Eight months ago, on September 11, 2012, the American embassy in Benghazi was attacked by a group of men; men who may or may not be labeled “terrorists,” killing American Ambassador Chris Stevens, and three others.
Stevens was visiting the embassy to discuss plans for a cultural center and hospital modernization. Earlier in the day, the ambassador had a scheduled meeting with a diplomat from Turkey. At nightfall, a group of 125 or more Islamic militants, some wearing Afghan tunics, stormed the embassy. The embassy had security guards within the compound, a high wall, with concertina wire at the top. The militants used rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades, assault rifles, diesel canisters, mortars, and heavy machine guns and a small contigent of artillery mounted on gun trucks. The most effective of their weapons, according to reports, was the diesel fuel which they set afire to ignite the embassy buildings, and causing horrible damage and death.
As we recall, the first to comment on the assault was then-presidential candidate Mitt Romney. The attack occurred on a Tuesday evening, and on Wednesday morning Romney lambasted the Democratic administration for their first reaction; that the rioting was linked to a movie that was insulting to the Muslim Prophet, Mohammed. Since some at the embassy, still perhaps in shock, expressed sympathy with the feelings of the Islamic community, Romney accused Obama of apologizing. He himself would have expressed considerably more outrage.
I think it is a terrible course for America to stand in apology for our values; that instead, when our grounds are being attacked and being breached, that the first response of the United States must be outrage at the breach of the sovereignty of our nation. And apology for America’s values is never the right course. The fact that the statement came from the American embassy in Egypt, not from the president himself, doesn’t negate Obama’s responsibility.
In the days following the attack, Secretary of State Clinton, Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and the president himself began to share with the public their growing understanding of the attack. They felt the perpetrators comprised a relatively small group of local Islamic extremist protestors. They fell back from the notion that the insulting portrayal of Mohammed was the main cause. It had come to light that no high level explosives were used; no weapons of mass destruction, not even the fertilizer that has been used in domestic instances for destruction by its explosive capacity. Importantly, they all repeated several times that the investigation had just begun, was in early stages, and that new developments would engender new conclusions.
Now, as summer begins in the United States, many Republicans are making an effort to compare the failure of the president and his associates to use the exact phrase, “terrorist assault,” and the president’s failure to foresee and prevent the attack, to the impeachable offense of Richard Nixon when he authorized agents to break into at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., to explore the Democratic plans for campaigning.
We should examine some of the issues of the Republican criticism of the president.
- As the raids were ongoing the Ansar as-Sharia group claimed credit on social networks Facebook and Twitter. Secretary Clinton spoke to media during October, stating that Facebook and Twitter statements do not constitute legitimate basis for intelligence. Members of the al-Qaeda sympathizing extremist group Ansar al-Sharia have since been arrested and are being held and questioned. At that time Secretary Clinton also said: “The president has repeatedly said the initial hours and days surrounding the attack on Benghazi were characterized by numerous and plausible theories as to what sparked the attack.”
- The first indication Washington had of this September 11 attack read, “The Regional Security Officer reports the diplomatic mission is under attack. Embassy Tripoli reports approximately 20 armed people fired shots; explosions have been heard as well. Ambassador Stevens, who is currently in Benghazi and four COM personnel, are in the compound safe haven. The 17th of February militia is providing security support.”
- During the early stages of the assault on the compound, a spokesman for the embassy in Egypt stated that they “condemn the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.” Secretary Clinton later wrote, “The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.” Again, she repeated the sentiments of embassy personnel spoken during the attack.
- During the six-month period prior to the Benghazi attack, many incidents had been recorded which might have given warning to intelligence agents. These incidents included car jackings, kidnappings and assassination attempts. Three weeks following the attacks, Representatives Issa (R-CA) and Chaffetz (R-UT) sent a letter to Secretary Clinton indication their belief that, put together, these events indicated a clear pattern of security threats that could only be reasonably interpreted to justify increased security for U.S. personnel and facilities in Benghazi.”
