The Right-Wing’s Most Brazen Lie of the Election — Debunked
The Right’s narrative of how the Obama administration handled the attacks on our consulate in Benghazi began with a claim that is every bit as ridiculous as the belief that Barack Obama faked his birth certificate or is a communist, or that his policies reflect a “Kenyan anti-colonial worldview.”
While the attacks were still underway, the Romney campaign released a statement claiming that the president of the United States, upon hearing that our embassies were being attacked, felt a rush of sympathy with the attackers, and immediately responded by “apologizing for our values.”
The idea that a sitting president, of either party, would feel sympathy for extremists killing Americans overseas — and would actually apologize for America’s values in such a circumstance — is something that no normal person could possibly believe. Only those on the hard Right, who have been told for the last four years that a moderate Democrat is in fact a wild-eyed radical and a crypto-Muslim who doesn’t really understand America could possibly buy that spin. Only those gullible enough to accept the claim – debunked by every fact-checker in the universe because it just never happened — that Obama went on a “global apology tour” could possibly put any credence in such a scenario.
Since then, the narrative has evolved. And it provides a perfect example of the effect of media “siloing” – the tendency for people to seek out sources of information that confirm their worldview. People who get the bulk of their information from Fox, conservative blogs, right-wing talk-radio or papers like the New York Post or the Washington Times cannot help but believe that the administration refused requests for help and delayed a rapid response force while they sat back and watched the attacks unfold. They would have no choice but to believe that the administration knew from the first moment that the attacks were preplanned and not directly related to the Islamophobic video that had roiled crowds in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere – but didn’t mention the word “terrorism” for two weeks – and have been covering all of that up ever since.
That’s a storyline built on speculation, and the unfounded opinions of conservative activists and Republican partisans trying, swiftboat-like, to attack Obama on one of his major advantages – the public’s belief that he is better able to serve as commander-in-chief. But it hasn’t worked.
A CBS poll taken after the final presidential debate – the foreign policy debate – found that voters thought Obama “would do a better job in issues of terrorism and national security by a margin of 64 percent to 36 percent, and 71 percent said they trusted Obama to handle an international crisis versus 49 percent who said the same of Romney.”
Part of the reason the Right’s narrative has failed to go mainstream is simple: it is so widely understood that there’s always a ton of conflicting information in the early stages of a story like this that the phrase “fog of war” has become a cliché. The Fox News storyline requires one to believe that the White House knew exactly what was going on in a war-torn country thousands of miles away, in real-time, and then lied about it (for reasons that have never been clear).
But more to the point: if you are a liberal or a moderate – or a Republican who gets your news from a major daily newspaper not owned by the Moonies or Rupert Murdoch – and you have paid attention to reports about Benghazi, then you’ll have a very different picture.
That’s because professional reporters who cover the national security beat aren’t going to go to the partisan conspiracy theorists promoted by Fox News for the story. They’re going to reach out to their contacts in the intelligence and national security communities. And the pros have reported that virtually every claim about Benghazi offered by the conservative media is simply false. Not many people are likely to believe an infamous birther like Jerome Corsi over officials from the CIA, the State Department or the DOD.
Fox News anchor Brit Hume said of the Benghazi attacks, “One of the problems we’re having here is that it has fallen to this news organization, Fox News and a couple others, to do all the heavy lifting on this story.” He’s absolutely right that Fox and the conservative media are the only ones that have pushed the “Benghazi-gate” story, but it’s ludicrous to suggest that the mainstream press hasn’t reported on the attacks. It has, extensively.
And make no mistake: real reporters have raised serious questions about the attacks. Barack Obama himself said on MSNBC, “There’s all kinds of legitimate questions to ask because any time a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans who are serving our country get killed we have to figure out what happened and fix it.”
Beyond the kinds of questions that always arise after such an event, the “scandal” falls apart. for example, conservative pundit Jennifer Braveras writes, “It is now clear that the administration knew almost immediately that the Benghazi attack was a premeditated act of terrorism.”
The reality is that it is still unclear exactly what happened in Benghazi. On October 19, Los Angeles Times correspondents Ken Dilanian and Shashank Bengali reported, “the assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi last month appears to have been an opportunistic attack rather than a long-planned operation, and intelligence agencies have found no evidence that it was ordered by Al Qaeda, according to U.S. officials and witnesses interviewed in Libya.”
