Benghazi Scandal Transcends 'Protest v. Planned Attack' Debate

Spontaneous protest in response to a video or planned attack by Islamic militants? This has become shorthand for the argument over what took place in Benghazi on 9/11. Republicans organizing tomorrow’s hearings should avoid getting trapped in this dilemma and make it clear that, either way, the administration doesn’t look very competent.

Some of the early reports from Libya after the 9/11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi do suggest that elements on the scene that night were aware of an anti-Muslim film. There are only a handful of video clips taken at the Consulate that night. One of those shows a man in a white Izod shirt standing on what appears to be the front steps of the Consulate. It’s not clear this man was part of the main attack; however, this unnamed individual clearly attributes the attack to anger over a film, saying, “The Libyans don’t like to say something bad about their prophet.”

Here is another clip of the same man in the same position outside the Consulate. He says, “Stopping the film is our hope… is our relationship with the Americans.”

Another key early report comes from Al Jazeera producer Suleiman El Dressi. He reported what supposedly took place prior to the attack by phone from Benghazi: “About 11:30pm, a group of people, called themselves as Islamic Law Supporters [Ansar al Sharia], heard the news that there will be American movie insulting the Prophet Mohammed. Once they heard this news, they came out of their military garrison and they went into the streets calling on people to go ahead an attack the American Consulate Benghazi.”

El Dressi’s report spread far and wide the day following the attack. It may be roughly accurate, but it’s not clear who his sources were. Also, his timeline is off. Other witnesses and the official timeline released by the Pentagon say the attack began a little after 9:30pm. Still, El Dressi’s account jibes with later reports, which indicate the militia blocked off streets, brought heavy weaponsfor an assault, and gathered “around 20 youths from nearby to chant against the film.”

Finally, there is one more source for the claim that the attack was motivated by the video. On Sept. 12th, Deputy Interior Minister Wanis Al-Sharif, who was responsible for security in the area, claimed there had been a peaceful protest at the Consulate. According to Sharif, things turned violent when guards fired shots at the “protesters.” He also claimed the attack might have been the work of pro-Gaddafi forces.

As the New York Times noted in its report featuring Sharif’s account, his claims are at odds with statements from people who were on the scene that night. The Times notes, “Two Libyans who were wounded while guarding the consulate said that,contrary to Mr. Sharif’s account, there was no indication within theconsulate grounds that a mass protest, including members of armedgroups, had been brewing outside.”

The most official source claimed there was a peaceful protest, yet there was good reason to think that account was false and self-serving long before talking points were drafted. Later, on Sep. 17th, Sharif was fired for his failure to protect the Consulate and for prior problems in Benghazi. 

In a twist, it seems Sharif refused to leave his post. This McClatchy story includes complaints by Sharif’s replacement that he cannot get into his office because “his predecessor is still there.” A Time story published two months after the firing indicates he is still in the job.

To sum all this up, there is some evidence–in particular the man in the white Izod shirt–that people in Benghazi were aware of the video that night. And yet this is not proof that there was a spontaneous protest. There may have been a semi-spontaneous assault by militants, which is not quite the same thing.

Even if the assault had a degree of spontaneity, that does not excuse the administrations’ actions or suggest they got it right with their altered talking points after the fact. The lack of sufficient security, despite requests from two successive ambassadors, is still their fault. And the decision to repeatedly blame the video while removing clear evidence of prior attacks and militant involvement still smells like a cover-up.

And don’t forget, on October 9, 2012, a State Dept. spokesman said of the claim the attack was in response to a video, “That was not our conclusion.” It’s not as if the Obama administration has stuck to its guns on this. They have flip-flopped all over the place to the point it is difficult to discern at what point, if any, their motives were clear.

Was this attack, then, a spontaneous reaction to a video or a planned attack? Either way, it was a major security failure. In fact, it’s hard to say which horn of the dilemma would make the administration look worse. A planned attack means a failure of intelligence and security. A spontaneous attack suggests security was so lax, little planning was needed to overrun the compound.

Finally, it’s possible the truth is somewhere in the middle. Some peopleon hand that night were upset about the video. Others may have had different motives and used the video as a pretext. As the initial, unaltered talking points said, “The crowd almost certainly was a mix of individuals from across many sectors of Libyan society. That being said, we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al Qa’ida participated in the attack.”

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