Archive: October, 2012

Conspiracy, Inc.

Anti-adminstration pot-stirrers, continue to insinuate a White House coverup of an Al Qaeda-backed terror attack in Benghazi, for the purpose of deflecting public attention from its failure to beat back Islamist terror despite the killing of Osama Bin Laden (the Hoover Institute and FOX News have been outdoing themselves on this count). This is a highly disingenuous tack. If the Administration knew that the attack was not precipitated by a spontaneous mob linked to a video denigrating the Prophet — almost a full month before the election– what purpose would be served by perpetuating this story, given the fact that the truth could be expected to come out sooner, than later – as it has?

A far more likely explanation is that of bureaucratic confusion and mis-communication, against the backdrop of a highly chaotic situation. The briefing notes given UN Ambassador Susan Rice have now long been attributed to the CIA, the strength of whose presence in Benghazi at the compound and annex surprised many, including the Libyan transitional government (as reported by the New York Times the week of the 21st of September). One might also assume that given the very nature of the situation and the timing of the attack, the administration felt tremendous pressure to say ‘something’, and thus acted on what it believed was the best information available.

Information from the Arabic press (see post on Asharq Al Awsat Oct. 7 piece), and soon-to-be-published interviews with Libyans on the scene strongly suggest that the number of armed attackers is far fewer than previously reported (8-20 vs. ‘hundreds’), that these individuals were not extremely well informed of their targets/ the layout of the complex, and that the Ambassador and compounds’ security was quickly overwhelmed. Given the nature of communications between the various militias, and reports of ‘scaled down’ local protection in advance of the attack, American concerns regarding surveillance of the compound earlier in the day, etc., there would appear to be a strong possibility that Stevens walked into an ambush, and/or that Libyan security had been infiltrated.

The amalgamation of eyewitness reports suggests that the attack could have been foiled with a stronger defense posture [As I have argued elsewhere, the issue of security in ‘transitional’ diplomatic settings is one that has been present for many years, certainly long before Obama’s election, and for which there are responsible parties on both sides of the aisle]. All of this needs to be brought to light via formal investigations and inquiries, not haphazard and horribly irresponsible mud-slinging and second-guessing in the nth hour before a Presidential election.

It may (and will probably) take months if not longer to determine who exactly was behind the September 11 attack in Benghazi– bear in mind that the killers of former Rebel Commander Abdel Fattah Younes in late July, 2011 (also suspected of having “Islamist” links) have still not been identified, much less brought to justice.

One also cannot rule out the possibility that there may have been things going on in Benghazi which, for reasons of national security or other potentially legitimate reason, the administration is not ready to talk about – hence the paucity of information regarding what Ambassador Stevens was actually doing in Benghazi on September 11?

Not An Obama-Romney Issue

The October 10 Congressional hearings on the “Security Failings in Benghazi”, as haphazard and politicized as they they were, added further texture to the relative weight of different parties’ contributions to the success (or lack of failure) of the September 11 Benghazi attacks. Of course, full responsibility rests with the criminals who committed these acts. At the same time, as is clear, US government agencies have a separate responsibility to make sure that attacks, should they happen, do not succeed. The Libyans themselves bear responsibility for what happens to foreigners within their country.

The September 11, 2012 Benghazi attacks and the subsequent recriminations about security resonate with me personally, not only for my physical proximity to them on that day, but because they reminded me of concerns for the safety of the Tripoli-based US diplomatic contingent back in 2004-2006. For close to two years, the mission was not ‘officially’ an embassy, but a Liaison Office, and was equipped commensurately. The acting assumption seemed to be– not wholly without logic– that the Gaddafi security apparatus was so pervasive as to make sure nothing happened to US diplomats. Yet there were many groups acting in Libya who would have been very happy to see the US-Libya rapprochement scuttled, at its most fragile points– foremost among them, the ‘Islamists’ Gaddafi referred to as “dogs and vermin”, as these were the enemies he could not kill, and who came very close to killing him. The risks to US personnel waxed and waned with the fortunes of the evolving US-Libya relationship, as Gaddafi may or may not have had a strong interest in making sure that foreign personnel were safe (or as safe as they could be)– just as the tactical calculations of those who most wished to see Gaddafi gone presumably also changed.

The US outpost in Benghazi, which the media has referred to as a ‘consulate’, but was not, seemed to suffer the same classification problem as did the liaison office. As has been pointed out by many a retired Ambassador, bureaucracies tend to be reactive, not proactive: it often takes an incident to engender a response – which may then be ‘overkill’: After an attack, whether failed or successful, as the history of American posts in Saudi Arabia and Yemen demonstrate, embassies go under lockdown; essential personnel are drawn down, and the remaining officers may spend years behind walls, unable to interact with the local population, before a countervailing assessment allows for a standing down. This, too, is an ineffective response. If Embassy personnel cannot go out and interact with the local community, they might as well be back in Washington reading the papers.

I raise the issue of security in Tripoli c. early 2000s, to suggest that, at least as far as Libya is concerned, security is not strictly a function of what party is in the White House, or how many dollars DOD has at its disposal. One of the reasons Libya never received much attention –in recent memory– is that there were always more pressing, more expensive, more dangerous places. When Libya finally became ‘important’, the security mentality seemed to be stuck back in a different age.

Libya Misinformation

While I personally do not give credence to the narrative that has been woven regarding the Obama administration trying to “cover up” evidence of Al Qaeda’s “resurgence” (or staying power) in the wake of the ‘consulate’ attack- it’s quite stunning the degree to which misinformation has percolated out and upwards. A Few examples:

“Miscues before Libya Assault”, Sept. 21, 2012:

What was quoted:

“Ethan Chorin, an American development economist working with U.S. and Libyan officials on a hospital in Benghazi, said he spoke by phone to Mr. Stevens about an hour before the assault, and the ambassador told him there was “no indication of trouble” following the protests in Egypt. Mr. Chorin said a subsequent conversation he had with the ambassador’s security officer was cut short by what the officer said was a serious problem. Several minutes later, he could hear explosions from his hotel room across town as the assault began.”

What I said:

“I spoke with Amb. Stevens about an hour and a half before the assault, and there was no indication, in that call, of trouble at the consulate at that time. We heard what sounded like RPG fire from the hotel room between 9 and 930 PM local time.”

Perhaps more astounding:

Press reports to the effect that Ambassador Stevens was in Benghazi for the purpose of meeting with a ‘group working on a hospital rehabilitation project’, made it into several mainstream press accounts, and even the President’s UNGA speech. I The Avicenna Group, with which I have been affiliated, had no plan to meet with Ambassador Stevens in Benghazi, prior to our arrival.

“After Libya Fires its Prime Minister, Will the Country Itself Fall Apart?”, October 8, 2012

What was quoted:

“To those who have watched Libya for years, the political turmoil has come as no surprise. Ethan Chorin, a former U.S. diplomat in Tripoli in the mid-2000s, and author of a new book on last year’s revolution entitled Exit the Colonel, says the country’s politicians are riven between those who support the Muslim Brotherhood—whom Abushagur had included in his cabinet—and those who do not, like the former Prime Minister Mahmoud Jibril, who served as Prime Minister last year and whose liberal coalition was excluded from the new government. There are also divisions between the returned exiles, like Abushagur, and those who spent years living under Gaddafi, as both Baja and Jibril did. Abushagur’s status as a U.S. citizen had also become a source of suspicion among many Libyans. “All have become points of contention,” says Chorin. “The Benghazi attack has heightened the pitch of these quarrels.”

What I actually said:

“Recriminations between the major parties regarding who is or is not more sympathetic to the Muslim Brotherhood, the fact that so many of Abushaghur’s two proposed cabinets were not known to the Libyan public, and Abushaghur’s own status as a dual US-Libyan citizen, have all become points of contention. The Benghazi attack has heightened the pitch of these quarrels. ”

The Cost of Security

U.S. State Department officials complain routinely that Congress refuses to allocate sufficient funds which to protect US staff abroad; that the Department is simultaneously asked to provide representation in an increasing number of unstable locations across the Middle East, and elsewhere. While the Benghazi investigation is just underway, anecdotal evidence supports the notion that US diplomatic security posture in the region– even when taking account of the need to strike a balance between “access” and “defense” – is uneven at best. Read a jarring 1999 New York Times piece citing Ambassador Prudence Bushnell, following the Kenya/Tanzania bombings. The tenor of these communications appears to echo those of Amb. Stevens prior to last month’s attack against the US outpost in Benghazi. The irony is that budgetary constraints/money-saving efforts in this area create situations in which the overall goals of the underlying support are compromised, and the effectiveness of monies allocated for other purposes compromised.

Interesting ASAW Interview with Libyan Guards @ Compound

Pan Arab Asharq Al Awsat published an article today, October 7, (summary on front page, continued in paper body), based on interviews with Libyan guards posted to the US Consulate in Benghazi on September 11: ”Guards at Benghazi consulate recount to “Asharq Al Awsat” the circumstances of the attacks” Benghazi, by Abdel Sitaar al Hateita).

Those interviewed say that, while they had been warned (personal cell calls) of suspicious activity near the Tibesti hotel and Abdel Nasser Street about 90 minutes before the attack, there was no sign of a protest in the vicinity of the consulate before the attack; that consulate staff had requested additional security (cars and additional guards) earlier in the day, but that that request had been cancelled for ‘unknown reasons’; that a police vehicle outside the consulate proper left in a hurry just before the attack. One of the guards claims there were eight assailants, of which four appeared to be leading the assault; that there appeared to be some initial confusion among the group as to where they were headed.

One of the guards was wounded in a skirmish, another was asked by the assailants why they were on the compound. He said they (the guards) tried to stall the attackers, hoping that reinforcements would arrive before the attackers could penetrate the building. He said they called allied militias for help before the main assault, but that there was no response.

Rough translation of the article: PART I

Asharq Al Awsat received details about what happened during the attacks against the American consulate in Benghazi last September 11, killing the American Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. The guard told ASAW that (he and his colleagues) had spoken with the perpetrators of the attacks, and they said in information published for the first time that the consulate requested on the morning of the attack 10 security cars and 25 guards from the unit on which they relied to guard the compound, and this unit belonged to the February 17th Brigade, which itself watched over the Islamic extremists in Benghazi, then cancelled the order for unknown reasons.

And according to the guards’ accounts, there were 8 main attackers (their faces covered), bearing RPGs, and some of the weaponry was machine guns and pistols and a large number of hand grenades, and with them were about 50 persons most of them unarmed. Four of the eight appeared to be the ‘important leaders’ of the group, and some of them were wearing ‘jalabib’ and pakistani clothes, and one of them “short and nervous/angry” spoke with a Benghazi accent and appeared to be the leader of the group. On the day of the attack there were only 4 (Libyan guards), the Libyans upon whom the consulate depended for internal (understood to be within the walls) protection, while there was a police car that was outside– but it left in a hurry just before the attack. The four guards, all from Benghazi, belonged to the February 17th Brigade, which was formed in Benghazi at the beginning of the revolution. Some of them served in security positions during Gaddafi’s era, among them “Ali”, who spoke with some of the attackers– (Ali had received light training for 6 months during the previous regime). At the beginning of the Libyan revolution last year, Ali received additional training from the police and army and training groups from Qatar, in Benghazi. And since the killing of Al Jazeera cameraman Hassan Al Jaber, last year, there had been the formation of a special security group called “the Special Protection Unit”, which led to the development of another unit specializing in the protection of important persons. The US consulate requested assistance from this group in March of 2012.

“Ali”, 33 years old, was one of several small groups of individuals (between 5 and 7 to a group) at the consulate in security “as the Americans practiced it”– he was one of several assigned to this task, which included at alternate times assisting with the protection of American diplomats coming to and from the Benghazi airport– including US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice.

According to eyewitnesses among the guards whom ASAW was able to interview, the Libyan guards were initially concentrated on the inside of the compound and at the main gate. About a month later, the consulate requested there be guards moving around the compound, driving around at times in cars. but this did not continue. And after that, the first attack on the compound occurred in June. After that attack, which did not cause any casualties, new cameras were installed, and lights– before the June attack there were 8 cameras, and after that there were 15.

The June 6 attack involved the placing by unknown persons of a bomb at the North gate of the consulate, and the bomb exploded when the gate was opened. One of the guards said that incident heightened the profile of the consulate (many more people knew where it was, compared to before, when ‘very few’ did). Following this, Ali and his colleagues in the “special protection unit” requested from the consulate the provision of important additional defensive materials, including smoke bombs, and more guns and pistols and bullet magazines. They also requested from the consulate the provision of a car for ‘driving surveillance/protection’ as before they had been using their own cars to protect the consulate from outside. They also requested night and day binoculars/surveillance gear. They say they wanted this equipment to assure rapid response and communication in case of an attack.

One of the four guards who spoke with ASAW in a recorded interview said that the consulate “did not provide to us the guns and ammunition or weapons which we requested. and did not provide us head gear.” indicated that the request for the latter came after bullets fell on the consulate fired during a wedding held in one of the neighboring houses on Venicia Street.

(Additional pages)

Compare some of these details of the Oct. 7 ASAW interview with those in this well-written interview by TIME contributor Steven Sotloff, with some of the same individuals (Oct 21) :