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May 14 2013

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Benghazi Revisited

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 A bit of crisis management advice for the White House. If you are trying to make a story go away, it is best to ensure that the President doesn’t continue to make fresh news on the issue.

Whatever the intention – or the hubris – that governed President Obama’s response to a question yesterday on the 9-11-12 attack on the US diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya, POTUS failed horribly in sticking to basic crisis communications rules. Indeed, the President’s answer is sure to raise more questions – and eyebrows – in the coming days, as it appears the White House is doubling down on data that has already been proven false.

Below is the exchange with POTUS, and a parsing of the President’s response in light of the facts as known today.

Question: Do you think the White House misled the public about its role in shaping the talking points (on the Benghazi attack)? And do you stand by your administration’s assertions that the talking points were not purposely changed to downplay the prospect of terrorism?

President Obama: “The day after it happened, I acknowledged that this was an act of terrorism.”

FALSE.

Ironically, according the Washington Post’s “fact checker,” Glenn Kessler, yesterday was the first time that President Obama publicly labeled the attack on Benghazi “an act of terrorism,” despite his protestations to the contrary.

What the President did do in his public statements after Benghazi – quite carefully – was to separate the attack from a broad statement of national policy. So, in the Rose Garden on September 12th, POTUS spoke of the victims of the attack, and then pivoted away from Benghazi to make a generic statement of national commitment, “ “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

POTUS continued this slight-of-hand approach twice more in campaign events in Colorado and Nevada on September 13th.

But in a key segment of an interview President Obama conducted with 60 Minutes on September 12th – a segment that 60 Minutes cut and did not make available to the public until 48 hours before the election – Steve Kroft asks POTUS, “Do you believe that this (attack on Benghazi) was a terrorist attack?” Given a straight forward opportunity to answer a direct question, Obama ducked. “Well it’s too early to know exactly how this came about, what group was involved…”

And the 60 Minutes interview was no fluke. When POTUS was asked whether the Benghazi episode was a terrorist attack at a Univision town hall meeting on September 20th, and an appearance on “The View” on September 25th, the President refused to call the incident an act of terrorism. Indeed, in both instances POTUS referred to the discredited canard that protests and mob action were the foundation of the attack, purported caused by an obscure, anti-Muslim video on YouTube.

President Obama: “What we have been very clear throughout was that immediately after this event happened, we were not clear who exactly had carried it out, how it occurred, what the motivations were.”

FALSE.

The State Department Operations Center sent out two alerts for circulation inside the government on the day of the attack on Benghazi. An alert at 4:05pm (EST) that an attack was in progress, and at 6:08pm, stating that Ansar al Sharia, the al Qaeda affiliate group, was responsible.

Little commented on, President Obama’s official schedule for 9-11-12 had POTUS meeting at the White House with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Vice President Biden at 5:00pm EST. This meeting was ten minutes after his return from Walter Reed Medical Center – part of the September 11th observance. This was 55 minutes after the first alert, and 52 minutes before the second.

It strains credulity to believe that the President would not have known about the attack, its origins or nature, based on the timing and participation in that meeting. But if that wasn’t enough for the President, the CIA station chief in Libya provided an assessment on 9-12 that the Benghazi attack had been a terrorist attack involving Islamic militants.

President Obama: There’s no ‘there’ there. Keep in mind…these so called talking points were prepared for Susan Rice, five, six days after the event occurred pretty much matched the assessments that I was receiving at the time in my presidential daily briefing.”

WHOA!

Now that’s interesting. Indeed, it’s almost Clintonesque.

Of course, the question arises; which version of the talking points is the President referring to? There are 12 known versions.

The original CIA version – the most honest and accurate –  stated that the US government knew that militants associated with al Qaeda participated in the attack, and that further, US facilities in Benghazi had been under jihadist surveillance. The final version – watered down to near uselessness according to then CIA Director David Petraeus – had none of this information.

By seeming to merge Susan Rice’s final points with his own presidential intelligence briefing, POTUS makes it seem as if there was only one version of the points, and only one understood set of facts for public release. That is simply not true. He cannot have it both ways.

