Unusual government failures allowed a terrorist attack on the USA Foreign Service in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, which killed four Americans, including the Ambassador to Libya.
Conduct Congressional hearings to determine what went wrong and what could be done to prevent such tragedies in the future.
On September 11, 2012, and eleventh anniversary of the 9/11/2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, The American embassy in Cairo came under attack by a mob protesting an anti-Muslim film produced earlier in California. While the Cairo attack was underway, another mob attacked the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, were killed in the latter attack.
Sadly, these attacks and deaths were not unique in the American Foreign Service. During the George W. Bush administration alone, American diplomatic facilities experienced the following attacks, as compiled by Polifact.com.
December 15, 2001: Kathmandu, Nepal
January 22, 2002: Calcutta, India
March 20, 2002: Lima, Peru
June 14, 2002: Karachi, Pakistan
November 9, 2002: Kathmandu, Nepal
May 12, 2003: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
July 30, 2004: Tashkent, Uzbekistan
October 24, 2004: Baghdad, Iraq
November 25, 2004: Baghdad, Iraq
December 7, 2004: Jedda, Saudi Arabia
January 29, 2005: Baghdad, Iraq
September 7, 2005: Basra, Iraq
March 2, 2006: Karachi, Pakistan
September 12, 2006: Damascus, Syria
July 8, 2007: Baghdad, Iraq
January 14, 2008: Beirut, Lebanon
March 18, 2008: Sanaa, Yemen
July 9, 2008: Istanbul, Turkey
September 17, 2008: Sanaa, Yemen
November 27, 2008: Kabul, Afghanistan
Altogether, these 13 attacks resulted in the deaths of 60 diplomatic personnel. Ten of those were given memorial plaques in the State Department. Foreign Service deaths hardly began with the Bush administration, however. Jane Mayer (2014) gives a first-person account of one of the most horrendous attacks in U. S. Foreign Service history.
Around dawn on October 23, 1983, I was in Beirut, Lebanon, when a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with the equivalent of twenty-one thousand pounds of TNT into the heart of a U.S. Marine compound, killing two hundred and forty-one servicemen. The U.S. military command, which regarded the Marines’ presence as a non-combative, “peace-keeping mission,” had left a vehicle gate wide open, and ordered the sentries to keep their weapons unloaded. The only real resistance the suicide bomber had encountered was a scrim of concertina wire. When I arrived on the scene a short while later to report on it for the Wall Street Journal, the Marine barracks were flattened. From beneath the dusty, smoking slabs of collapsed concrete, piteous American voices could be heard, begging for help. Thirteen more American servicemen later died from injuries, making it the single deadliest attack on American Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima.
Beirut was a hotbed of anti-American hostility during the Reagan administration. Earlier in the year, the U. S. Embassy was bombed; seventeen Americans and 46 others died. In March of the following year, the CIA station chief was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered, with the terrorists providing a video tape of their actions.
These attacks led to a Congressional investigation and a report detailing the precautions needed to prevent future tragedies. However, that wasn’t the end of the story, as Mayer relates:
In September of 1984, for the third time in eighteen months, jihadists bombed a U.S. government outpost in Beirut yet again. President Reagan acknowledged that the new security precautions that had been advocated by Congress hadn’t yet been implemented at the U.S. embassy annex that had been hit. The problem, the President admitted, was that the repairs hadn’t quite been completed on time. As he put it, “Anyone who’s ever had their kitchen done over knows that it never gets done as soon as you wish it would.”
Mayer muses over how such an explanation would have been accepted by any of the Benghazi committees. While the Benghazi attack was hardly unique in Foreign Service history, the Congressional response was. The question is why?
The four diplomats killed in Benghazi in 2012 were the latest casualties in a long history of risks to Foreign Service personnel. While the Benghazi attack was still underway, it was assumed that it was another reaction to the anti-Islam film, which provoked the Cairo embassy attack. As time went on and more information surfaced, it appeared that the Benghazi was independently planned and unrelated to the film. In the process of discovery, mixed reports were issued by the administration, producing some initial confusion among the public.
Critics of the Obama administration contended that there was a conscious effort to tailor reports of the attack so as to avoid any responsibility by the President or his Secretary of State. Other charges indicated that Secretary Clinton had either purposely or ineptly failed to protect the embassy and mismanaged the response to the attack once it began. More radical critics even alleged Secretary Clinton knew about the attack in advance but kept it secret from the embassy staff–and when the Air Force wanted to help, she told them not to do so.
For the most part, these allegations appeared in social media with no substantiation. So, the Congress flew into action to get the facts. The Benghazi Research Committee provides a box score of the Congressional investigations so far. Here are a few of the facts.
10 Congressional Committees participated in Benghazi hearings
252 witnesses testified
62 hours of public hearings
13 published reports totaling 1,982 pages
This is not a report on a single investigation. Politifact.com detailed the various Congressional investigations into the Benghazi tragedy.
