On Benghazi

By Tyrus W. Cobb


The attack on our consulate/cultural affairs facility in Benghazi and the disappointing response by our nation’s national security leadership represents a sad chapter in American crisis management. Following the well organized assault on the installation and the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, the passive and lackluster response by the Administration, and equally importantly, by the CIA/Pentagon/State authorities, to the developing crisis represents a tragic failure of leadership.

This brief analysis recounts what we knew prior to the attack, how the assault was conducted, what were the White House and intermediate levels of command recommending, and what was done. It will also detail implications for future American crisis.

What did we know leading up to the attack….and what was done?

A protester reacts as the US Consulate in Benghazi is seen in flames during a protest by an armed group on September 11, 2012
Esam Al-Fetori/REUTERS

As we now know, there was reliable and extensive intelligence that the Benghazi installations were being targeted by extremist elements in eastern Libya, the region that was both the center of gravity of the anti-Qaddhafi forces, but significantly, the home of numerous Al-Qaeda leaning and sympathetic militants as well. This included the groups Ansar al-Shariah, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Muhammad Jamal organization.

The administration had been receiving numerous indications that preparatory activities were being conducted by “Al-Qaeda leaning” forces and other militants at encampments close to Benghazi. The information (not processed intelligence, we should underline) also painted a picture of a Libya increasingly torn by factional fighting. This summer assailants had carried out a series of targeted killings in Benghazi. The Libyan government itself had declared a “state of maximum alert” in Benghazi. Despite this, Washington held to its policy of fielding a relatively small protective element at the “consulate”, and to depend more on locally recruited workers to guard the outpost.

Washington’s decision to reopen its Benghazi facility likely was done with some trepidation higher up the chain, but probably viewed as important by AMB Chris Stevens. He was our emissary to the rebels, largely based in the east, and Stevens probably felt a kinship with them.  While we know from his diary that Stevens was aware of the increasing threat to his own security, particularly in this region, he may also have felt some degree of confidence that his popularity from the days of the rebellion would serve to cause even the most die-hard militants to feel a kinship with him. If so, he may have developed a case of “client-titus”, a sense that he was at one with the local populace. Otherwise, I find it hard to understand why the Ambassador was in Benghazi given his own fears and multiple warnings.

There is no doubt that the State Department, the CIA, and the military chain of command knew about the terrorist threats to Benghazi. There is also little doubt that the Agency and the Department did not fulfill numerous requests for more security at the Benghazi installations.

Of course the Benghazi requests for additional security were not singular asks, but were one of many similar recommendations to enhance security at numerous installations around the globe. The fact is diplomatic/intelligence security is expensive and time consuming, sometimes requiring the construction of new Embassies. Some critics would charge that the penchant for such security has gone so far as to isolate our diplomats from the societies where they live. For example, the new Embassy in London looks like a medieval fortress surrounded by a moat; the embassies in Baghdad and Kabul similarly are gigantic and serve to further distance diplomats and spies from the populations they are supposed to interact with.

State and CIA have numerous facilities that are ill-protected. That’s the environment our analysts, spies and diplomats often work in. They accept the dangers. They try to balance security requirements with the need to have installations that do not isolate them; they try to meld with the populace to the extent possible. And, of course, they face huge budgetary challenges in building stations/facilities that both provide security and permit involvement with the locals (and it must be noted that some of the most vociferous opponents of state budgets are those who are now demanding more security for diplomatic personnel!).

What did happen on the night of September 11?

With AMB Stevens at the facility, shouts and gunshots began to ring out. At first those on station felt that this was one more manifestation of Islamic uproar over the “blasphemous” video criticizing the Prophet and the religion that sparked riots throughout the Mideast. However, the demonstrations grew in intensity and the U.S. personnel at the Benghazi facility called for help from CIA-based reinforcements in Tripoli. We believe that the Agency was trying to make contact with a Libyan militia, the February 17 Brigade, to come to assist in protecting the consulate first. The Agency also, after a 20-minute delay, gave permission to former SEAL Tyrone Woods and two others to go to the beleaguered facility’s rescue.