The attack was “carried out following a minimum amount of planning,” said a U.S. intelligence official, who, like others, spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a matter still under investigation. “The attackers exhibited a high degree of disorganization. Some joined the attack in progress, some did not have weapons and others just seemed interested in looting.”
A second U.S. official added, “There isn’t any intelligence that the attackers pre-planned their assault days or weeks in advance.” Most of the evidence so far suggests that “the attackers launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo” earlier that day, the official said.
He and others described the attackers as a mob rather than a team of commandos. It included some organized elements, they said, but its intelligence was less than precise. A caretaker at the villa adjacent to the U.S. mission said the attackers initially threatened to raid his compound until he and a guard barred the gate and shouted: “Private property! Women inside!”
Libyan guards who served as the security force at the U.S. compound said the mob was made up of disparate types, some who appeared to be experienced fighters and others who were not. There were long-bearded men whose faces were obscured by scarves in the style of practiced militants and called each other “sheik.” But there also were younger men, some who looked like teenagers with wispy beards on their uncovered faces.
There has also been some speculation in the foreign press that the attack was a hit on Ambassador Stevens, planned by former loyalists to Mohammar Ghaddafi in retaliation for supporting the rebels.
At this time, there is something of a consensus that the attacks were pre-planned. The question is when, exactly, that became clear. A major part of the Right’s storyline rests on Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, making statements connecting the attacks to the Islamophobic video – this is supposedly the heart of the “coverup.” But while the op-ed page of Rupert Murdoch’s Wall Street Journal may have a different view, two of its national security correspondents, Adam Entous and Siobhan Gorman, reported that Rice was merely offering the most up-to-date assessment by our security agencies.
Ms. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, based her statements that Sunday on intelligence agency conclusions that the attack had spun out of protests in Benghazi, fueled by anger over an anti-Islamic, U.S.-made video that had sparked protests elsewhere.
The picture began to change over that weekend, according to U.S. intelligence officials, in the most detailed account yet to emerge of a period that has been a focus of controversy over the Obama administration’s handling of the aftermath of the attack, which killed four Americans including the U.S. ambassador.
Some intelligence came in on Saturday evening that contradicted the protest claim and prompted the office of the Director of National Intelligence to begin to question the agencies’ initial conclusions, intelligence officials said.
Despite their growing uncertainty, intelligence officials didn’t feel they had enough conclusive, new information to revise their assessment. Ms. Rice wasn’t warned of their new doubts before she went on the air the next morning and spoke of the attacks being spurred by demonstrations, intelligence officials acknowledged.
Another aspect fueling the scandal narrative is a claim, made by Jennifer Griffin of Fox News, that the CIA denied Tyrone Woods, one of the Americans killed in the attack, permission to help repel the assault. Then Newt Gingrich, a reliable source, went on Fox News to relay some “rumors” he’d heard:
There is a rumor — I want to be clear, it’s a rumor — that at least two networks have emails from the National Security Adviser’s office telling a counterterrorism group to stand down. But they were a group in real-time trying to mobilize Marines and C-130s and the fighter aircraft, and they were told explicitly by the White House to stand down and do nothing. This is not a terrorist action.
That spawned a host of outraged blog posts. But Ken Dilanian of the Los Angeles Times reported that “CIA security officers in a Benghazi post responded within 25 minutes to a call for help from a nearby State Department compound after it came under attack Sept. 11, officials said Thursday, seeking to refute a Fox News report asserting that CIA managers ordered them to stay put.”
In releasing a detailed timeline of CIA actions that night, senior intelligence officials have put aside long-standing concerns about revealing the extent of the agency’s presence in Benghazi in order to push back against what officials say are baseless allegations that aid was withheld.
“At every level in the chain of command, from the senior officers in Libya to the most senior officials in Washington, everyone was fully engaged in trying to provide whatever help they could,” a senior intelligence official said in a statement. “There were no orders to anybody to stand down in providing support.”
Eric Schmitt reported for the New York Times that American security officials were in fact heavily engaged in the fight that night.