Investigation 1: The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform
Investigation 2: The Senate Committee On Homeland Security And Governmental Affairs
Investigation 3: The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
Investigation 4: The House Committee on Foreign Affairs
Investigation 5: The House Committee on the Judiciary
Investigation 6: The House Committee on Armed Services
Investigation 7: The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
Ongoing Investigation 8: The House Select Committee on Benghazi
Why yet another investigation? Leigh Ann Caldwell (2015) explains
In his opening statement, Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, said his committee exists because the focus of the previous seven committees that investigated the attacks were “narrow in scope.” He said that his committee’s investigations are more comprehensive, including plans to interview a total of 70 people and review 50,000 “new” documents. New documents include nearly 8,000 emails sent by Ambassador Chris Stevens, whom Gowdy called a “prolific emailer.”
On October 22, 2015, former Secretary of State Clinton testified for eleven hours before the House Select Committee. At the conclusion of the hearing, Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy famously told reporters that nothing new had been learned.
Was the Problem Real?
While the official “problem” was to discover what when wrong at Benghazi as a means to preventing such tragedies in the future, there was good reason from the beginning to think the “problem” was something else.
None in the long list of investigations produced the condemnation of President Obama and Secretary Clinton some hoped for. There was some confusion in the fog of war as the attack was going on and early reports about the attack proved inaccurate, but there was never any evidence that misreporting was intentional or a coverup.
Responsible military reported that Secretary Clinton had no role in the immediate security response on the ground, nor did she have any authority to do so. Some claimed the administration was generally inadequate in providing embassy security at Benghazi and elsewhere. This charge was difficult back up, however, as Ronan Farrow reported in The Atlantic:
In Fiscal Year 2011, House Republicans cut $128 million from the Obama Administration’s requests for embassy security funding; in 2012, they cut another $331 million. [Darrell] Issa once personally voted to cut almost 300 diplomatic security positions. In 2011, after one of many fruitless trips to the Hill to beg House Republicans for resources, an exhausted, prophetic Hillary Clinton warned that cuts to embassy spending “will be detrimental to America’s national security.”
Finally, Representative Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), being considered to succeed John Boehner as Speaker of the House, publicly announced the real problem the investigations were intended to solve. Challenged by a conservative interviewer to name anything the Congress had achieved, McCarthy replied:
Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s un-trustable. But no one would have known any of that had happened had we not fought and made that happen.
No one was all that surprised to learn the “problem” the Benghazi Select Committee was created to solve was not the tragic death of four American Foreign Service workers but the “threat” of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. People were surprised to hear it bragged about on Fox News, however, and Kevin McCarthy did not become Speaker of the House.
A great deal of time and money were wasted in an unprecedented witch hunt. Those involved in the investigations might have been doing something constructive for the public good instead. Numerous public servants were attacked in the halls of Congress and maligned in the media.
Worst, perhaps, the memories of Ambassador Chris Stevens, Information Officer Sean Smith, and CIA agents, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods were dishonored for the purpose of a political agenda.
Writing in Newsweek, Kurt Eichenwald called the Benghazi hearings “One of America’s Worst Political Outrages.”
The Republicans’ unseemly delight in Benghazi has even spread to political fundraising. There is the Stop Hillary PAC, which broadcast an ad about Clinton and Benghazi. The Virginia GOP held a “Beyond Benghazi” fundraiser where donors had to pay $75 to attend and $5,000 to sponsor the event. A blog post before the 2014 election by the National Republican Senate Committee stated, “Americans deserve the truth about Benghazi, and it’s clear Democrats will not give it to them. Donate today and elect a Republican Senate majority.”
But by far the most egregious examples of Republicans trying to raise money on the backs of the dead was by the National Republican Congressional Committee, the official GOP group that works to elect Republicans to the House. In a blog post on its fundraising website, the NRCC told supporters, “House Republicans will make sure that no one will get away from Gowdy and the Select Committee.’’ The NRCC also sent out an email that contained a link that led to part of the NRCC’s site with a URL that ended with the words “Benghazicoverup-contribute.” That page directly sought money for the committee’s political efforts under the words “You’re now a Benghazi Watchdog. Let’s go after Obama and Hillary Clinton.” Beneath that, and directly next to the suggested contribution levels, was a photograph of Clinton and Obama surrounded by the sentences “Benghazi Was a Coverup. Demand Answers.”
A word of explanation is in order regarding my identifying the Benghazi hearings as a Solution without a Problem. The death of four diplomats at Benghazi was surely a tragedy but not a problem that could be solved after the fact. As to the problem of learning ways to better protect Foreign Service employees, that had been fully addressed by the early investigations. The endless line of Benghazi committees had no more to do with improving embassy security than Voter ID laws are really intended to prevent ineligible voters from impersonating eligible ones at polling stations. Both were designed for transparently partisan advantage.
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