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WAPO Attacks: Benghazigate?

Evidence is growing that the death of four American officials in Benghazi, including a charismatic and talented ambassador, came at a time when appropriate security procedures and precautions were not being taken. That at least is the burden of this story in the Washington Post, a story that few in the White House will enjoy reading.

As reporters Ernesto Londoño and Abigail Hauslohner put it:

U.S. officials appear to have underestimated the threat facing both the ambassador and other Americans. They had not reinforced the U.S. diplomatic outpost there to meet strict safety standards for government buildings overseas. Nor had they posted a U.S. Marine detachment, as at other diplomatic sites in high-threat regions.

The article only gets more damning; in a paragraph that must have raised blood pressure from Pennsylvania Avenue to Foggy Bottom to the Obama election HQ in Chicago, the Post reports that:

Insecurity has beset Libya since the country’s civil war ended in October 2011 with Gaddafi’s dramatic execution. Militias have been reluctant to disband or surrender weapons. After the U.S. Embassy formally reopened in Tripoli last fall, the U.S. military’s Africa command dispatched a team to help build its security infrastructure. The troops, however, were never assigned to bolster security at the site in Benghazi, said Eric Elliott, a spokesman for the Africa command. Elliott and the State Department could not say why.

There is more. The office in Benghazi was neither an embassy nor a consulate; it was a “liason office” and so did not come under the rules and regulations governing larger and more formal American installations overseas. Yet there was plenty of evidence that the threats in the area were substantial and were growing:

Security in eastern Libya deteriorated sharply in recent months. A string of attacks, some linked to fundamentalist groups, made clear that Westerners were no longer safe. The International Committee of the Red Cross suspended operations and evacuated staff in the east after an attack June 12 on its compound in the port city of Misrata. In Benghazi, convoys transporting the U.N. country chief and the British ambassador were attacked in April and June, respectively. The British government shut down its consulate soon afterward.

The U.S. outpost had a close call of its own June 6, when a small roadside bomb detonated outside the walls, causing no injuries or significant damage. But the Americans stayed put.

Even so, the American response was minimal:

Instead of signing a costly security contract similar to those the government has for facilities in Iraq and Afghanistan, the State Department this summer awarded a contract to Blue Mountain, a small British security firm, to provide local guards at the Benghazi compound. The year-long contract, which took effect in March, was worth $387,413, a minuscule sum for war-zone contracting. Blue Mountain and the State Department declined to comment for this article.

It’s clear — as it always is when something goes this horribly wrong — that serious mistakes and misjudgments were made, and no doubt both the executive branch and the Congress will poke in the ashes until we have a pretty good idea what went wrong and how we can prevent a repetition.

But over the years I’ve spent my fair share of time with American diplomats in some tricky places, and there is always a tug of war between prudence and the desire of diplomats — often our best and most dedicated diplomats — to get out there in the field and meet the people face to face. After all, we send diplomats abroad to engage, not to hide behind concrete walls, and people who are serious about their mission are always pressing the security officials to give them more room to interact more freely and spontaneously outside the embassy walls. I once visited a madrasha in Pakistan, and the powers that be insisted that there be a squad of armed special police with automatic weapons in the room at all times.

I have to say that I thought that my message of peace and friendship was a little undercut by the presence of so much heavy metal in the room and would have preferred to take my chances with the kids, but security officers are constantly balancing risks. They aren’t omniscient, and they make mistakes.

The problems in Benghazi, though, seem to lie deeper. There was a failure to connect the dots: the deterioration of the security situation in eastern Libya was marked and ongoing, and the liaison office in Benghazi was exactly the kind of soft, prominent target that would draw the wrong kind of attention. And while all the facts aren’t in, one gets a persistent sense that the bad guys knew entirely too much about what was going on there.

The press has started digging now, and it won’t stop until it reaches bottom. The problem for the administration is that the hole keeps getting deeper, and we don’t seem to have touched bottom yet. Some of the trouble may be that the State Department and the White House haven’t finished their own investigations yet, which makes it hard to give convincing answers to reporters. But this doesn’t look any prettier the more of it we see, and it doesn’t reinforce the image of calm competence that the administration was hoping to project as the election draws near.

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