Although not immediately recognized, the “demonstrations” now were clearly in the hands of well organized and armed militias operating under a broad Al-Qaeda umbrella. Trucks bearing the logo of “Ansar al-Shariah” sealed off the streets; large numbers of men shouting “Allah Akbar” descended on the compound from multiple directions; and the militants began employing mortars and RPGs.

Urgent calls for help went out, with a quick reaction force from the CIA “annex” the first to arrive. They attempted to secure the perimeter and locate the Ambassador, but were unable to find Stevens in the smoke-filled building. His body was later found—the Ambassador apparently died of smoke asphyxiation.

Were Quick Reaction Forces Available to strike the militants? Were higher levels of command following the events?

The after-action reports clearly show that multiple higher levels of command were tracking the events in real time, including the Situation Room at the White House. As Bing West notes (National Review, Oct 22), “The White House, the Pentagon, the State Department and numerous military headquarters monitored the entire battle in real time via the phone calls from Benghazi and video from a drone overhead”.

The burnt out interior of a room inside the US consulate, Benghazi. Photo: Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters

West continues his scorching condemnation of the crisis chain of command, noting that “Our diplomats fought for seven hours without any aid from outside the country. Four Americans died while the Obama national-security team and our military passively watched and listened”. While he also criticizes the erroneous CIA early reports that the demonstrations were spontaneous and a reaction to the anti-Muslim video, and the State department for ignoring security needs before the attack, he reserves his most severe indictment of the whole chain of command as a depressing “failure to aid the living”. Powerful stuff.

Former national security advisor Bud McFarlane joins West in this critique. Bud and Bing point out that we had Special Operations forces based just 480 miles away in Sigonella, as well as land and sea based fighter aviation. Fighter jets could have been at Benghazi in an hour—wouldn’t an “F-18 in afterburner, roaring like a lion, have unnerved them”?, West asks.

While the focus of criticism has been on the Obama White House and the Clinton State Department, West casts blame up and down the chain of command. “For our top leadership, with all the technological and military tools at their disposal, to have done nothing for seven hours was a joint civilian and military failure of initiative and nerve”. While Secretary Clinton has said the responsibility was hers, there is no indication, West adds, “that the State department overruled the Pentagon”. Instead, “passive group-think prevailed”, with the assumption being that a spontaneous mob would quickly run out of steam.

I agree strongly with West, whose experience as a former Assistant Secretary of Defense and military background as a combat Marine, give him the credentials to cast blame here—at the CIA, at the military chain of command, and at the State department. While most of the public focus in this tension-filled election season has been on the White House, clearly the blame extends to a broader community of responsible officials.

Most disappointing to me, as a former White House staffer who spent a lot of time in the “Sit Room”, is the passive manner in which the NSC staff/White House crisis management group did nothing—to order troops and aircraft to move, to ask for concrete response options, to demand an immediate rescue operation. As Bud McFarlane observes, “I am astonished by this failure to come to the aid of American citizens under fire”……I cannot imagine a more serious abrogation of his (Obama’s) responsibility as President” (personal correspondence sent to this author).

The Aftermath of the Benghazi Tragedy

The Administration’s problems were complicated, to be sure, by campaign fever and the propensity of Romney supporters to cast as much blame on the President as possible in the lead-up to the November 6 election. The right wind blogosphere went into high gear, passing on to its panting recipients anything that painted Obama and Clinton as incompetent.

In the end, however, the Obama national security team did perform poorly in preparing for and reacting to the crisis. The administration’s problems were compounded by its shifting explanations of what happened at Benghazi—the most egregious being UN Ambassador Susan Rice’s claim several days after the disaster that the attacks were the result of a “spontaneous uprising provoked by an anti-Islam video”.  That was on September 17, but in her defense, we should add that the CIA just two days before (and four days after the attack!) reported that the “demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo” and “evolved” into a direct assault. That was way off the mark, which should have been obvious after 96 hours. The Director of National Intelligence has acknowledged this failure.

The crisis management chain had sufficient assets to influence the course of the attack. While Secretary of Defense Panetta makes a good point in saying that “You don’t deploy forces into harm’s way without knowing what’s going on”, it seems to this analyst that, in fact, there was sufficient “situational awareness” to justify intervention. And there were certainly forces in the theater of operations that could have been deployed that might have had a positive influence in the tragic course of that night.

We don’t know if intermediate levels of command and analysis under the Pentagon, State or the Agency grabbed the bull by the horns and recommended immediate retaliatory action and the means to accomplish that. If they didn’t, then one has to wonder what they think their charge is.

I find no evidence that they did. While the blogosphere would have you believe that GEN Carter Ham, head of AFRICOM, told the White House that he refused to stand down and watch the situation transpire, and that he was ordering a Special Forces detachment to Benghazi (the units vary in each email), this simply did NOT happen. Nor was Ham fired for insubordination. GEN Ham has no forces to deploy (his is a training command), was not relieved, and will remain at his post until his planned departure in March.

The Obama administration’s “united front” stance is beginning to fall apart, with White House leaks now focused on CIA Director Petraeus. The General is said to have attended a screening the night of Sept 11 for the premiere of the movie, “Argo”, instead of remaining at his post. He has been blamed for repeating to Congress in closed session four days after the attack that the incident was prompted by the infamous video, and as a spontaneous attack as opposed to a pre-planned assault. It has been suggested that since the Benghazi installation was almost entirely a CIA operation, and not a State Department facility, that the Agency should have been more alert to the security threat. Petraeus, no shrinking violet, has begun backgrounding the press, countering the idea that the besieged Americans were left alone under fire.

The Benghazi failure in retrospect and what actions should be taken to prevent such a disaster from occurring again?

In sum, the Benghazi crisis represents a monumental failure of the national crisis management structure. That responsibility belongs first and foremost at the White House/NSC, and they bear significant blame for the lack of timely response. State and the Agency also must shoulder their share of the failure. But as West noted, so does the entire military-civilian crisis management structure.

There is no indication that the White House/National Security Council, which directs the crisis management structure, performed their responsibilities. As President Obama begins his second term, he must first replace his current National Security Advisor (NSA), Tom Donilon. The Donilon resume reflects more of a political background as trusted advisor to the President, much less so as an experienced national security professional. In the NSA position, Donilon has been focused too much on the political side of the job, not enough on the security demands. Time for him to go and bring in a professional.

The new NSA’s first action should be to restructure the crisis management system, which failed in this instance. Coordination between the CIA and the State Department was flawed, there is no indication that various levels of military commands jumped in with their recommendations, and assets that were available to influence the course of the Benghazi attack were not employed.

Four lives were lost the night of September 11. Changes must be made to insure there will not be a repetition of that failure, and those changes begin at the top.

  • Dr. Tyrus W. Cobb is the President of the National Security Forum and a former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan


One comment

  1. Excellent summary and evaluation, Ty. This event seems to represent blunders at DOD, DOS, the CIA and the NSC. Now we know there was a desire to minimize some of the facts in an attempt not to reveal intel activities and assets in Benghazi. Unfortunately, the pressure to make political hay forced information to be exposed beyond the Senate and House Intelligence Cmtes.

    There is no question that the precise communications between Libya and the four agencies above and details of the discussions in those organizations will reveal why fighter aircraft and ground combat personnel were not sent once it was determined that radical elements were attacking with weapons.

    Whether the review is public or limited to the intel committees, it needs to be thorough and the procedures for security of DOS personnel in Islamic countries need to be overhauled. I just wish all those who have been using this sad event to divide the nation politically would cork it and let the failure assessments take place without further broadcasting our intel activities and security weaknesses to the world.

    Steve Metcalf

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