Debacle in Benghazi
It’s worse than an injustice; it’s a humiliation.
On September 21, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke to reporters before a meeting with the Pakistani foreign minister. She addressed the September 11 assault on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya. “What happened was a terrorist attack, and we will not rest until we have tracked down and brought to justice the terrorists who murdered four Americans.”
Clinton’s statement was notable. It was the strongest and most direct assessment of the attacks from any Obama administration official in the first 10 days after the deaths. By calling the incident a “terrorist attack,” Clinton acknowledged what President Obama had gone out of his way to avoid.
The second part of Clinton’s comment generated little interest. Her vow to bring to justice the perpetrators of the attacks was the kind of perfunctory promise we expect to hear from any politician after any attack, particularly one so brazen. Of course it would be a top priority of the Obama administration and its lead diplomat to understand the attacks and punish those who committed them.
Yet four months later, Clinton’s promise is notable precisely because it has gone unfulfilled. No one has been “brought to justice”—a fact that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. “We’re not even close,” says one U.S. official involved in the investigation.
And jihadists in the region, no doubt emboldened by the lack of U.S. response to the attacks, have taken to taunting the American investigators and celebrating U.S. feebleness. Washington has very little to show for its investigation of the Ben-ghazi attacks. One leading suspect is in custody—Egyptian custody—and we’re being denied access to him. Another sipped a strawberry frappe in the lobby of a luxury hotel in Benghazi as he told a New York Times reporter that he felt no need to hide from the United States. And when a third suspect was freed from a Tunisian prison earlier this month, the U.S. government was given no warning, but extremists belonging to an al Qaeda-linked group apparently had advance notice.
If there is any urgency to the U.S. government’s efforts to “bring to justice” the terrorists, it’s well hidden. It took the FBI team assigned to investigate Benghazi nearly a month to arrive there. Later, after they had supposedly scoured the U.S. consulate, on two separate occasions reporters found highly sensitive documents on the floor—some including the names of Libyans working with the U.S. government. Robert Mueller, the head of the FBI, visited Libya as part of the investigation for the first time last week.
But nothing demonstrates the lack of urgency so much as the case of Ali Ani al Harzi, a jihadist who was detained in Tunisia for his suspected involvement in the attacks until his surprising release on January 8.
U.S. officials first became suspicious of Harzi after learning that he had “posted an update on social media about the fighting [in Benghazi] shortly after it had begun,” according to Eli Lake of the Daily Beast. That post was “one of the first clues the intelligence community had about the perpetrators” of the September 11 assault on the U.S. consulate.
Harzi did not stay in Libya after the attacks, but instead made his way to Turkey. It was there in early October, at the request of the U.S. government, that Harzi and a fellow Tunisian were arrested. Harzi was reportedly en route to join the jihad against Bashar al-Assad’s crumbling regime in nearby Syria.
In mid-October, Harzi was deported from Turkey to Tunisia. During a televised interview on November 1, Tunisian interior minister Ali Larayedh explained that Harzi was “strongly suspected to have been involved in the attack of Benghazi.”
The U.S. government, which had provided the intelligence that led to Harzi’s capture, asked the Tunisians for access to him. These requests were met with silence, then stonewalling. The State Department, apparently concerned about the stability of the country’s young, post-Arab Spring government, elected in October, did little to pressure the Tunisians for access. Republicans in Congress, led by Lindsey Graham and Saxby Chambliss in the Senate and Frank Wolf in the House, threatened the Tunisian government with consequences for its lack of cooperation.
In early November, Graham and Chambliss announced that the Tunisians had agreed in principle to allow U.S. investigators to interview Harzi in the presence of his lawyer and a judge. But days passed, then weeks, and the FBI interrogators who had gone to Tunisia to question Harzi were not given access to him. One source familiar with the investigation tells The Weekly Standard that FBI agents spent five weeks in Tunis as the government resisted requests for time with Harzi.