This Wednesday Congress heard testimony on the September 11 attack in Benghazi, Libya. The attack killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
Crash Course: Benghazi
This is a very brief review for those who may not remember the specifics of the Benghazi attack. It took place shortly after the release of a trailer of an anti-Muslim film that portrayed the Prophet Mohammad in a very negative light. The trailer elicited a series of protests and demonstrations across the Middle East and North Africa.
As these protests were occurring, a group of Islamist radicals launched an attack on an American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Because of the timing, many media reports initially indicated that the attack had grown out of a spontaneous demonstration in reaction to the film. This theory was given further credence when Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. (and later a nominee for State Department, before that appointment went to John Kerry,) represented the administration in a number of interviews and stated that the attack was a spontaneous outburst of anti-American sentiment.
That turned out not to be true. In fact, Ansar-al-Sharia, a militant group that advocates the imposition of strict Islamic law in Libya, was identified by the State Department as probably being behind the attack. And the State Department said so internally on September 12, four days before the series of talk show interviews in which Rice spoke about spontaneous attacks arising out of chaotic demonstrations.
As a result, the Benghazi attack has become a cause célèbre for opponents of the administration, whose accusations range from negligence to a cover-up. The witness who has been considered a star for the right going into these hearings, Gregory Hicks, had claimed that F-16 fighter planes and a special operations team that could have been deployed to Benghazi were not.
However, further questioning revealed that military experts, including the Chairman of the Join Chiefs of Staff, had accurately reported that air assets were not close enough to have saved Stevens or the other victims of the attack, and that the special operations team had never been prepped for going to the Benghazi consulate, but rather to secure the airport if necessary to assist in evacuation efforts. The evacuation was completed without them.
Furthermore, the credibility of Hicks himself has been called into question. He has alleged that he was demoted for criticizing the State Department and the Administration after the attack, but anonymous embassy sources have said that his demotion was a long time coming, based on his lack of management skills.
And Hicks had initially stated that he was told by his superiors not to speak with Republican investigators about the attack and its aftermath, but when pressed admitted that he was actually cautioned not to do so without a State Department lawyer present. So that calls into question whether or not Hicks had a political agenda in coming forward with his statements about the attack, or perhaps a personal grudge based on professional disappointments.
The right’s fixation on Benghazi has led to accusations that they are politicizing a tragedy, and their particular focus on Hillary Clinton makes those hard to dismiss. One thing is for sure: if Clinton runs for the White House again in 2016, Benghazi will come up again, no matter what these hearings ultimately reveal.
The Debate Going Forward
That said, the Benghazi case has important implications for the U.S. There is the obvious question: how can we improve security for our diplomats serving overseas? Over the past couple of decades, attacks against diplomatic outposts have become more common, from the Iran hostage crisis to the Kenya embassy bombing to Benghazi. And as a result our embassies have become more and more fortress-like in construction.
Both the internal State Department investigation and the Congressional one have come up with some possible solutions for diplomatic security. They will certainly depend in part upon the result of budget battles here at home.
But while that instinct to bulk up the protections around the Americans working to serve our interests abroad is natural, understandable, and admirable, it brings up an entirely different problem. Diplomats can best represent the American people by being accessible not just to high-level officials in foreign governments, but to the people of foreign countries.
One key reason the U.S. is struggling to determine its role in a post-Arab Spring Middle East is precisely because our government forged relationships with autocrats at the expense of relationships with the citizenry. Obviously there are other factors, but the ability to interact with ordinary people is key to fostering more positive sentiments towards the U.S. That was a reality that Christopher Stevens knew very well, and he died in part because he knew that the most important diplomacy could take place beyond reinforced embassy walls.
So then, how to keep our diplomacy effective and yet make our diplomats safe? The disheartening answer might be that sometimes we can’t. There will be many changes to diplomatic security in the upcoming years, but we may also increasingly find ourselves facing a tradeoff: the personal safety of our diplomats, or the security of our national interests. At times, they will always conflict.
But there is another big question coming out of Benghazi: when is it acceptable for the government to keep the American people in the dark? While I would not at all say that there has been a concerted effort to cover up any kind of negligence or mismanagement in the wake of the attack, I do think it is problematic that the day after the attack, State Department officials were already voicing suspicions about a terrorist motivation, but we continued to hear about Benghazi as a tragic story of protests gone awry.
The immediate comparison that came to mind for me was Boston. There was a lot of chaos and confusion in the aftermath of both attacks, and in the case of Boston, releasing suspicions too early resulted in a sort of mass hysteria targeted towards entirely innocent individuals. So sometimes, there is a public safety interest in keeping information about something like a terrorist attack under wraps until law enforcement officials have concrete details to release.
With that in mind, it seems understandable to me that the State Department would not necessarily immediately put out a statement identifying Ansar-al-Sharia, for example, as being behind the attack. In the immediate days after Benghazi, even if they had suspicions, it was important to follow up, to gather evidence, to interview witnesses and survivors, before making premature allegations. But that does not necessarily excuse repeating a story that it now seems officials had reason to believe might not be true.
After a crisis, perhaps the hardest thing any leader could possibly do is to say, “I don’t know.” To have no information to give the people you represent, who are afraid and angry and clamoring for answers. But given how little was certain immediately after the attack, that probably would have been the most honest, and in the long-term least problematic, response.