Security officers from the C.I.A. played a pivotal role in combating militants who attacked the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, deploying a rescue party from a secret base in the city, sending reinforcements from Tripoli, and organizing an armed Libyan military convoy to escort the surviving Americans to hastily chartered planes that whisked them out of the country, senior intelligence officials said Thursday.
…The military diverted a Predator drone from a reconnaissance mission in Darnah, 90 miles away, in time to oversee the mission’s evacuation. The two commandos, based at the embassy in Tripoli, joined the reinforcements. And a military transport plane flew the wounded Americans and Mr. Stevens’s body out of Libya.
One of the serious questions raised by the tragedy is why security wasn’t more extensive in Benghazi just months removed from Libya’s civil war. A number of breathless reports in the conservative media have suggested that the administration received requests to beef up security at the consulate but turned them down. Setting aside the simple fact that such a detail would be handled far down the food chain from the president of the United States, it’s also not true.
Eric Schmitt and Mark Landler reported for the New York Times that officials were more worried about our embassy in Tripoli than our consulate in Benghazi – a city that was targeted by destruction by Gaddhafi’s army and spared when the U.S. and 18 other states intervened last March. They write:
In a stream of diplomatic cables, embassy security officers warned their superiors at the State Department of a worsening threat from Islamic extremists, and requested that the teams of military personnel and State Department security guards who were already on duty be kept in service.
The requests were denied, but they were largely focused on extending the tours of security guards at the American Embassy in Tripoli — not at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, 400 miles away. And State Department officials testified this week during a hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that extending the tour of additional guards — a 16-member military security team — through mid-September would not have changed the bloody outcome because they were based in Tripoli, not Benghazi.
Adam Entous, Siobhan Gorman and Margaret Coker added additional details in the Wall Street Journal. They explained that our consulate in Benghazi was effectively a CIA station, and that one of the reasons a fuller accounting of the events that night was slow to emerge is that CIA head David Petraeus didn’t want to divulge details about the CIA’s station in Benghazi.
The U.S. effort in Benghazi was at its heart a CIA operation, according to officials briefed on the intelligence. Of the more than 30 American officials evacuated from Benghazi following the deadly assault, only seven worked for the State Department. Nearly all the rest worked for the CIA, under diplomatic cover, which was a principal purpose of the consulate, these officials said.
The CIA’s secret role helps explain why security appeared inadequate at the U.S. diplomatic facility. State Department officials believed that responsibility was set to be shouldered in part by CIA personnel in the city through a series of secret agreements that even some officials in Washington didn’t know about…
In Libya, the relationship between the State Department and CIA was secret and symbiotic: The consulate provided diplomatic cover for the classified CIA operations. The State Department believed it had a formal agreement with the CIA to provide backup security, although a congressional investigator said it now appears the CIA didn’t have the same understanding about its security responsibilities….
Among U.S. diplomatic officials in Libya, the nearby CIA force and the secret agreement allayed concerns about security levels.
“They were the cavalry,” a senior U.S. official said of the CIA team, adding that CIA’s backup security was an important factor in State’s decision to maintain a consulate there.
Again, these reports raise very real questions. Why were two American agencies operating in close quarters in Benghazi not communicating with each other? Why was Ambassador Stevens allowed to travel to Benghazi without a heavy personal security detail? Why did the CIA rely so heavily on local militias and the nascent Libyan security services? Why did it take so long for David Petraeus to reveal the agency’s extensive roll in the conflict that night?
But as David Ignatius, reviewing a minute-by-minute CIA timeline of events that night concluded, while “there were multiple errors that led to the final tragedy, there’s no evidence that the White House or CIA leadership deliberately delayed or impeded rescue efforts.” There’s also zero evidence that the administration was telling the public anything different than what the intelligence agencies believed at the time. And there is absolutely no evidence of a coverup, as is alleged 20 times a day on Fox News.
Conservatives will no doubt continue to dismiss the work of serious reporters working on this story – most buy the conspiracy theory that every corporate media outlet in the country is actively in the bag for Democrats. If Obama is re-elected, “Benghazi-gate” may even lead to an effort to impeach him in the house. But the rest of us should understand that while Benghazi was a great tragedy, it’s the partisan Right that’s desperately trying to make it into so much more.
Joshua Holland is an editor and senior writer at AlterNet. He’s the author of The 15 Biggest