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Opinion

Opinion

Opinion: Benghazi report offers warning

December 23, 2012

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— Buried in the scathing critique of the State Department’s performance during the attack on its consulate in Benghazi is a description of what may become the “new normal” in hot spots abroad — where U.S. diplomats cannot rely on local security and must consider “when to leave and perform the mission from a distance.”

The Accountability Review Board’s report talks about augmenting U.S. diplomatic security and maintaining America’s presence around the globe. But realistically, given the fact that the report triggered the removal of four top State Department officials, it’s likely to reinforce the caution that’s already evident in U.S. operations overseas. In a chaotic world, U.S. diplomats will probably have even less contact with the people they need to reach.

This risk aversion is partly a result of a Washington culture (media included) that treats every mistake as a scandal. In the Benghazi case, the uproar was led by Republicans who saw a pre-election opportunity to bash the Obama administration. The implication was that it was President Obama’s fault that four Americans had died in a dangerous place. Election Day has come and gone, but the report’s recommendations for mitigating risk will live on.

Big mistakes were made in Benghazi, and people should be held accountable. But the brave officers who staff American posts in crisis zones know how dangerous the work is. They already chafe at rules that prevent them from leaving protected compounds without elaborate security, and those strictures will only grow more severe. Journalists couldn’t do their jobs overseas without taking risks, and the same is true for diplomats and intelligence officers.

The report correctly warns against “an unacceptable total fortress and stay-at-home approach to U.S. diplomacy.” But I fear its finger-pointing will reinforce Washington’s zero-defect mindset and produce precisely that outcome.

The passages that caught my eye were the recommendations on security. The State Department must move “beyond traditional reliance on host government security support in high risk, high threat posts,” the report argues. Specifically, the department should “urgently review the proper balance between acceptable risks and expected outcomes in high risk, high threat areas.” The “acceptable” threat tolerance may become close to zero.

The report suggests several ways to assess vulnerability, but one is crucial: Officials should pay “constant attention to changes in the situation, including when to leave and perform the mission from a distance.” In the future, an official will be risking career suicide (not to mention the possible loss of colleagues’ lives) if he or she doesn’t pull the plug when threats arise.

The Benghazi situation was horrifying. Because Libya had no effective police or army, the State Department was relying chiefly on what the report describes as the “armed but poorly skilled” members of a local militia called the February 17 Martyrs’ Brigade. But the report notes that on the day of Ambassador Chris Stevens’ fatal visit, “February 17 militia members had stopped accompanying (consulate) vehicle movements in protest over salary and working hours.”

The militia fighters were worse than useless: They didn’t try to stop the attack on the consulate and they didn’t answer the CIA base chief’s pleas a few minutes later for backup machine guns.

Here’s the problem the report doesn’t state, but is crucial for the future: In too many parts of the world, the U.S. relies as it did in Benghazi on forces that are tribal militias or little better. To take two examples I’ve seen personally: For years, Lebanese militias provided the only real protection for U.S. diplomats in both Christian and Muslim areas of Beirut. In Afghanistan, tribal militias and local warlords have long protected U.S. supply convoys. In many countries where the official security forces are weak, the U.S. works with private security organizations that are a mix of locals and Blackwater-style American or European contractors.

The report highlights a final aspect of the new normal: The al-Qaida terrorist threat is “fragmenting” and morphing. The model now isn’t mega-attacks against the homeland, as happened on Sept. 11, 2001, but what the report calls a “growing, diffuse range” of local operatives who hit American targets wherever they have a chance, as on Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi.

