The Magazine

Brennan’s Evasions

Feb 18, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 22 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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First, Harzi had a history. He’d been detained by the Tunisian government for five years, from 2006 to 2011, on terrorism charges. Among other concerns, he was then seeking to join his brother, a midlevel operative in Al Qaeda in Iraq. Second, after the Benghazi attack Harzi was detained in Turkey, at least in part on the basis of intelligence provided to the Turks by the U.S. government. Third, Harzi was held in Tunisia for three months on the strength of intelligence the U.S. government collected about his involvement in the Benghazi attacks. According to the Daily Beast, that intelligence included real-time social media updates from Benghazi about the unfolding attack. Fourth, Harzi’s own lawyer says that the Tunisian courts are still monitoring Harzi because he remains charged with membership in a terrorist group.

If Brennan believes the U.S. government doesn’t have “anything” on Harzi, it’s hard to find others who share that assessment.

“He was involved,” one U.S. official familiar with the investigation told The Weekly Standard. This view echoed those of several intelligence and law enforcement officials. 

Fawzi Jaballah, an adviser to Tunisia’s justice ministry, said the Tunisian attorney general opposed the release. Interior minister Ali Larayedh said in a TV interview that Harzi is “strongly suspected to have been involved in the attack of Benghazi.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton suggested during her final appearance before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that there is evidence of Harzi’s involvement—just not evidence that can be presented in court.

“Upon his release, I called the Tunisian prime minister,” she testified. “A few days later [FBI] Director Mueller met with the Tunisian prime minister. We have been assured that he is under the monitoring of the court. He was released because at that time—and Director Mueller and I spoke about this at some length—there was not an ability for evidence to be presented yet that was capable of being presented in an open court.”

Of course, not having evidence that can be presented “in an open court” is very different from not having “anything on him.” Would an FBI team spend five weeks on the ground in Tunisia if the U.S. government had no evidence of his involvement in the attack? And why would the FBI director discuss Harzi with the prime minister of Tunisia if the U.S. government “didn’t have anything on him”? 

The short answer: He wouldn’t. Three sources familiar with the investigation tell The Weekly Standard that one of the main reasons for Mueller’s mid-January stop in Tunisia was to press the Tunisian government for help with Harzi. And no one among the dozen U.S. officials spoken to for this story agreed with Brennan’s characterization that the U.S. government “didn’t have anything on him.” Harzi was not the most important figure in the Benghazi attacks, but there is no doubt the United States has evidence of his involvement.

Senator Lindsey Graham and Representative Frank Wolf worked with the State Department and the FBI to get the Tunisian government to allow the FBI access to Harzi. “There was a sense of urgency from the FBI in all of my discussions about him,” says Graham. “The FBI guys I talked to felt very strongly that this guy was involved. He was a prime target.” 

Wolf, who has spoken regularly to senior State Department and FBI officials, says he had the same understanding. “The FBI team that went over there to interview him—they believe he was there [in Benghazi] and has a lot of information. I’m told he remains a person of significant interest.”

An FBI spokesman tells The Weekly Standard: “I don’t think there’s anything we can say on the record while this is under investigation.”

Brennan’s eagerness to downplay Ali Harzi should concern senators for another reason. It’s consistent with the Obama administration’s response to jihadist attacks and radical Islam more broadly. So when Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab tried to blow up an airliner over Detroit, the president falsely claimed he was “an isolated extremist” long after it was clear that he was a committed jihadist with strong ties to Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. And when Faisal Shahzad sought to blow up an SUV in Times Square, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano called it a “one-off” attack by an unaffiliated individual, ignoring claims of responsibility from the Pakistani Taliban.

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