onepagers
Print

Benghazi Fantasies

May 11, 2013 9:32 pm ET
Congressional Republicans and their right wing allies are trying to spin the Obama Administration's response to the Benghazi attack into a scandal in their efforts to take down the Obama Administration. They are even pouncing on the botched  ABC News report that only rehashed old discussions and revealed to the shock of no one that federal agencies coordinate on sensitive national security matters. Push back and put the conspiracy theorists on the defensive.

BACKGROUND TO KNOW

Advice:

  • Before you go on air, be sure to take 10 minutes to read at least the 4-page executive summary of the Pickering report. It is provided at the bottom of this email. This will quickly credential you as having done more homework about this issue than many people discussing this.
  • Highlight Congressional Republicans' damaging behavior:
    • They cut diplomatic security budgets, reducing security for vulnerable diplomats serving on the front lines overseas.
    • They refused not only to accept the results of the independent review conducted by former Reagan Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen, which didn't find anything to back up their conspiracy theories, but to let Ambassador Pickering testify at their hearings.
    • They are second-guessing the military judgment of our men in uniform, including the generals in charge of the military response during the attack and General Petraeus, who explained that it was important to be cautious to avoid tipping off terrorists with public talking points afterwards.
    • They are casting unfounded suspicions on a standard interagency memo process.
    • They are politicizing the deaths of four brave Americans who died serving our country.
  • Discussing President Obama as the subject of these wild conspiracy theories is minimally harmful to the country, because (1) he is well known to be a favorite subject of wild and discredited conspiracy theories and (2) conspiracy theorists' accounts of his motives in the Benghazi debate contradict each other.

Most of the conspiracies alleged in this debate are variations of these two:
 
(1) The Administration supposedly deliberately allowed the Benghazi facility to be attacked and overrun.

  • When you respond to these allegations, explain that there has been an investigation and report by an independent and nonpartisan Accountability Review Board, led by former Reagan Ambassador Tom Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen. The Board already conducted a deeper investigation of the attack than the press or Republicans in Congress.
  • Ask pointedly if they have read this report, which is fewer than 40 pages. If not, ask if they have read the executive summary, which is 4 pages.
  • Quote the report saying the U.S. response to the attack "was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference."
  • Quote Ambassador Pickering saying the allegations to the contrary are "Pulitzer Prize fiction."

(2) The Administration then supposedly covered up the involvement of terrorists to avoid political embarrassment before the election.

  • Briefly address the botched ABC News report if you need to (see below for an Attack & Response), then pivot. Note that the report implies that the basic process by which the government writes a memo is somehow scandalous. ABC News did not reveal anything that Congress did not already know; it only rehashes old discussions about who provided what input, and illustrates a standard interagency practice whereby federal agencies coordinate on sensitive national security matters discussed with the public.
  • Explain that as a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, Ambassador Victoria Nuland is an unlikely candidate for Democratic political skullduggery. She is the State Department official who is at the center of the accusations due to her input into the draft CIA talking points with respect to deleting references to named terror groups. In reality, this input was based on non-political reasons -- to avoid tipping off those groups and to avoid prejudicing the investigation.

Note that because the motives ascribed to the President in these two conspiracy theories contradict each other: the President was either mortified by the terrorists' success, or he wanted them to succeed. Republican scandalmongers in Congress need to make up their minds -- or admit that both conspiracy theories are nothing more.


KEY MESSAGES & FACTS

  • The Republicans in Congress who cut our diplomatic security are now second-guessing the military judgment of top generals and politicizing the deaths of those who served.
  • If you want the answers to questions about what happened, ask Admiral Mullen and former Reagan Ambassador Pickering, who ran the independent investigation.
  • The shocking news out of Washington last week was the Washington press corps does not know how our government writes a memo.

FACT: The Republican chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce, stated that the Board "severely critiques a handful of individuals, and they have been held accountable" for their decisions contributing to inadequate security at Benghazi.

FACT: The Pickering report warns that to make diplomatic security adequate, "The solution requires a more serious and sustained commitment from Congress to support State Department needs" -- which Republican lawmakers refused to do before the Benghazi attacks.

FACT: According to the Pickering report's assessment of the Administration's response to the attack, "The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference."

  • If GOP Oversight Chairman Issa was really interested in the truth, why did he block Ambassador Pickering from testifying?
  • Here's the new non-revelation about Benghazi to come from the Republican hearings, as Congressman Issa himself admitted: "This was a terrorist attack."
  • Terrorism was always part of the Administration's public explanation of the Benghazi attack. The only people who don't understand this are the Congressional Republicans who have continued since Mitt Romney to politicize the deaths of four Americans serving our country. 
  • If these politicians need it explained to them that Al Qaeda-linked extremists include terrorists, that is not Ambassador Rice's problem.

