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Benghazi: sorting out fact from fancy

Published January 25. 2013 4:00AM

The nation has seen the report, the political hysterics of some Republicans, the denial of Democrats and the appearance of the Secretary of State. So what have we learned about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed an ambassador and three other Americans?

While there was no advance intelligence forewarning of an attack, there were plenty of reasons for the State Department to worry about the vulnerability of the consulate given the instability in the area after the fall of the Libyan dictatorship. Considering the threat environment, security at the compound was "grossly inadequate" and too reliant on poorly trained private guards and local militia.

Concerns coming from the Libyan embassy about the lack of security stalled at the mid-management level. Years of tight funding for the State Department created a "deep sense of the importance of husbanding resources," which "had the effect of conditioning a few State Department managers to favor restricting the use of resources as a general orientation."

In other words, the inclination when a seemingly low-priority outpost needed help that cost money was to say no, or simply ignore and stall requests, which seemed to be the case here.

These were among the findings of the Accountability Review Board, led by former Ambassador Tom Pickering and Adm. Mike Mullen, which examined the circumstances of the attack.

The report found "real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions" on the security requests.

"I didn't see those requests. They didn't come to me. I didn't approve them. I didn't deny them," testified Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

This lack of accountability for decision making, the failure for such important security matters to reach the desk of the secretary, are the most troubling systemic failures of the sad Benghazi tale. The highest priority must be reducing the chances of such an event recurring. As she prepares to complete her tenure, Secretary Clinton has taken important steps to do just that.

The secretary has ordered a review of overall security at all diplomatic outposts. A new position, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for High Threat Posts, will be responsible for assessing security reports and requests. A protocol is in place to share security updates with appropriate congressional committees. And there will be periodic reviews of high-threat posts and an annual review chaired by the Secretary of State.

Better security costs money. We would urge Republican lawmakers, so eager in the midst of the election to seize on this tragedy to politically attack the administration, to vote for that funding where appropriate.

The review of the attack found no credence for the claims that a better response would have saved lives. "There simply was not enough time for U.S. military forces to have made a difference," said Adm. Mullen in summarizing his report for journalists. Ambassador Chris Stevens and Foreign Service information officer Sean Smith died of smoke inhalation, Navy SEALS Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty from mortar fire.

Finally, there was the political sideshow, Republicans contending and clinging to the notion that the administration, in the midst of a presidential election, initially misled the country by painting the attack as a spontaneous action during a protest about an anti-Islamic video, rather than the terrorist attack it was. The facts do not support that contention.

On Sept. 12 President Obama, speaking of the Benghazi attack, vowed, "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation." Yes, United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice did say on Sunday news talk shows that week that the Benghazi attack began as a protest against an anti-Islamic video. "It looks like extremist elements … joined in that effort with heavy weapons," she said.

Yet Ambassador Rice was only using CIA talking points, based on best evidence at the time, stating that the attack involved militants taking advantage of a demonstration. Only subsequent to her appearances did a sorting out of intelligence show there was no protest. But at no time did anyone in the administration suggest this attack was simply protestors scaling walls. It was always acknowledged these were well-armed extremists - terrorists - the only confusion was whether they used a protest as cover.

Serious mistakes left the consulate vulnerable, with tragic results. But the evidence does not suggest a cover-up or any intention to mislead.

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