President Obama: “I sent up the head of our National Counter Terrorism Center, Matt Olsen, up to Capitol Hill and specifically said it was an act of terrorism and that extremist elements inside of Libya had been involved in it. So if this was some effort on our part to try to downplay what had happened or tamp it down, that would be a pretty odd thing that three days later we end up putting out all the information…Who executes some sort of cover-p or effort to tamp things down for three days? So the whole thing defies logic.”

FALSE.

The only thing that defies logic is President Obama’s rationale.

The National Counter Terrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen did testify before the Senate, and he did state that attack on Benghazi was a terrorist attack.

But Mr. Olsen did that on September 19th. That was two days after Susan Rice did the Sunday shows, blaming the protests for the attack.

And if the President is stating that Mr. Olsen’s testimony as the Administration’s final word on Benghazi, then why did the President himself refuse to follow his lead and use the same characterizations in his own public answers on September 20th and 25th?

POTUS should know the first rule of being in a hole is to stop digging.

President Obama: “And the fact that this keeps on getting churned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations. We’ve had folks who have challenged Hillary Clinton’s integrity, Susan Rice’s integrity, Mike Mullen and Tom Pickering’s integrity. It’s a given that mine gets challenged by these same folks.”

LAUGHABLE and SAD.

On pre-attack security, as Eric Nordstrom, the Regional Security Officer (RSO) for Libya testified last week, Benghazi had none of the security standards or protocols in place as required by statute. According to the GAO, Benghazi and Tripoli were the only two US diplomatic missions that met none of the criteria for overseas security. Only the Secretary of State has the power to waive the security standards established for diplomatic missions under the Secure Embassy Construction and Counter Terrorism Act of 1999 (SECCA).

Where was Mrs. Clinton on this?

As the Benghazi talking points were being vetted inter-agency, it was Victoria Nuland, Mrs. Clinton’s communications advisor, who complained in an email that the draft would open up the State Department to criticism that it did not pay attention to CIA warnings, which was obviously true. After CIA made edits, Ms. Nuland said that “leadership” at State was still unhappy, and that State would appeal directly to the NSC for help.

It isn’t Mrs. Clinton’s integrity that is under review, it is her competence.

As for Ms. Rice, there is no evidence that she did any of her own due diligence before using the talking points on five Sunday talk shows, though as the top US diplomat at the UN, one would think that she had access to at least as much information as the State Department did. Indeed, in laying out the bogus charge that the attack was the result of a protest, Rice exceeded even what the talking points said.

The final, white-washed talking points stated, “We believe based on current information that the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by protests at US Embassy Cairo and evolved into a direct assault.” Note the wording. Not that there were actual protests in Libya, but that the attacks were “inspired” by protests in Cairo, that evolved into an attack.

But speaking on the talk shows, Ms. Rice expanded this narrative even further to include an actual demonstration by Libyans that was the direct result of the aforementioned anti-Islam video. This version of events was pure fiction.

It is not Ms. Rice’s integrity that is under review, it is her competence.

As for Mike Mullen and Tom Pickering, no one is questioning their integrity.

However, the Accountability Review Board that they were selected to chair did not take testimony from key officials at the staff level of the State Department involved with managing the attack and its aftermath. Nor did the panel interview anyone above the Assistant Secretary level, including – shockingly – Mrs. Clinton.

Even the finest minds of the most distinguished public servants will submit an incomplete work product if they are unable to access all available information. As a result, eight months after the attacks, the White House and Administration still cannot get their stories straight on Benghazi.

But to the President’s point, what was the cover-up?

It involves three dates; September 6, 2012, November 6, 2012 and November 8, 2016.

On September 6th, President Obama accepted the Democratic nomination in Charlotte. In his speech, he spoke triumphantly about Osama bin Laden’s death and al Qaeda being on the “road to defeat.” Indeed, POTUS had also specifically mentioned Libya as an accomplishment of his Administration in his acceptance speech.

That triumphalism came back to bite him only five days later. Al Qaeda had effectively showed Obama to be either incompetent or a fool.

