The Obama administration continued to claim Sunday that the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, were not planned or coordinated but spontaneous responses to news of an anti-Islam video that happened to take place on the eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. It’s a highly dubious claim, challenged by top Libyan officials, eyewitness accounts, several U.S. officials with access to the intelligence on the attack, and, it must be said, by common sense.
But Obama officials are undeterred. As they have done on two previous occasions after attempted attacks on U.S. interests – the attempted bombing of an airplane over Detroit and failed bomb plot in Times Square – top Obama officials are stubbornly clinging to a narrative that is politically advantageous but increasingly hard to square with reality.
On Sunday, it fell to Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to make the administration’s case.
“Our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous – not a premeditated – response to what had transpired in Cairo,” she said on This Week. “In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated…. We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to – or the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons…. And then it evolved from there.”
“The idea that this criminal and cowardly act was a spontaneous protest that just spun out of control is completely unfounded and preposterous,” said Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif.
On September 12, the New York Times reported: “American and European officials said that while many details about the attack remained unclear, the assailants seemed organized, well trained and heavily armed, and they appeared to have at least some level of advance planning. But the officials cautioned that it was too soon to tell whether the attack was related to the anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks.”
Many other outlets – foreign and domestic – carried similar reports sourced to U.S. intelligence officials and witnesses on the scene.
After his briefings the day after the attacks, Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox News that evidence showed the Benghazi attacks were planned. “Absolutely, I have no doubt about it. It was a coordinated, military-style, commando-type raid.”
Several days later, in an appearance on Fox News Sunday, Rogers, a former FBI agent, reiterated his view that the attacks were planned and challenged the administration’s story. “The way that the attack took place, I have serious questions. It seemed to be a military style coordinated. They had indirect fire, coordinated with direct fire, rocket attacks. They were able to launch two different separate attacks on locations there near the consulate and they repelled a fairly significant Libyan force that came to rescue the embassy,” he said. “And then it was on 9/11 and there is other information, classified information, that we have that just makes you stop for a minute and pause. And as the first thing you learn as a young FBI agent in this, there are coincidences but they're not likely, and there are a lot of coincidences about this event.”
Intelligence officials are looking into whether the assault on the U.S. embassy in Cairo had some advance planning, as well. On September 10, Ayman al Zawahiri, the Egyptian who replaced Osama bin Laden as al Qaeda’s top leader, released a video message promising to avenge the death of a top Libyan al Qaeda operative, Abu Yahya al Libi. “Every time martyrs fall, then the call of jihad gets new life,” Ayman al Zawahiri said, according to a translation provided by the SITE Institute. “And every time the spirit of jihad spreads, the end nears for the arrogance and mightiness of the evil empire, America.” As he says these words, the video shows footage of his brother, Mohammad al Zawahiri, who led the protest in Cairo the following day – the eleventh anniversary of 9/11. In addition to that, a U.S. official reviewing the intelligence on the attacks tells THE WEEKLY STANDARD that security officials guarding the embassy “melted away” when the protests intensified – something that had not happened during any of the other previous protests at the embassy.
Still, those speaking for the Obama administration continued to insist through the weekend that the attack was a spontaneous event.
There is a pattern here. In the aftermath of previous attacks, the Obama administration has held onto whatever storyline makes them least potentially culpable long after evidence suggested it was incorrect.
After Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate a bomb in his underwear on December 25, 2009, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano insisted that “the system worked.” It hadn’t. And three days after the attack, well after the U.S. government began to learn the extent of Abdulmutallab’s relationship to international terrorism, and after the bomber himself told the FBI that he’d trained with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, President Obama read a statement claiming that Abdulmutallab was “an isolated extremist.”
On May 3, 2010, two days after Faisal Shahzad attempted to detonate a Nissan Pathfinder in Times Square, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano dismissed reports of a broader conspiracy and insisted that the attack was just a “one-off” attempt by a single terrorist.
She was wrong. “We’ve now developed evidence that shows that the Pakistani Taliban was behind the attack,” Attorney General Eric Holder told ABC News one week later. “We know that they helped facilitate it, we know that they probably helped finance it and that he was working at their direction.” Indeed, one day before the attempted attack, the Pakistani Taliban had set up an Internet video channel and uploaded a video claiming credit for a coming attack on U.S. soil.
In both of those instances, the fact that the attacks were unsuccessful mitigated the effects of the intelligence failures that preceded the attempts.
In the aftermath of the violence in Egypt and Libya, the Obama administration is facing tough questions about these attacks, in particular, and Obama’s policies in the greater Middle East. The president has been campaigning as the leader who killed Osama bin Laden and has presided over the decimation of al Qaeda. “The war on terror is over,” a senior State Department official said last spring.
But the war on terror is not over. And just as they’ve had to do after presenting flawed accounts of previous attacks, look for the Obama administration to adjust its story on the events of last week in Egypt and Libya.