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State Dept. Official: 'The Content Had Expired' in Withdrawn Pre-Benghazi Terrorism Report

3:01 PM, May 7, 2013 • By JERYL BIER
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The congressional hearings on the 9/11 Benghazi attacks this week will likely focus on the classic questions often asked on such occasions: what did those involved know, and when did they know it?  Not only will the post-attack words and actions of government officials come under scrutiny, but those preceding the September 11, 2012 attacks on the Benghazi consulate, as well.  One largely overlooked aspect of the investigations thus far involves a report issued by the State Department's "Overseas Security Advisory Council" on September 6, 2012, just five days before the attack. That report was removed from the OSAC website on September 14, just three days after the attacks because, in the words of a State Department official in an email this week, "the content had expired." The report was removed the same day that the now infamous "talking points" were undergoing extensive revision.  The report begins as follows (the text of the entire report is included at the end of this article):

Terrorism and Important Dates
9/6/2012
Summary

OSAC currently has no credible information to suggest that al-Qa’ida or any other terrorist group is plotting any kind of attack overseas to coincide with the upcoming anniversary of September 11. However, constituents often have concerns around important dates, holidays, and major events, Often times, these concerns are the result of increased media attention to the issue, rather than credible evidence of a terrorist plot.

This apparent downplaying of the likelihood of an anniversary-date attack is repeated in the conclusion of the report:

As highlighted throughout the report, al-Qa’ida and other terrorist groups are unlikely to conduct large-scale attacks on significant dates or holidays due to the heightened security levels.  However, U.S. private sector organizations operating abroad in countries that have not raised their overall security levels may want to consider their vigilance and guard against complacency.

The Overseas Security Advisory Council is part of the Bureau of Diplomatic Security under the U.S. Department of State.  The mission of the council is "to promote security cooperation between American private sector interests worldwide (Private Sector) and the U.S. Department of State."  Part of its function is to issue Travel Warnings, Travel Alerts, Emergency Messages to U.S. Citizens, and the like.   Many of the reports issued by the OSAC are available in full only to registered "constituents." However, there is a publicly accessible menu of reports, some requiring a login to access, some freely available to all.  Originally, the Terrorism and Important Dates report was listed in the public menu with the others.  Here is a screencap from September 8, 2012:

Hundreds of such reports are listed on the OSAC website going back years.  However, three days after the Benghazi attacks, the Terrorism and Important Dates report disappeared from the menu.  A current search of the OSAC website for it still fails to turn up any evidence of its existence.  A source with subscriber access confirmed back on September 29, 2012 that as of that date, the report was behind the subscriber wall, accessible only with a login.

When asked this week about the current status of the report and for an explanation of its disappearance, a State Department official replied via email, "A report was posted on September 6 and was removed on September 14, after the content had expired."  When pressed for clarification on what "expired" meant and who made the determination that it had "expired," the official did not respond.  The "expired" comment is curious since dozens of reports whose content has arguably "expired" are still listed on the site.

Although the missing report received a substantial amount of attention on conservative blogs and news sites in the weeks following the attacks, the story was not reported in the wider media.  Additionally, it was not mentioned in either the State Department's Accountability Review Board report or the report issued by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.  (The latter report does mention a February 2012 OSAC report, see footnote on page 11, but not the September 6, 2012 report.)

The OSAC's reports are prepared within the Bureau of Diplomatic Security of the State Department specifically for the private sector interests serviced by the Council.  However, the reports presumably draw upon the same intelligence available to the State Department as a whole and reflect the attitudes and posture of the larger department.  Indeed, at an August 29, 2012 press briefing, in response to a question about a State Department travel warning about Pakistan, spokesperson Victoria Nuland disavowed any connection of the travel warning to the upcoming anniversary, stating, "It doesn’t have anything to do with September 11th."

Congress will have an opportunity this week to delve further into the decisions that led to the initial issuance of the Terrorism and Important Dates report, as well as the decision to remove the report after it "expired."  The answers to who made those decisions and for what reasons may help Congress get to the bottom of this disastrous episode.

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Here’s the full text of Terrorism and Important Dates report:

The apparent full text of the OSAC report, as posted on September 6, 2012 on the website of an OSAC constituent, reads as follows:

Terrorism and Important Dates
9/6/2012
Summary

OSAC currently has no credible information to suggest that al-Qa’ida or any other terrorist group is plotting any kind of attack overseas to coincide with the upcoming anniversary of September 11. However, constituents often have concerns around important dates, holidays, and major events, Often times, these concerns are the result of increased media attention to the issue, rather than credible evidence of a terrorist plot.

While it is true that In the aftermath of the May 2, 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abottabad, Pakistan, several media sources reported on various documents recovered during the raid that suggested al-Qa’ida was seeking to conduct significant attacks on major holidays and anniversaries, there are no indications that any of these plans were ever operational. OSAC constituents should review their local emergency action plans and security protocols ahead of major U.S. holidays and anniversary dates.

Terrorism and Holidays/Anniversary Dates

Historically, al-Qa’ida and other transnational terrorist groups have not conducted successful attacks on major U.S. holidays and anniversary dates. One possible explanation for this lack of activity is due to the increase in security on major dates because of a perceived vulnerability. A terrorist group that has spent a significant amount of time monitoring a potential target, training operatives, and acquiring the weapons necessary for a major attack would be less likely to attack when security is at a heightened level.

Terrorist groups are predisposed to conduct the attack first and justify the reasoning subsequently. One recent example of this predisposition was the June 28. 2011 attack on the InterContinental Hotel in Kabul. The attackers primary motivation was to kill as many Westerners and Afghan officials as possible; however, after media reports began erroneously claiming that an important Transition Conference was going to take place at the hotel the next day, the terrorists responsible for the attack claimed that they were in fact targeting that conference. Although specific dates may be important symbolically to terrorist groups, a near-term successful attack will likely be painted as both revenge for the death of bin Laden and a blow against the United States.

Implications

An international terrorist attack around a major international date or holiday would likely fall into one of the three following scenarios.

1) Attacks abroad on significant U.S. holidays, such as July 4 – while U.S. Missions abroad have likely increased their security profile during major U.S. government holidays, host nation security forces are unlikely to elevate their security levels.

2) Attacks following a drawdown of security after a major date – foreign countries will often increase their security posture during a major event such as the Olympics or World Cup, effectively deterring major attacks during the event. However, following the conclusion of the event, security is often reduced. Terrorist groups may wait for security levels to decrease before launching an attack.

3) Lone wolf attacks by independently radicalized individuals on significant dates – while terrorists operating as part of an established cell or network may prefer to bide their time and wait for an opportune moment to strike, individual sympathizers with no formal training or connection to a terrorist group could be inspired to conduct an attack on a significant date despite heightened levels of security. Lone wolves are less likely to attract the attention of host nation counter-terrorism officials.

Conclusion

At this time, OSAC is aware of no specific or credible threats against the U.S. private sector on September 11. As highlighted throughout the report, al-Qa’ida and other terrorist groups are unlikely to conduct large-scale attacks on significant dates or holidays due to the heightened security levels. However, U.S. private sector organizations operating abroad in countries that have not raised their overall security levels may want to consider their vigilance and guard against complacency. OSAC continues to monitor trends and emerging issues that may have a significant security impact on U.S. private sector operations overseas.

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