FACT: In the days right after the attack, President Obama repeatedly called it an "act of terror." Even in the immediate aftermath of the Benghazi attack, Administration officials, including Ambassador Rice in her Sunday show appearances, openly discussed the possible involvement of extremist groups, including those linked to Al Qaeda, might have been responsible.

FACT: Once Pickering saw the true goal of the Issa hearings, he changed his mind and sought to testify after all, but Issa refused to waive an obscure three-day rule of the committee he chairs to allow it.


ATTACKS AND RESPONSES


ATTACK: "The Obama Administration's handling of Benghazi is bigger than Watergate -- it deliberately misled the American people."
RESPONSE:

  • Republicans in Congress should be holding hearings on why they cut the State Department's diplomatic security funding before the Benghazi attack. That's the real scandal here they want to hide.
  • There had been 64 attacks on American diplomatic targets under President George W. Bush's watch. Where was the outrage from Congressional Republicans then? 
  • The notion of a cover-up here is "Pulitzer Prize fiction" -- fiction from politicians trying to score political points instead of governing. Take it from Ambassador Tom Pickering, who served under President Reagan and co-headed the Accountability Review Board that investigated the attack.
  • Ultimately this is about the Congressional Republicans versus President Reagan's Ambassador and all the answers already revealed by more than 30 hearings, interviews, and briefings with senior government officials and 25,000 plus pages of documentsreleased by the Administration.
  • It's shameful when politicians make up fantasies to use against their political opponents. It's even worse with these Republicans in Congress because they are now second-guessing the military judgment of top generals and politicizing the deaths of those who served.

ATTACK: "An 'exclusive' ABC News report shows that the State Department manipulated the CIA's Benghazi talking points for Ambassador Rice for political reasons."
RESPONSE:

  • This botched report just shows that the Washington press corps needs a refresher on how our government writes a memo. There is a standard process for the agencies to work together to develop public information on national security matters, and that's what happened here.
  • The report also shows that the media hasn't been paying close attention. It's just a rehash of the debates we've already had about who gave what input into the talking points and what details should be made public during an ongoing investigation into a terrorist attack.
  • The report also just confirms that the intelligence community signed off on the final official talking points in those early days of the investigation. And as former CIA head Gen. Petraeus stated, references to terrorist groups in Libya were deleted to avoid tipping them off. 
  • In fact, all of the Administration emails that Congressional Republicans are up in arms about were shown to them months ago. There's nothing in the botched report that talks about the actual events during the Benghazi attack.

ATTACK: "In their media appearances right after the Benghazi attack, Administration officials like Ambassador Rice misleadingly said that it wasn't terrorism."
RESPONSE:

  • While the investigation of the terrorist attack was underway, do you think senior Administration officials speaking to the public should have instead tipped off the terrorist groups? As General Petraeus explained last fall, that's what they were trying to prevent, even as they carefully tried to not exclude terrorism either.
  • In fact, terrorism was always part of the Administration's assessment and public explanation of the Benghazi attack. Right after the Benghazi attack, President Obama called it an "act of terror" several times. And Administration officials, including Ambassador Rice, openly discussed that it was possible that extremist groups, including those linked to Al Qaeda, might have been responsible.
  • The only people who don't understand this are Congressional Republicans who have continued since Mitt Romney to politicize the deaths of four Americans serving our country. And if they need it explained that Al Qaeda-linked extremists include terrorists, that is not Ambassador Rice's problem.

ATTACK: "The President failed to save American lives by withholding military help from the Benghazi diplomatic outpost."
RESPONSE:

  • As the independent Accountability Review Board affirmed, "the interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference."
  • In fact, the Board report says that thanks to U.S. government coordination and the military response, all U.S. government personnel were evacuated from Benghazi twelve hours after the initial attack -- which saved the lives of two severely wounded Americans.
  • Reinforcements were in fact dispatched from Tripoli, where the main embassy is located, to Benghazi some 400 miles away. That security team arrived after the end of the first attack, which killed Ambassador Stevens, but before a second attack began. Our military generals determined that more military reinforcements from Tripoli could not have made it in time to make a difference.
  • Special forces in Croatia could not have arrived in Benghazi in time to make a difference, either. And as Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen Martin Dempsey explained in Congressional testimony, there were no fighter jets in range the night of the attack.