Looking back at the 9/11 attacks, I think many Americans understand now the danger of an overreaction that undermines U.S. values and interests. The same is true of the Benghazi attack. The surest way to empower the new terrorist gangs would be to withdraw from U.S. diplomatic missions.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

Comments

Ray Parker 1 year, 3 months ago

During his opening statement at a State Department briefing, Ambassador Thomas Pickering, who chaired the Accountability Review Board, said the terrorist attacks occurred over a span of almost eight hours, in a series of attacks in multiple locations by unknown assailants that ebbed and flowed. Shortly thereafter, retired Admiral Michael Mullen, the vice chairman of the ARB, put the Benghazi terror event in a very different time frame. He said it lasted only about 20 or 30 minutes, attempting to limit the attacks to only the initial attack at the Benghazi Special Mission compound, in explanation of why military defense and rescue were ordered to stand down from offering any protection to any Americans in Benghazi. (Which begs the question, “Who in the U.S. military and federal government wanted all the Americans in Benghazi dead?”) However, a CIA timeline of the Sept. 11 events, which was provided by a senior U.S. intelligence official, and which generally comports with the description of events in the ARB’s own report, shows that about one hour and fifty minutes elapsed between the time the State Department’s “Special Mission” compound first came under attack and the moment when a rescue team from the nearby CIA “Annex” was able to extract the surviving U.S. personnel from that mission. But neither was that the end of terrorist attacks on Americans in Benghazi that night. The CIA annex was also under fire for about 2 hours and 20 minutes after the first attack started at the Special Mission, and the State Department security personnel rescued from the mission and fleeing to the CIA annex seeking safety and medical treatment for the wounded, without finding Ambassador Stevens, were also attacked. Another attack on the CIA annex commenced about 6 hours and 20 minutes after the first attack started at the Special Mission. Former Navy Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, who violated their orders to provide the real defense against the terrorist attacks, were finally killed by terrorist mortars fired on the Annex - 7 hours and 30 minutes after the initial attack started - and just at the time that a 7-man rescue team, including 2 U.S. military personnel, arrived on a private plane chartered by the Tripoli Embassy - the only apparent way to get any military help to Benghazi that night. “There simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference," Pickering and Mullen's accountability report concluded, although there was ample time during the attacks for a round-trip commercial flight from London to Libya, let alone military air support from our Mediterranean warships or from our bases in Italy or Germany. This farce of an Accountability Review Board is a whitewash, a lie, a cover-up, and another attempt to sucker and distract Americans in hopes they will not find out about the gun running or whatever it is that is being hidden in Benghazi.

Cost of cover-up

Cost of cover-up by parkay

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disappointed_regressive 1 year, 3 months ago

Lo-info voters (apparently more than 50 % of the pop.) see Obama as a "regular guy"---a DC "outsider" who is out to change the way things are done. They see him as a person who is just human and can make mistakes just like anyone else. They don't consider leadership qualities, or if they do, they're thinking of Obama's soaring, teleprompted rhetoric--and I admit, it's good! They were never informed of who this guy really is. So, as long as we have this dynamic in place, the Benghazis, the Fast & Furiouses, the ongoing and growing mess in the mid-east, the sustained high unemployment, the lousy GDP, the lousy housing market, the stagnating economy, the ballooning debt and all of Obama's other miserable displays of leadership do not mean anything to the lo-info voter. They think nothing of it, simply put. Meanwhile, the Fed is doubling down on monetizing the debt. These people in power now believe to their core that government is the answer, and government is the driving force of everything---not we the people. We the people are screwed, simply stated.

How's that analysis? Like?

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disappointed_regressive 1 year, 3 months ago

How will Obama frame "the failed policies of the previous administration" now? When unemployment spikes around 9 +++ by 2013 Q1 or Q2 ending?

Like Pal said, and Obama's adoring media is OK with and actively promoting: a "new normal".

Normal to whom? "Low information" folks? I s'pose.

Fundamental Transformation here and is fluid now; embrace it, get used to it, learn to like it.

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WristTwister 1 year, 3 months ago

We have heard absolutely nothing from either Hillary or Bo on this. The last we heard from them, they were still blaming this on the internet film. Why does the MSM allow this administration to get away with so many major gaffes?

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Liberty275 1 year, 3 months ago

"What do you expect to get from a pot smoker from Hawaii?"

Pineapple Kush.

Regarding Benghazi, All of our diplomats should be protected by a detachment of marines. Two or two thousand depending on the situation.

Also, our forces in the area should have responded, and Susan Rice should not have bald-faced lied to America.

Obama is probably still trying to think of a way he can Blame the death of the Ambassador and those accompanying him on Bush.

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