Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Hot Seat

What you need to know about Benghazi going into this week's congressional hearings.


The election might be over, but the Benghazi fiasco isn't -- not nearly. Congress is gearing up this week for another round of hearings on the Sept. 11 attack that killed Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. In total, four House and Senate panels are due to hold closed-door briefings this week, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, led by Chairman John Kerry (D-MA), expected to kick things off on Tuesday at 3:00 p.m.
In the two months since Ambassador Stevens's death, a dizzying amount of information -- some of it contradictory -- has emerged about the security situation in Benghazi and the administration's handling of the attack. Here's a guide to what we know, what we don't, and what's likely to come up as lawmakers try to get to the bottom of it all this week.
Protest or planned attack?
In the immediate aftermath of the consular attack, President Barack Obama and other senior administration officials generally portrayed the incident as a spontaneous reaction to the anti-Muslim YouTube video that had sparked protests across the Middle East. In his initial remarks from the Rose Garden, Obama said that "No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation," but did not directly refer to the attack as a terrorist plot. (He was more explicit a day later.)
Soon after, White House spokesman Jay Carney denied that the administration had any "actionable intelligence" that the attack was "planned or imminent." On "Face the Nation" on Sept. 16, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told Bob Schieffer that the attack "began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo." Her remarks were caveated, and according to the New York Times, she was merely repeating talking points given to her by the CIA. Moreover, one intelligence official insisted to the paper, "The bulk of available information supports the early assessment that the attackers launched their assault opportunistically after they learned about the violence at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo."
Interestingly, Paula Broadwell, the alleged paramour of David Petraeus, explained in an Oct. 26 talk why the CIA director may have been concerned about the link between those protests and what happened in Benghazi. "[I]f you remember at the time -- the Muslim video, the Mohamed video that came out, the demonstrations that were going on in Cairo -- there were demonstrations in 22 other countries around the world," she said. "Tens of thousands of people. And our government was very concerned that this was going to become a nightmare for us."
She added: "So you can understand if you put yourself in his shoes or Secretary Clinton's shoes or the president's shoes that we thought it was tied somehow to the demonstrations in Cairo. And it's true that we have signal intelligence that shows the militia members in Libya were watching the demonstration in Cairo and it did sort of galvanize their effort."
The administration's initial account also dovetailed with early reports from the New York Times and Reuters, which placed unarmed demonstrators as well as armed assailants outside the consulate in Benghazi. As Reuters reported, "The attackers were part of a mob blaming America for a film they said insulted the Prophet Mohammad." By Sept. 20, however, the administration had clearly acknowledged that the attack was indeed a terrorist attack and on Oct. 9, State Department officials said that the supposed protest outside the consulate never occurred. Currently, U.S. intelligence officials suspect that some combination of three militant groups was behind the consular attack: Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the al Qaeda-affiliated Jamal Network.
The administration's mischaracterization of events -- which its critics have attributed to political calculations -- is sure to come up at the hearings, as is the apparently poor intelligence with which the administration was working. Even if no one was intentionally misleading the public, lawmakers will likely want to know why a consulate that was primarily a CIA front did not know what was happening immediately outside its walls -- or how the intelligence community could still be feeding the administration bad information weeks after the fact.

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