US politicians and media outlets have been vigorously debating statements to the congressional hearing, held on May 8, which examined the September, 2012, bombing of the US consulate in Benghazi and the murder of four US officials, including the ambassador. Regrettably, much of that coverage has been shaped by a perspective articulated by New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan, who lamented her own newspaper’s editorial position as manifesting
“…a tendency to play down the subject … and to pursue it most aggressively as a story about political divisiveness rather than one about national security mistakes and the lack of government transparency.”
While that attitude will be familiar to Australians, who have witnessed questions about our Prime Minister’s probity and honesty in regard to the AWU affair being ignored in favour of a play-by-play focus on the politics of the scandal, the attack on US sovereign territory by Islamic militants is more serious by an order of magnitude. With talk of coverups, even of presidential impeachment, in the air, it is worth reviewing what the congressional inquiry has brought to light.
Three officials-turned-whistleblowers stationed in Libya at the time of the 10-hour attack have used the hearing to air a host of deeply troubling questions and assertions, including conytradicting statements by President Obama, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and UN Ambassador Susan Rice. One of the witnesses, a veteran diplomat whose 22-year experience includes extended postings in predominantly Muslim countries, quoted the President of Libya as telling him on the day of the attack that it was the work of Islamist terrorists, not a spontaneous protest against a YouTube movie critical of Mohammed. While the latter has been the Obama/Clinton line, he told the panel that this information had been passed on immediately to Washington, which “rewarded” him with a demotion.
The inquiry also heard that, while the Obama Administration knew about the extent of the attack via an unarmed drone circling above the consulate, attempts by officials in Libya to obtain military help of one kind or another were rejected. Special forces units ready to fly to the scene from their Tripoli base were ordered to stand down, and it also appears that a US aircraft was ordered to remain at its base in Italy, just a short flight away.
There is now very strong evidence that the White House has again attempted to downplay yet another episode of Islamist-inspired terrorism, as it did after the bombing of the Boston Marathon. While impeachment seems highly unlikely to eventuate, Obama’s credibility will be further diminished as more inquiries and exposures occur. It is of serious concern to Australia that any US President, whether Democrat or Republican, finds himself in the weakened position of having his competence, honesty, integrity and moral resolve called constantly into question.
US reports suggest that several Democrats on the congressional panel have joined Republican colleagues in calling for more hearings, additional witnesses, and the release of unclassified documents related to the attack. House Speaker John Boehner has called for the release of emails by a State Department official who informed her superiors that the attacks were conducted by Islamic terrorists – an advisory received in Washington a full four days before UN Ambassador Rice insisted during the course of five seperate TV interviews that the attacks were largely a response to the YouTube film, which was made in the US. The producer of this film was arrested and detained.
While Obama has repeatedly blamed the movie, one week after the attack he tried to have two bob each way:
“Here’s what happened. We had a video that was released by somebody who lives here, sort of a shadowy character, who is a [sic] extremely offensive video directed at Mohammed and Islam…making fun of the Prophet Mohammed, and so this caused great offence in much of the Muslim world. But what also happened was extremists and terrorists used this as an excuse to attack a variety of our embassies, including the consulate in Libya.”
The implication is that Mohammed should not be publicly criticised in the US, and that anyone who does so is a “shadowy character” deserving imprisonment. Strangely, this protective attitude does not extend to Christianity and other faiths routinely criticised and lampooned.
Drawing on Obama’s assurance that no information would be held back, Boehner has also asked the White House to release 100 pages of internal administration emails related to the editing of talking points prepared by the CIA for use in explaining the attack. The initial version of these CIA talking points unequivocally stated that the attack was by terrorists, but it appears the White House arranged for this information to be erased from official statements, subsequently claiming the excising was done at the behest of the CIA. House Republicans are now reportedly threatening to subpoena the emails if the Administration does not turn them over voluntarily.
A possible “running for cover” is indicated current Secretary of State John Kerry’s stated intention to make further inquiries. In the eyes of some observers, he may be attempting to distance himself from the Obama/Clinton perspective on the attack, raising further questions about the erosion of presidential authority. Also of interest is that Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has indicated publicly, and remarkably, that he was “not in contact” with either Obama or Clinton over the 10 hours the attack was unfolding in Benghazi.
The latest US report indicates that Boehner is now considering the establishment of a House Select Committee, as happened after 9/11. Also of interest is that the US (and the UK) are withdrawing non-emergency personnel from Libya because of anti-government threats by “radical extremists”, who inter alia have been bombing police stations in Benghazi. This tallies with reports that al Qaeda has had an active involvement in Libya for some time.
To put the Benghazi bombings in context, they occurred during the Presidential election campaign, when Obama’s advisors would have been particular anxious to avoid seeing him tarred with the fallout of an unsuccessful rescue operation of the kind Jimmy Carter failed to execute during the Iran hostage crisis. But the general situation facing the US in Libya in 2012 was a far cry from that which confronted Carter more than three decades ago. While the Pentagon has stated for the record that a successful rescue could not have been mounted, others disagree. In any case, even if domestic electoral considerations were paramount in candidate Obama’s mind, a failure would not have attracted the odium of Carter’s desert debacle, as there was no time for advance planning.
Here lies part of the problem. Obama’s electioneering insisted Osama bin Laden’s death signified that al Qaeda was on the run and the threat from terrorist activity had diminished. The Benghazi attack was a clear refutation of this stump rhetoric, hence the emphasis on blaming a ludicrously inept and formerly unknown YouTube video clip. At the very list, this line of spin distracted attention from other examples of the administration’s soft attitude toward radical Muslims, most recently its attempts to sweep from sight Islamist connections to the Bostom bombing.
It is not practical to do more here than make passing mention of these examples of wilful blindness and passivity, but it is worth noting their extensive lineage. They include Obama’s worrying “New Beginning” address to the Muslim world in June, 2009; his appointment to the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (the top Islamic body) of a special US envoy who reputedly can recite the Koran in Arabic; his initial promise to move extremist Muslims from Guantanamo Bay; and his prevarications over US involvement in Syria after initially declaring that Assad must go.
True, while withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan the US has continued to use armed drones to attack and destroy jihadist groups in various countries, including Pakistan and Afghanistan. But apart from counter-terrorist activity in the US itself, the drone campaign under the highly questionable leadership of CIA head John Brennan appears to be Obama’s only policy response to Muslim extremists.
In short, there are serious questions about both US foreign and domestic policies in dealing with Muslim extremism, and the rising stink of the Benghazi attack is the latest and largest of them.
Des Moore is Director, Institute for Private Enterprise and former Deputy Secretary, Treasury