ATTACK: "Secretary Clinton failed to save American lives by personally denying requests for additional security in Benghazi and during the attack cut the State Department's antiterrorism unit out of the loop."
RESPONSE:

  • The fact is that all outgoing cables from Washington bear the "signature" of the Secretary of State whether or not the Secretary has viewed them, just like how all cables from an embassy bears the "signature" of the ambassador. That's just standard protocol.
  • So as a member of the independent Accountability Review Board said, it's "total bullshit" to claim that Secretary Clinton saw or sent a specific cable just because it bore her signature.
  • In fact, former Secretary Clinton testified that at no time was she aware of requests for additional diplomatic security at Benghazi prior to the attack. Republicans in Congress are the politicians with no shame after trying to cut $500 million from diplomatic security in the past two years.
  • That claim from the House Republicans' witness, Mark Thompson, about the State Department antiterrorism unit was completely debunked by his own boss. Ambassador Daniel Benjamin stated that the Counterterrorism Bureau was never cut out of the loop in any way.

ATTACK: "The Obama Administration's handling of the Benghazi attack was a failure of leadership for not anticipating an attack on September 11."
RESPONSE:

  • According to the independent Accountability Review Board, led by Ambassador Tom Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen, "at no time were there ever any specific, credible threats against the mission in Benghazi related to the September 11 anniversary."
  • That said, even the GOP chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Rep. Ed Royce, says Administration officials "have been held accountable" and booted from the State Department for their decisions contributing to inadequate security at Benghazi.
  • It's the Republicans in Congress who refuse to take responsibility for slashing funding for the State Department and diplomatic security -- even though there have been many attacks on U.S. diplomatic targets for decades and far more attacks happened during previous administrations.

ATTACK: "The House Republicans' Benghazi hearings are not political."
RESPONSE:

  • Can you say that with a straight face when the National Republican Congressional Committee is using the debate over Benghazi to raise campaign money?
  • If this was truly a bipartisan attempt to figure out what happened and learn from it, Congressional Republicans would have shared witness transcripts and planned the hearings together with their Democratic counterparts -- which they refused to do.
  • And again, if they were genuinely interested in the truth, they would have let Ambassador Pickering testify when he asked to. (Yes, he had declined months earlier, but that was before he saw how much Republicans were hyping the hearings with promises of scandal.)

ATTACK: "The Obama Administration threatened and retaliated against people who came forward to testify in this week's hearings."
RESPONSE:

  • The lawyers representing the self-described "whistleblowers" in these GOP-led hearings are actually long-time GOP activists with history of pushing discredited claims. But even the lawyer for Mark Thompson had to admit on air that his client had not been threatened by anyone.
  • The right wing accusations of retaliation also rest on witness Greg Hicks' complaints about his career, but it turns out that he should be blaming himself and bad luck.
  • Hicks' colleagues say he's "the worst manager I've ever seen in the Foreign Service" and "literally every single one of us begged for him to be removed from post." There just aren't enough desirable diplomatic assignments for everyone, either.
  • All that these House Republicans' witnesses did was debunk the House Republicans' own conspiracy theories -- including affirming our top military leaders' decisions in their response to the attack.

THE REPORT YOU NEED TO KNOW

The full Pickering report is available at http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/202446.pdf; the report summary is below. If you are on a smartphone, here is the link to Google's cached version. The bold emphasis in the text is our own.

EXECUTIVE OVERVIEW

A series of terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11-12, 2012, resulted in the deaths of four U.S. government personnel, Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty; seriously wounded two other U.S. personnel and injured three Libyan contract guards; and resulted in the destruction and abandonment of the U.S. Special Mission compound and Annex.

FINDINGS

In examining the circumstances of these attacks, the Accountability Review Board for Benghazi determined that:

1. The attacks were security related, involving arson, small arms and machine gun fire, and the use of RPGs, grenades, and mortars against U.S. personnel at two separate facilities - the SMC and the Annex - and en route between them. Responsibility for the tragic loss of life, injuries, and damage to U.S. facilities and property rests solely and completely with the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks. The Board concluded that there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity.

2. Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department (the "Department") resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.

Security in Benghazi was not recognized and implemented as a "shared responsibility" by the bureaus in Washington charged with supporting the post, resulting in stove-piped discussions and decisions on policy and security. That said, Embassy Tripoli did not demonstrate strong and sustained advocacy with Washington for increased security for Special Mission Benghazi.

The short-term, transitory nature of Special Mission Benghazi's staffing, with talented and committed, but relatively inexperienced, American personnel often on temporary assignments of 40 days or less, resulted in diminished institutional knowledge, continuity, and mission capacity.

Overall, the number of Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) security staff in Benghazi on the day of the attack and in the months and weeks leading up to it was inadequate, despite repeated requests from Special Mission Benghazi and Embassy Tripoli for additional staffing. Board members found a pervasive realization among personnel who served in Benghazi that the Special Mission was not a high priority for Washington when it came to security-related requests, especially those relating to staffing.

The insufficient Special Mission security platform was at variance with the appropriate Overseas Security Policy Board (OSPB) standards with respect to perimeter and interior security. Benghazi was also severely under-resourced with regard to certain needed security equipment, although DS funded and installed in 2012 a number of physical security upgrades. These included heightening the outer perimeter wall, safety grills on safe area egress windows, concrete jersey barriers, manual drop-arm vehicle barriers, a steel gate for the Villa C safe area, some locally manufactured steel doors, sandbag fortifications, security cameras, some additional security lighting, guard booths, and an Internal Defense Notification System.

Special Mission Benghazi's uncertain future after 2012 and its "non-status" as a temporary, residential facility made allocation of resources for security and personnel more difficult, and left responsibility to meet security standards to the working-level in the field, with very limited resources.

In the weeks and months leading up to the attacks, the response from post, Embassy Tripoli, and Washington to a deteriorating security situation was inadequate. At the same time, the SMC's dependence on the armed but poorly skilled Libyan February 17 Martyrs' Brigade (February 17) militia members and unarmed, locally contracted Blue Mountain Libya (BML) guards for security support was misplaced.

Although the February 17 militia had proven effective in responding to improvised explosive device (IED) attacks on the Special Mission in April and June 2012, there were some troubling indicators of its reliability in the months and weeks preceding the September attacks. At the time of Ambassador Stevens' visit, February 17 militia members had stopped accompanying Special Mission vehicle movements in protest over salary and working hours.

Post and the Department were well aware of the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks but at no time were there ever any specific, credible threats against the mission in Benghazi related to the September 11 anniversary. Ambassador Stevens and Benghazi-based DS agents had taken the anniversary into account and decided to hold all meetings on-compound on September 11.

The Board found that Ambassador Stevens made the decision to travel to Benghazi independently of Washington, per standard practice. Timing for his trip was driven in part by commitments in Tripoli, as well as a staffing gap between principal officers in Benghazi. Plans for the Ambassador's trip provided for minimal close protection security support and were not shared thoroughly with the Embassy's country team, who were not fully aware of planned movements off compound. The Ambassador did not see a direct threat of an attack of this nature and scale on the U.S. Mission in the overall negative trendline of security incidents from spring to summer 2012. His status as the leading U.S. government advocate on Libya policy, and his expertise on Benghazi in particular, caused Washington to give unusual deference to his judgments.

Communication, cooperation, and coordination among Washington, Tripoli, and Benghazi functioned collegially at the working-level but were constrained by a lack of transparency, responsiveness, and leadership at the senior levels. Among various Department bureaus and personnel in the field, there appeared to be very real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions based on both policy and security considerations.

3. Notwithstanding the proper implementation of security systems and procedures and remarkable heroism shown by American personnel, those systems and the Libyan response fell short in the face of a series of attacks that began with the sudden penetration of the Special Mission compound by dozens of armed attackers.

The Board found the responses by both the BML guards and February 17 to be inadequate. The Board's inquiry found little evidence that the armed February 17 guards offered any meaningful defense of the SMC, or succeeded in summoning a February 17 militia presence to assist expeditiously.

The Board found the Libyan government's response to be profoundly lacking on the night of the attacks, reflecting both weak capacity and near absence of central government influence and control in Benghazi. The Libyan government did facilitate assistance from a quasi-governmental militia that supported the evacuation of U.S. government personnel to Benghazi airport. The Libyan government also provided a military C-130 aircraft which was used to evacuate remaining U.S. personnel and the bodies of the deceased from Benghazi to Tripoli on September 12.

The Board determined that U.S. personnel on the ground in Benghazi performed with courage and readiness to risk their lives to protect their colleagues, in a near impossible situation. The Board members believe every possible effort was made to rescue and recover Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith. The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.

4. The Board found that intelligence provided no immediate, specific tactical warning of the September 11 attacks. Known gaps existed in the intelligence community's understanding of extremist militias in Libya and the potential threat they posed to U.S. interests, although some threats were known to exist.

5. The Board found that certain senior State Department officials within two bureaus demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability in their responses to security concerns posed by Special Mission Benghazi, given the deteriorating threat environment and the lack of reliable host government protection. However, the Board did not find reasonable cause to determine that any individual U.S. government employee breached his or her duty.


We develop messaging by aggregating, analyzing and distilling polling, tested messaging, and expert recommendations, and monitoring the media to identify what is and isn't working. 
See here for some of the experts and organizations we draw on.


 


Posted in

Return to the full post.