Repercussions continue to flow from the tragedy that led to the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three of his colleagues at the Benghazi consulate on September 11, 2012. There are wider implications to this sorry episode that go well beyond the Washington Beltway.
An independent inquiry, headed by retired ambassador Tom Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen, former chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, delivered a scathing assessment before Christmas citing a “systemic failure of leadership” and “grossly inadequate security arrangements” as being among the main contributing factors. One of the bedrock recommendations was that, in future, the system should “get key information into the right hands more rapidly.”
The panel stopped slightly short of naming names but fixed the blame squarely on the assistant secretary level at the U.S. Department of State, “where the rubber hits the road.” Four senior State officials in the immediate chain of command for embassy security, including the assistant secretary, were promptly sacked, suspended or re-assigned, depending on which version one reads.
The classified portion of the report, including five separate recommendations, described in greater detail intelligence failures and the inadequate manner in which information had been shared. According to Mullen, “we found that there was no immediate tactical warning of the attack but that there was a knowlege gap in the intelligence community’s understanding of extremist militants in Libya and the potential threat they posed to U.S. interests.”
At a recent press conference, President Barack Obama slammed “State Department sloppiness” for the flawed security response.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had remained carefully above the fray for some time, adroitly scrambled with a lengthy and diplomatic letter to Congress endorsing all 29 of the panel’s recommendations for the future and acknowledging full “responsibility” for the incident.
In a Westminster parliamentary system like our own, she might have been obliged to follow a more drastic precedent but — as she is stepping down soon in any event and may have presidential ambitions of her own for 2016 — personal damage control is undoubtedly her overriding preoccupation.
Implementation of the recommendations will fall to her designated replacement, John Kerry.
Scapegoats are one thing but, regretably, we still know very little about who actually perpetrated the attack and what is being done to apprehend and hold accountable those involved. Those investigations presumably are ongoing.
The Benghazi fiasco has already claimed one political victim. Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., was saddled with the thankless chore of explaining publicly the initial “intelligence” lamely suggesting that the attack had been prompted by a silly video and not by terrorists — a task neatly side-stepped by more senior government officials, including Clinton, Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and then-CIA director David Petraeus. Rice withdrew her candidacy for State last month.
While the president stoutly defended Rice’s credentials for the job in his post-election press conference and countered Republican skeptics, White House support for her nomination faded somewhat in the following weeks, perhaps as the panel uncovered new details about the actual cause of the attack.
During the election campaign, Obama stared down the first explanations of the Benghazi attack and Governor Mitt Romney’s efforts to make it an issue sputtered ineffectually. Republicans in Congress are still smarting; sensing blood in the wake of the panel report, they can be expected to focus persistently on who was responsible.
Democrats understandably are more anxious to change the channel and concentrate on efforts that would prevent further attacks — such as relying less on local militias and more on U.S. Marines for embassy security.
On that score, the Americans might also take a leaf from the playbook of their British cousins. According to London press reports, instead of using questionable local militias for the sensitive task of protecting their diplomats in Libya, the British employ a Canadian-owned firm, GardaWorld (full disclosure — Derek Burney is chair of GardaWorld’s international advisory board). Its team not only successfully thwarted a lethal attack on the British ambassador to Libya last June — at some cost to their own personnel — but also prudently ordered British diplomats to avoid Benghazi on September 11.
Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20 — but the Americans do not really need more examples of “security intelligence” proving to be a classic oxymoron.