The Romney campaign has concocted narrative that Obama, for whom foreign policy is one of the great strengths -- botched Benghazi, and worse. But of course this turns out to be nonsense.
Yesterday, there was a panel discussion about this on NPR. Participants were James Kitfield of National Journal, Indira Lakshmanan on Bloomberg News, and Matt Frei of the U.K.'s Channel 4 News.
NPR: Let's talk about Libya. Matt Frei, Secretary of State Clinton said she took responsibility for the raid on the U.S. Consulate there in Benghazi. And then in Tuesday night's debate President Obama took responsibility. How did that play out?
Frei: Well, it was just sort of mea culpa one-upmanship and it was great politics because she, of course, made the statement. In fact, she was in Peru on a visit at the time the night before the second debate in which Barack Obama had to perform, as indeed he did. And so this took some of the heat off him. The president went one better and said, actually, she's done a great job. The buck always stops with me.What really surprised me was that the Republicans, especially on that night, Mitt Romney was particularly bad at hammering home the main point in terms of his barrage against the administration, which was not so much whether they called it an act of terror but whether -- what did the State Department know about security and when did they know it? And we knew from the hearings on The Hill on Tuesday that they knew actually quite a lot, that Ambassador Stevens, the late ambassador who was killed in the attacks and indeed people who were running his security, these had been writing to the State Department for several months saying, we need more help here. We need more security present.NPR: In Tripoli. In Tripoli.
Frei: In Tripoli. But still -- but there is people in Tripoli would've traveled with the ambassador, is one theory, to Benghazi on this particular visit.
NPR: Didn't I read that he liked to travel on his own without letting anybody know he was moving between Tripoli and Benghazi?
Indira Lakshmanan: That's true. Ambassador Stevens did like to have a light footprint and keep a low profile. And in that he's like many American diplomats who increasingly have felt frustrated ever since 9/11/2001 when they've had to have, you know, huge security details, go around in armored cars with big, you know, armed guards around them. And...
NPR: And inform everybody he's coming.
Lakshmanan: Yes, yes. And it creates problems where there are other embassies and other officials who will say to them in some of these countries, you know what? Don't come to my house for dinner because you bring that huge retina with you. Or I'm not going to go to the embassy because I am humiliated by the kind of security that you put me through at the U.S. Embassy. And this applies to Afghanistan, Iraq and other places.
James Kitfield: You know, I think that we should step back a second and inform your readers that there is a political dynamic here...
NPR: ...listeners!Kitfield:..listeners, I'm sorry. As a print journalist, one of the last of the few. Inform your listeners that there is a political dynamic here and there is a -- there's actually a subsequent dynamic. And they are not the same thing. I mean, they're -- my colleague's exactly right. there is a substantive issue of why when the security people at the consulate asked for increased security they didn't get it. Let's get to the bottom of that. That's a very valid, you know, place to go.
Kitfield: This argument that the Republicans are trying to make -- because it attacks President Obama on his claim that he's defeated or, you know, put al-Qaida on the path of defeat. And it attacks -- it feeds this narrative that -- because he has such an advantage on foreign policy unlike most Democrats, feeds a narrative that he's weak and feckless which -- on foreign policy which Governor Romney's been trying to, you know, advance that narrative.They are saying that, you know, basically Susan Rice our UN Ambassador knew that this was a terrorist attack and lied through her teeth days afterwards to hide the fact that it might have been an al-Qaida attach. This is substantively ridiculous. I have talked to the intelligence people. They admit that what she said on the morning shows on Sunday after the attack was exactly what -- the intelligence points they were giving her.I mean, if you expect the U.N. Ambassador to know more than your own intelligence department you don't understand how this system works. And the fact of the matter is the intelligence community is still saying that their understanding of the situation is still evolving, which is not unusual at all. If you cover these things at all you realize the first reports are always wrong. And we didn't even have the FBI get into the consulate for over a week to sort of review, you know, the evidence on the ground.So the idea that the administration -- you have to really believe there's a conspiracy theory here to lie through their teeth knowing that they'd be caught out at some point to make this narrative that, you know, it was all about this video. I just don't buy it.
Frei: Now I couldn't agree more. And I think, you know, the situation is still fluid. There's still information coming out.
NPR: Of course.Frei: They haven't had the people on the ground to find out exactly what was going on. But here's the point I'd like to get back to that we heard earlier. If you have American diplomats, especially American diplomats living in embassies around the world that have become green zones, this is not good for the understanding of the various host countries where these people are serving. This is not good for America. This is not good for kind of global understanding.And Chris Stevens was very aware in the sense that he was not just a fluent Arab speaker. He was, you know, in Libya under Gadhafi and then came back to Libya at the time of the civil war. And he had a genuine liking for the country and an understanding for it. This man could not have operated the way he did as effectively as he did and as popularly as he did had he not -- had he been confined to a sort of green zone prison.So I think you need to get the balance right between securing your diplomats, securing your compounds and perhaps having bodyguards in the background. But not in a way that is so in your face that you can never go out and talk to ordinary people, while at the same time maintaining this understanding.