On May 8, Representative Issa, the House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman, released the following statement:
Today’s hearing offered officials at the State Department the opportunity to be heard. These witnesses revealed new information that undermines the Obama Administration’s assertion that there are no more questions left to answer about Benghazi. Numerous questions are still unanswered, despite months of dogged investigation by the Oversight Committee.
Who denied the U.S. mission in Benghazi the increased security it requested months before the terror attacks? Who gave the order for special operations forces to stand down, preventing them from helping their compatriots under attack? What was the actual military capability and preparedness to respond to the mission’s requests for help?”
Today’s testimony also illustrated the serious concerns this Committee has with the ARB report – witnesses testified that the ARB failed to interview relevant witnesses and wrongly let senior officials off the hook. It is unacceptable that Gregory Hicks, the top U.S. Official in Libya after Ambassador Stevens death, has been kept to this day from seeing the classified report.
Perhaps most troubling is the revelation of retaliation and intimidation tactics against life-long public servants who dared to question top officials on their inaccurate and highly public assertions about the attack. This Committee will stand behind these whistleblowers and will act swiftly if they face further retaliation or intimidation after speaking to us about what they know about Benghazi. The American people deserve the truth, and we are committed in our pursuit of the facts.”
In fact the embassy had requested additional security, but in testimony before a Senate committee, it came to light that a local government employee stationed in the region felt the added security was unnecessary, owing to the heightened wall, and the addition of the barbed wire. She denied the request, which was never sent to Washington.
Greg Hicks, second in command under Ambassador Chris Stevens, testified that U.S. Special Forces were ready to board a plane in Tripoli but were prevented from coming to the aid of those under assault inside the consulate. Democrats have repeatedly cited testimony by General Dempsey that no military assets could be rallied in time to help the Americans killed in Benghazi.
Former Defense Secretary Robert Gates told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday (May 11) that, had he headed the Pentagon at that time he wouldn’t have approved sending a small force into Libya, as some Republicans have suggested. He said that sending in an aircraft or a small number of special forces, “without knowing what the threat is, without having any intelligence, would have been very dangerous.” In addition, speaking at another venue, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, co-chairman of the State Department accountability review board on the Benghazi attacks said he and retired Admiral Michael Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff concluded that “there was no way any military activity could have been put in place to deal with that particular question.”
As to indications that might have been addressed by the administration, they are few and minimal:
• Some Facebook and Twitter postings were made, but Facebook and Twitter, as mentioned above, do not constitute legitimate basis for intelligence.
• Five months prior to the embassy burning, two insurgents, former security guards for the consulate threw a “fish bomb” (a homemade improvised hand-thrown bomb sometimes used by fisherman to surface fish) over the consulate fence which injured no one.
• On the day of the attack: Al Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri declared that al Libi’s death still needed to be avenged.
• Following the death of Ambassador Stevens, his diary was found by CNN correspondents. He expressed growing concern about al-Qaeda presence in the area and said he was worried about being on an al-Qaeda hit list. The U.S. State Department later accused CNN of violating privacy and breaking its promise to Stevens’ family that it would not report on the diary.
• Just prior to the attack, an unidentified (?) lawyer who had passed by the scene reported 20 youths chanting expressly about the anti-prophet film.
Is it possible to predict the actions of a small group of malcontents, who purchase no blacklisted explosives, who have no correspondence with any terrorist agency? Can a president be held to blame when a handful of insurgents storm an embassy with diesel fuel as their weapon of choice? Did the president change talking points, hoping to avoid the term “terrorism”, or did he merely repeat that the investigation was ongoing?
Some have noted weakness in Obama since the past election. He hasn’t closed the notorious detention center in Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. There may be other shortcomings. But the stock market has broken records, and the economy is near to booming. Still, there is some weakness, and the Republicans may take this opportunity to go for a killing coup de grâce.
The Republicans today are not the patriots of yesterday; if they search for a reason to unseat a president who had turned the economy around, and has prided himself on being candid with the constituency, they have only themselves to blame if the boom ends, and the people began to see the new-forming injustice.