For nine days, the Obama administration made a case that virtually everyone understood was untrue: that the killing of our ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, was a random, spontaneous act of individuals upset about an online video—an unpredictable attack on a well-protected compound that had nothing do to with the eleventh anniversary of 9/11.
These claims were wrong. Every one of them. But the White House pushed them hard.
Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, appeared on five Sunday talk shows on September 16. A “hateful video” triggered a “spontaneous protest . . . outside of our consulate in Benghazi” that “spun from there into something much, much more violent,” she said on Face the Nation. “We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.”
On This Week, Rice said the consulate was well secured. “The security personnel that the State Department thought were required were in place,” she said, adding: “We had substantial presence with our personnel and the consulate in Benghazi. Tragically two of the four Americans who were killed were there providing security. That was their function, and indeed there were many other colleagues who were doing the same with them.”
White House press secretary Jay Carney not only denied that the attacks had anything to do with the anniversary of 9/11 but scolded reporters who, citing the administration’s own pre-9/11 boasts about its security preparations for the anniversary, made the connection. “I think that you’re conveniently conflating two things,” Carney snapped, “which is the anniversary of 9/11 and the incidents that took place, which are under investigation.”
Wrong, wrong, wrong, and wrong. Intelligence officials understood immediately that the attacks took place on 9/11 for a reason. The ambassador, in a country that faces a growing al Qaeda threat, had virtually no security. The two contractors killed in the attacks were not part of the ambassador’s security detail, and there were not, in fact, “many other colleagues” working security with them.
The nature of the attack itself, a four-hour battle that took place in two waves, indicated some level of planning. “The idea that this criminal and cowardly act was a spontaneous protest that just spun out of control is completely unfounded and preposterous,” Libyan president Mohammad el-Megarif told National Public Radio. When a reporter asked Senator Carl Levin, one of the most partisan Democrats in the upper chamber, if the attack was planned, Levin said it was. “I think there’s evidence of that. There’s been evidence of that,” he responded, adding: “The attack looked like it was planned and premeditated, sure.” Levin made his comments after a briefing from Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.
Representative Adam Smith, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, agreed. “This was not just a mob that got out of hand. Mobs don’t come in and attack, guns blazing. I think that there is a growing consensus it was preplanned.” And according to CNN, Undersecretary of State Patrick Kennedy “has said that the attack appeared to be planned because it was so extensive and because of the ‘proliferation’ of small and medium weapons at the scene.” Not only was the attack planned, it appears there was no protest at all. Citing eyewitnesses, CBS News reported late last week: “There was never an anti-American protest outside the consulate.”
So we are left with this: Four Americans were killed in a premeditated terrorist attack on the eleventh anniversary of 9/11, and for more than a week the Obama administration misled the country about what happened.
This isn’t just a problem. It’s a scandal.
If this were the first time top Obama officials had tried to sell a bogus narrative after an attack, perhaps they would deserve the benefit of the doubt. It’s not.
On December 28, 2009, three days after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab attempted to detonate explosives in his underwear aboard an airliner over Detroit, President Obama told the country that the incident was the work of “an isolated extremist.” It wasn’t. Abdulmutallab was trained, directed, and financed by Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a fact he shared with investigators early in his interrogation.
The same thing happened less than six months later, after Faisal Shahzad attempted to blow up his Nissan Pathfinder in Times Square. Two days following the botched attack, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano took to the Sunday shows to dismiss reports of a conspiracy and insisted that the attempted bombing was just a “one-off” by a single attacker. It wasn’t. A week later, after much of the information had leaked, Attorney General Eric Holder acknowledged that the United States had “evidence that shows that the Pakistani Taliban was behind the attack. We know that they helped facilitate it, we know that they probably helped finance it and that he was working at their direction.”
In each instance, top administration officials quickly downplayed or dismissed the seriousness of the events, only to acknowledge, after the shock had worn off and the media had turned to other news, that their initial stories were incorrect. Whether it was because the attempted attacks were unsuccessful or because the media simply lost interest, the administration largely escaped serious criticism for making claims that turned out to be wrong.
They’ve had mixed success this time. On the one hand, as the final elements of the administration’s story began to unravel in the middle of last week, the New York Times did not find those facts fit to print. On Thursday morning, the same day White House spokesman Jay Carney would finally admit that the Benghazi assault was “a terrorist attack,” the Times did not publish a story about Libya. It wasn’t as though it took serious digging to find the contradictions. One day earlier, Fox News had reported that intelligence officials were investigating the possibility that a former Guantánamo detainee had been involved in the attack. A story by Reuters raised questions about administration descriptions of the protests, noting “new information” that “suggests that the protests at the outset were so small and unthreatening as to attract little notice.” The story reported: “While many questions remain, the latest accounts differ from the initial information provided by the Obama administration, which had suggested that protests in front of the consulate over an anti-Islamic film had played a major role in precipitating the subsequent violent attack.” And CBS, as noted, reported that same day that there simply were no protests.
And what about the film? The Obama administration has sought to explain nearly everything that has happened over the past two weeks as a response to the video. President Obama denounced it during his remarks at the memorial for the four Americans killed in Libya. So did Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. White House spokesman Jay Carney has mentioned it almost daily. At the end of last week, the United States spent $70,000 to buy ads in Pakistan to distance the U.S. government from its message.
That’s ironic. In its effort to deflect blame for the unrest, the administration has given more attention to this obscure film than it ever would have gotten if they’d simply ignored it. It’s true that radical Islamists used the film to help populate the 9/11 protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo. But they also told fellow radicals to join in a protest of the continued detention of Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind sheikh who was behind the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. And some of the others who gathered were “Ultras”—soccer hooligans looking for trouble.
The American embassy in Cairo first drew attention to the film in its statement. And the administration—after initially distancing itself from that statement—has made it the centerpiece of its public relations campaign ever since, as protests spread to more than 20 countries. The result: Every Muslim with access to media is now aware of a bizarre video that had a few thousand views on YouTube on September 10.
That’s exactly what the radicals wanted, according to a U.S. intelligence official familiar with the reporting on Egypt. The focus on the film was an “information operation” by jihadists designed to generate rage against America. If he’s right, it worked.
Barack Obama came to office promising to repair relations with the Islamic world. What he couldn’t accomplish by the mere fact of his presidency, through his name and his familiarity with Islam, he would achieve through “smart diplomacy.”
Instead, over the last four years, and particularly the last two weeks, the defining characteristics of his foreign policy have been mendacity, incompetence, and, yes, stupidity.