take advantage of instability" in post-Gaddafi Libya, said a U.S. official who monitors the issue closely.
"There is a potential problem," said another U.S. official, who said both the U.S. government and Libya's National Transitional Council were watching closely. Experts around the U.S. intelligence community "are paying attention to this," a third U.S. official said.
The September 2012 Consulate Attack
On Tuesday September 11, 2012, the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was attacked by a heavily armed group. U.S. Ambassador to Libya John Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the attack.
On Sunday September 16 then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said that the attack on the consulate was not premeditated but rather a spontaneous assault, inspired by protests in Cairo that were prompted by the Innocence of Muslims YouTube video:
But our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous—not a premeditated—response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated.
We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to—or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo.
Indeed, in a September 25 speech to the U.N. General Assembly even President Obama said the following:
That is what we saw play out the last two weeks, as a crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world. I have made it clear that the United States government had nothing to do with this video, and I believe its message must be rejected by all who respect our common humanity.
A day after Obama's speech, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Al Qaeda-linked terrorists may have been involved in the attack:
Now with a larger safe haven and increased freedom to maneuver, terrorists are seeking to extend their reach and their networks in multiple directions. And they are working with other violent extremists to undermine the democratic transitions under way in North Africa, as we tragically saw in Benghazi.
This week, it was reported that some Republicans believe a September 14, 2012 email from Ben Rhodes, an assistant to Obama and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, provides evidence that the White House wanted the consulate attack to be blamed on a video protest. The email—which was sent to numerous White House staffers, including then-Communications Director David Plouffe—bore the subject line "RE: PREP Call with Susan: Saturday at 4:00 pm ET" and lists the follow as one of the "Goals":
To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure or policy.
Read the email below:
It turns out that six hours before Ben Rhodes' email was sent, the CIA sent talking points to the House Intelligence committee and others. A version of these talking points, which were released by the White House, include the following:
We believe based on currently available information that the attacks 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.
However, the same email goes on to say,
That being said, we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa'ida participated in the attack.
Read those emails below:
Over at Slate, Dave Wiegel points out that Rhodes was repeating the CIA talking point:
The CIA was furthering the talking point that "the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo," etc. A later revision added that the agency had warned about social media organizing around a protest. What was the fresh chatter about? The "Innocence of Muslims" video.
So Rhodes repeated the talking point.
In a different Slate article Weigel makes the same point more bluntly:
…it's just lazy journalism or lazy politicking to blame Rhodes for a talking point that was fed from the CIA.
Although the recently released email is not the smoking gun some conservatives seem to think it is there is still plenty to be upset about when it comes to the U.S. response to the September 2012 consulate attack.
Today, while testifying before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Retired Air Force Brigadier General Robert Lovell, who was at AFRICOM headquarters in Germany while the consulate attack was going on, said that not only was the attack not a demonstration against a YouTube video, but that "we should have tried" conducting a military response to the attack.
Lovell also said that he believed Al Qaeda or their affiliates were involved in the attack "very, very soon" after the attack began. Watch a video of those comments below: