Sunday, December 29, 2013

Thoughts on Benghazi

In which I expose myself as being neither Republican nor Democrat

I participate in a political forum in which there's been some recent discussion of the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya on the evening of September 11th, 2012. The discussion revolves around two news articles. First up is this report by David D. Kirkpatrick of the New York Times, which they style as an "investigation":

It's in six parts, so be sure to read the whole thing. The second is this report by Catherine Herridge for FoxNews:

In Herridge's story, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Mich.tells FoxNews the following: 
"I will tell you this, by witness testimony and a year and a half of interviewing everyone that was in the ground by the way, either by an FBI investigator or the committee: It was very clear to the individuals on the ground that this was an Al Qaeda-led event. And they had pretty fairly descriptive events early on that lead those folks on the ground, doing the fighting, to the conclusion that this was a pre-planned, organized terrorist event,"
Rogers goes on to stress that it was not caused by the video, "The Innocence of Muslims" ("the video") as was broadly proclaimed by spokesmen for the White House shortly after the attack.
Before I go farther, I need to point out that any discussion here or by... well, just about anybody... amounts to arm-chair quarterbacking. I doubt that anyone is in full possession of all the facts; or even that all of the facts in anyone's possession are accurate. In other words, all parties have incomplete, inaccurate views of the events, which is why we have investigations. It's also why I refer to the NY Time's "investigation" in quotes.
It strikes me that each side is sniping past the other, in different scopes and contexts, and offering "evidence" that does not refute the other.

Bird's-eye view of the US Consulate in Benghazi
The grounds were attacked from the North (top)
For instance, Rogers puts a great deal of emphasis on what the people "on the ground" knew. Well, if you've ever been "on the ground" you know that this is a fine place to collect tiny details of extremely limited scope, and the worst place possible to look at broad strategic actions and causes. "On the ground" you know who arrived and who shot at you, but you don't know anything about what motivated them to move in your direction. This is why generals don't lead battles... being "on the ground" would leave him largely uninformed about the things he really needs to know. And honestly, that's how Rogers comes across to me... as someone who is "largely uninformed". As a Congressman, that may have less to do with the information that's available to him, and more to do with his focus.

On the other hand, Kirkpatrick's article relies heavily on anecdotes told by militant Islamists... people who (not to put it too delicately) are prone to lie. I'm not saying this in a pejorative sense. It's just that in their culture lying is an acceptable thing. It is a form of strategy, one that they would claim is practiced by God himself. According to the Qur'an, for instance, Jesus did not die on the cross, but was replaced by a lookalike. Muslims see this as a clever stratagem devised by Allah. In Kirkpatrick's report, people known to have had a hand in the attack simply deny involvement or explain it away. For instance, Abu Khattala says he only stopped by the mission that night to break up a traffic jam, and then came back to rescue a Libyan guard he had "heard" was trapped inside. What a humanitarian! But not exactly a credible source. Both the reported events and the reported motives are to some degree questionable unless corroborated by multiple independent sources.

Thus, both views of the events are met with derision by the other side.

It's my long-held and oft-repeated position that no one gets into politics because of a desire to do evil. Every politician, no matter what his party or philosophy, thinks he's serving the greater good. However, there is no end to the evil that these "good people" will do because they think it's not true of "the other guy". They will lie, cheat, obfuscate, steal, and basically commit or at least allow all seven of the Deadly Sins in the name of "winning". Unfortunately, it also means that every datum and every argument immediately passes through an ideological filter. They wouldn't know unbiased information if it shot them in the face. This is true of Republicans and Democrats, Muslims and Americans.

Overall, though, Kirkpatrick's article strikes me as a reasonable account of the events it describes. It's the events that it describes that are lacking in depth. It leads us through events and dances around causes while superficially seeming to address them.
  • It describes that Libyans knew about the video and some were motivated by it, but that this was not the prime motivation of the attack. This jibes with both the State Department account and the "on the ground" reports of witnesses. 
  • It describes that the attack against the consulate was pre-meditated, with improvisation; but that the attack against the CIA Annex was purely improvised. Again, this jibes with both accounts.
  • It notes the fact that the US Consulate remained staffed, while leaving us puzzled as to why, in the face of clear security threats known to the Ambassador and his staff.
  • It states that this was not an Al-Qaeda-led effort, and describes some communications between participants and external Al-Qaeda members. Again, this is compatible with both accounts, but I'm going to have to take a moment explain that.
When Rep. Rogers tells FoxNews that there are "ties" between the attackers and Al-Qaeda, he fails to define that term, "ties". No one ever adequately explains that term. If they could, then they'd use any term but that instead. In linguistic terms, "ties" means absolutely nothing. In political terms, it only means that you want listeners to associate your target's name with another name that they know to be bad. "Ties" is shorthand for "we can't prove jack shit, but we're going to say it anyway". 
"Ties" is a form of "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon". Here's how it works: You are reading this. Therefore you are "known to frequent the website" of Dave Leigh, who is a casual friend of a man who contacted Kevin Bacon's publicist to have Kevin record a short greeting for one of my friend's friends' wedding. Kevin having responded and send the requested recording, my friend's "Bacon number" is ONE, mine is TWO, and now yours is THREE. You therefore have "close ties to Kevin Bacon" in CIA-speak, despite not having shit to do with the actor. The thing is... you can play "Six Degrees of Separation" between any two people on Earth, and I'd lay money that you have Al-Qaeda "ties" without my even knowing who you are.
That's a very different thing from "this group took orders from Al-Qaeda commander so-and-so". When you have a substantive link, you say it. "Bashir bought guns from Rashid", etc. You don't fart around with "ties". Remember, the militant Islamists have a penchant for lying, but it runs to braggadocio: that's what tore down Saddam Hussein. Al-Qaeda likes to take credit even for things they didn't do, such as the Boston Marathon bombing. But they didn't take credit in Benghazi, even though it would have been advantageous to them. 

So while the "links" to Al-Qaeda may exist, as corroborated by the Kirkpatrick pieces, those ties aren't substantive. I think there's a long, bumpy road from that to the conclusion that Al-Qaeda led the attack. Inspired? Could be, but there have been plenty of terrorists besides Al-Qaeda. To show that it was coordinated, masterminded... led... by Al-Qaeda you'll have to do a lot better than some weak-ass "ties"... especially when the best suspects you have are an errand boy and a former bodyguard. There's plenty of "credit" to be shared among the sometimes-competing, sometimes-cooperating local militia in Benghazi.

Bigger Questions

Everyone remembers part of this quote:

The part they remember is the infamous, "What difference at this point does it make?"  The part they don't is what follows: "It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again."  Clinton closes with the right words, though I'd say her lead-in scores a solid 10 on the "suck-o-meter" scale. Her follow-up doesn't score a thing for effectiveness. We're still out there, looking for answers.

At the end of the day, it's not important whether the attackers were led by Al-Qaeda. That doesn't lessen the attack or detract from the fact that we had clear warning signs in advance. The American failure at Benghazi doesn't hinge on Al-Qaeda at all. I have other questions, and frankly, my questions are more bothersome to me than most of the conspiracies floated by the Right. 
  1. Why didn't the Americans pull out when everybody else did? They had notice. This is unquestionable, and demonstrated by the fact that everybody else pulled out. Ambassador Stevens' journal records that they were in a "security vacuum" As reported by Kirkpatrick, the journal continues, "Militias are power on the ground,” he wrote.“Dicey conditions, including car bombs, attacks on consulate.” And there was more: “Islamist ‘hit list’ in Benghazi. Me targeted on a prominent website (no more off compound jogging).” So why were we still there? And why was our security so obviously not commensurate with the threat? Who was responsible for that?
  2. Were the RPGs and other weapons used in the attack those that were provided by the Americans in the arms deals that Ambassador Stevens was reportedly there to administer? This isn't the first mis-managed gun-running campaign of the Obama administration... Whose baby was this? Does this arms program have anything to do with the failure to pull out? Stevens met with Turkish Consul General Ali Sait Akin the night of the attack. Was this topic on the agenda? Why didn't Akin call and warn the US Consulate when he left? He had to have passed the militia blockades.
  3. Why did the Administration give the public the simplistic scapegoat of a spontaneous protest against the video when they had prior knowledge of other, more organized security threats in addition to that single excuse?
  4. “Why is the United States always trying to use force to implement its agendas?” This is a quote from the militant Islamist Abu Khattala, but it is nevertheless a valid question. Khattala's question goes to the heart of causes for such action against Americans. This leads to another philosophical question, which is, "why does our Administration consider it right to arm the citizenry of other countries in defense of their freedoms, but consider it wrong to do the same for the citizens of the United States of America?" This is tangential to the main issues of Benghazi, but it illustrates the reason our founders listed the bearing of arms as a right. Our two-faced approach to this topic labels our leaders as hypocrites on the world stage.
  5. Bright and early on September 12, President Obama loftily proclaimed, “We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act, and make no mistake, justice will be done.” Where is Justice? What exactly does it mean in Obama's usage? And what does it mean to the American people and our credibility in the world when we issue resolutions having the substance of vapor?
These are the most important questions on the table, yet none of them are addressed by the Kirkpatrick's piece in the New York Times. Even though many on the Right are barking up the wrong trees, there are still a lot of valid issues. If you're a Leftist, and you're looking for some "ah-hah!" ammunition to refute those concerns, Kirkpatrick's piece isn't going to do the job.


A friend points out the theory that military support was on its way and turned back. I'm addressing that here because it's clearly very important to him. I'm going to let you read Rush Limbaugh to get the full story on that one. Here's a more concise report from FoxNews. In a nutshell: Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were reportedly on the roof of the CIA Annex in the early morning of September 12th, laser targeting a mortar installation that eventually fired the mortar shell that killed them. The theory is that the SEALs were "painting" a target with the expectation that a missile or gunship would take them out. Therefore, the SEALs must have been told that help was on the way. And they wouldn't have been told that if it weren't actually on the way, so what happened to that help? Who turned it back?

I wonder about it, too, but I didn't list that among my concerns, and I still don't, for the following reasons. The military denies that a gunship was on its way, and that there were no AC-130 gunships there at Sigonella at the time. I was in the USAF. I was on duty at RAF Croughton, communications satellite base to RAF Upper Heyford, during the North Libyan bombing campaign against Qaddafi in 1986. I know how fast planes are, and the denial of the military is credible on the basis of time in the air from the nearest alternate bases. Given that the SEALs were repeatedly told to "stand down", it's unlikely that such assistance was dispatched. Were lasers in use, there is an alternate explanation by the Washington Post's David Ignatius. He claims that the laser sights had been trained on various attackers as a warning not to fire. Basically, "you're in our sights and we want you to know it". That again is credible, as lasers are commonly used in this fashion in movies and on TV, so it would be a clearly understandable signal, and to my mind more likely than "painting a target" when not in direct contact with a controller via radio.

So I don't list this in my open concerns because it is far too easy to list alternate explanations and because the theory itself requires assets that are not shown to have existed. I have a hard enough time arguing the facts that I have... I can't argue the facts that I don't have. The security concerns that I did list would have prevented the situation from occurring in the first place, and did prevent it for our allies who wisely evacuated, so I consider that to be of primary importance.

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