First Ambassador killed since 1979? Americans remember who was president the last time that happened and the Administration needed no comparisons. A successful terrorist attack on the anniversary of the grand dame of terrorist attacks for the US? If there were one day where Americans overseas should be prepared, wouldn’t it be 9-11? In light of the 9-11 anniversary, one might think that the companion unrest in Cairo might lead to a general strengthening of US compounds in the region, as a gesture of simple prudence.

But it appears that none of this precautionary thinking was at work. Indeed, the Administration had been playing fast and loose with security in Libya to begin with, relying on local Libyan militias to plug the gaps in security to enable the US to keep a “light” footprint, in expressed contravention of the laws established to ensure diplomatic security. Add in that the CIA was aware of jihadist monitoring of US facilities in Libya and you have all the ingredients for a full-blown scandal involving epic national security incompetence, eight weeks before a general election.

That simply wasn’t going to be allowed to happen.

So the American public and Republicans were slow-rolled and stonewalled. It only mattered for eight weeks after all.

Thus a pre-planned terrorist attack by dozens of jihadists, ending in the  murder of four American diplomats in poorly guarded US facilities – which the CIA knew to be under enemy surveillance –  became a protest that went bad. US personnel in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And it is worth pointing out here that the rationale for not sending in military reinforcements is as strained as the narrative about a demonstration. Testifying before Congress on February 7, 2013, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said, “The bottom line is this. That we were not dealing with a prolonged or continuous assault which could have been brought to an end by a US military response.”

How on earth could Panetta or anyone in the Administration know that?

Wasn’t it at least equally valid that US personnel in transit to safety from Benghazi could still be in jeopardy? That Tripoli might be at risk?

What? Did Ansar al Sharia cable the State Department that their intentions were to attack Benghazi only? Was that cable received and acted on? At a minimum, wouldn’t prudence dictate a US show of force in the area to ward off would be attackers, and sensibly preposition forces closer to Libya should there be more attacks? What about securing the consulate and annex to preserve evidence for the FBI investigation?

Could we not spare a drone?

There is only one logical reason not to make a show of force; such a move would confirm the terrorist narrative and not that of a protest-gone-bad. Moreover, any additional US military moves in Libya would only serve to amplify the story of the attack.

Risks on the ground aside, no response was the best political response, though it meant that it would be nearly two weeks before the FBI could actually get to the consulate facility – a point in time so far from the actual attack that little forensic evidence remained – not that this setback was at odds with political necessity.

But not even the White House political svengalis could have executed this strategy without help. They needed Mrs. Clinton on board as well. And through an alignment of self-interest the former Secretary was only too happy to oblige.

More than POTUS, Mrs. Clinton’s finger prints were all over facility security in the year before the attack. Remember that when Ms. Nuland was contesting the original CIA talking points, she said that the document would open up the State Department for criticism from Congress for not paying attention to CIA warnings.

You can easily substitute “Clinton” for “State.” The negligence and incompetence of Benghazi had the power to do what only Obama himself had been able to do – keep Mrs. Clinton from the Democratic nomination.

And so an Obama-Clinton partnership of protection on Benghazi was sealed – to enable Obama to be victorious in 2012, the for Clinton’s path to be clear in 2016.

It was also astonishingly regrettable.

It is both an axiom and cliché in DC that the cover-up is always worse than the deed. But Administration after Administration falls into the same trap, doing anything to avert one set of anticipated outcomes, and as a consequence, triggering another.

Both the President and Mrs. Clinton have said that they take responsibility for what happened in Benghazi, but that’s not really accurate. Where are the consequences? It used to be an axiom that if you failed or screwed up, the admission and apology was tied to a resignation. Now, it appears that taking responsibility is no more than a media exercise of public penance, while underlings are thrown under the bus.  If the Administration had truly taken responsibility, the truth that they knew on 9-11-12 would have been public right away.

But it didn’t.

Now, the President, his Administration and Mrs. Clinton are left to fight the emerging narrative that they intentionally manipulated government actions and reporting to keep their day jobs and reputations intact; at the expense of those four men killed and to the US reputational and national interest.

That is a far harder charge to beat.

In testimony before the Senate in January, a petulant and exasperated Secretary Clinton said of the investigation into the Benghazi attack, “What difference, at this point, does it make?”

All the difference in the world Mrs. Clinton.

All the difference in the world.

 

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