NPR: There's also the question of exactly who or what or how the request for additional security would've been turned down. Would that have stopped at the State Department level? Would it have stopped at the -- or gone to the White House?
Kitfield: No. They've answered that question basically. And if you know, again, how this works, there's no way that a request for a local -- from a local consulate for more security is going to go to the White House. It goes to the State Department security -- they have a whole security wing responsible for securing all the embassies and consulates around the world. And it's -- as I said, that's a very good question. Why was that denied? I think we need to get to the bottom of that but I think, you know, Vice-President Biden's probably on pretty sound footing when he said that the White House didn't know about this request. It's not something that would normally be elevated.
NPR: Right. And there's certainly questions about the security firm hired for Libya. The State Department hired Blue Mountain Group to guard the Benghazi compound. That's a little known British firm instead of the large firms it usually uses overseas. Security practices at the compound have now come under U.S. government scrutiny. Blue Mountain guards patrolled with flashlight and batons instead of guns, Indira.
Lakshmanan: Right. As you say, this is not one of the companies that is known for securing U.S. embassies and other embassies around the world. Not one of the big contractors. Part of the reason they were chosen was because they were already doing other security work in Libya. They were already in the country.And let's also keep all of this in perspective. The Libyan transitional government in the post-Gadhafi era did not want American boots on the ground. They did not want a big heavy U.S. security presence. They felt that the way it worked nicely with the -- you know, with the no-fly zone and the NATO intervention allowed them to still be the ones running the show. So they actually resisted U.S. requests for bringing in, you know, a more high-profile security presence.So the U.S., essentially the State Department went with a firm that was already there and as you say, 20 Libyans, local Libyans who they hired who had minimal training, batons and flashlights. You know, you can raise all sorts of questions about that. But I did want to make a point to the other thing you had said which was about not working out of fortresses. And this is a point that Secretary Clinton has tried to make again and again in her speeches, which is, you know, we are diplomats, she says. We can't be in armed camps. We can't be hiding ourselves behind battlements.And, you know, a lot of the people who -- there were, you know, many, many embassies that were built in the post 9/11 era, scores of them and many of them were built by companies that normally build prisons and, you know, those kinds of institutions. And so again there's this question of trying to get away from the fortress-like footprint.Frei: You know, I couldn't agree more with Indira in the sense that the response to each situation has to be nuanced and it has to be detailed. So there's no point in having, you know, heavy American armor or armed body guards everywhere in a place that is seen to be benign. But you have to be ready for eventual threats. And clearly the situation in Benghazi was much more benign than it had been in indeed other Arab cities like for instance in Cairo.
NPR: Libya said earlier this week they had identified a ringleader in the attack. Who is he, James?Kitfield: A guy named Ahmed Abu Khattala who runs this sort of Islamic extremist group that is at least allegiance-wise is sympathetic towards al-Qaida. He fought alongside the other rebels to get rid of Gadhafi but really, you know, has a vision of a strict, sort of Sharia law Islamic state. And that's what he wants. And apparently again, we don't know a lot about exactly what, you know, brought him and his fighters to the scene but he was apparently at the scene, apparently directing fighters. You know, he's...
NPR: How can he be hiding in plain sight?
Kitfield: Because we don't have any presence in Libya. We don't have any security presence in Libya. I mean, that is the -- this is a witch's brew where, again, we can't even get to our own burned out consulate to do an investigation or FBI. It took special forces, you know, weeks to work out an operation just to get them on the scene. We don't have much security presence in Libya.Now having said that, if this guys wants to sit out and, you know, drink coffee in the open for the next month or two I would suggest against it. If you're a friend of his I might give him a wide berth.
Lakshmanan: I was really struck by a marvelous piece in the New York Times out of Benghazi by David Kirkpatrick that was him basically having tea it seemed for two hours in a hotel -- this was a piece that was just published -- with this Ahmed Abu Khattala. And basically the guy was denying involvement in the killing but said, yes, I was there. Kirkpatrick, like other reporters who have been on the scene in Benghazi brings us back to the importance of foreign corresponding and having people actually on the scene, have said that, you know, that some of these (word?) Sharia people have said that they did attack in retaliation for the video.So that brings us full circle back to what was the motivation. You know, yes it was an armed attack. It may not have grown out of a spontaneous peaceful protest but it may have been actually intended as revenge for the insulting video.