Senate committee: Real Benghazi scandal was not the talking points

One reason “Captain Phillips” was such a satisfying movie was because it showed how the U.S. deploys its vast military might in the service of one puny life. There was something incredibly stirring about watching a Navy flotilla slice through the Gulf of Aden to rescue an American captain whose merchant ship has been hijacked by Somali pirates.

It’s what we wished had happened Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi when some 60 extremists, some with ties to Al Qaeda groups, stormed a U.S. diplomatic compound and killed four Americans. The Hollywood ending just wasn’t to be.

A scathing bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report, released Wednesday, says the tragedy was predictable and preventable.

That is a scandal -- a real one. Not a phony one like the “scandal” ginned up by partisans trying to doom President Obama’s reelection over flawed talking points. Outside the conservative echo chamber, that “scandal” never got much traction.

And yet, more than a year later, even the Senate committee, which agreed on many points, could not rise above the partisan fray on that.


Republicans continued to insist the administration hid any Al Qaeda involvement because President Obama was running for reelection and wanted to protect a “fictitious and politically-motivated storyline” that the terrorist group “had been decimated and was on the run.”

Democrats found the talking points “flawed but mostly accurate.” They said the CIA deleted the reference to Al Qaeda to protect intelligence sources. An incorrect assertion that the attacks somehow grew out of protests against an American-made anti-Muslim film stemmed from confusion, they said, not an attempt to mislead. They faulted intelligence sources for allowing that error to go uncorrected.

Anyway, the Benghazi talking points are so last election cycle.

The Senate report helps us grasp something much more important and disturbing: The woefully inadequate security scheme that left Americans vulnerable in a dangerous and unstable outpost.

An embarrassing litany of failures is contained in the 85-page report: unheeded requests for extra security, uninstalled security cameras that might have alerted mission personnel to the attack, a lack of fire safety equipment which might have saved the lives of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and computer specialist Sean Smith, who died of smoke inhalation after dozens of bad guys easily gained access to the compound and set it afire with diesel gasoline.

There was also what now appears a foolish but unavoidable reliance on local militias for protection. The Benghazi compound, said the report, had been “vandalized and attacked” in the months leading up to the September disaster by some of the same Libyan guards who were supposed to defend it.

In the last 24 hours, I’ve read news accounts that imply Stevens was somehow complicit in the lack of security because he twice turned down offers for a military security team by Gen. Carter Ham, commander of American forces in Africa.

It’s not clear in the report why Stevens turned down those offers, and a State Department spokeswoman could not say why in her regular briefing Wednesday, but it is clear that security was uppermost on his mind.

In July, he had requested “a minimum” of 13 extra security officers, to be deployed at the Benghazi outpost and also in Tripoli, where the U.S. Embassy was located. “The State Department never fulfilled this request,” the report said, “and never responded to the request with a cable.”

Weeks later, on Aug. 16, Stevens again requested more security from the State Department to deal with a “deteriorating” situation in Benghazi. In the cable, a CIA officer was quoted as saying that a daily pattern of violence against Americans in Benghazi was “the new normal.” No significant action was taken.

The State Department took some minor steps. It authorized raising perimeter walls, installing concrete barriers and safety grills. But, the report found, officials should have done much more. The compound was surrounded by a weak perimeter and incomplete interior fence. Entry gates and doors were not sufficiently armored. The compound also lacked enough weapons, ammunition, non-lethal deterrents and fire safety equipment -- “including escape masks.”

(By contrast, the Senate report noted, the CIA, which had a smaller building in the same compound, “consistently upgraded its security posture over the same time period” in Benghazi. Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, the two CIA officers who died in Benghazi hours after the initial attack, were killed by mortar fire as they stood on the roof of the CIA’s annex in the compound.)

So whose head should roll?

Democrats on the committee said there is unacceptable confusion in the State Department about who is in charge of security, but fell short of naming names.

Republicans did not hold back: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose name appears exactly once in the report, bears ultimate responsibility, they said. “We believe there should be a full examination of her role in these events,” they wrote, “including on the night of the attacks.”

But they also singled out two State Department officials for particular criticism: Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb, who denied repeated requests for more security, and Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy, whose long tenure in security-challenged areas, they wrote, made him “uniquely situated to anticipate the potential for a terrorist attack on the Benghazi facilities.”

State Department officials say they have already implemented new security policies, including creating a new senior management position that will focus solely on high-risk posts. And the Defense Department has raised the number of Marines deployed to U.S. diplomatic venues, and created a rapid response unit of highly-trained Marines.

But that night in Benghazi, the mighty U.S. military was helpless to intervene. There were no ships anywhere near the Libyan coast. The closest fighter jets were in Djibouti, some 2,500 miles away. Other jets, at an American air base in Aviano, Italy, were not on alert status or armed

Hollywood endings do happen. But not for this unfortunate script.


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Twitter: @robinabcarian