Benghazi: The Definitive Report is not very definitive.
The new and much hyped book by special-0perations vets Jack Murphy and Brandon Webb begins with the promise to “name names and hold accountable those who acted cowardly and those who erred by seeking to protect their political careers at the expense of human lives.” There is not much rain after that big wind, though. The authors’ admiration for the awesome valor displayed by those who laid down their lives for their country pours off every page. Especially gripping is their account of the bravery of Ty Woods and Glen Doherty, the former Navy SEALs who were killed on September 11, 2012, only after saving dozens of Americans. But on the accountability side of the ledger, the authors mostly don’t name names or grapple with the major questions, bending over backwards to help President Obama avoid accountability. And where they offer searing criticism, there is not much hard evidence to back it up.
This is not to say that their allegations are necessarily wrong. We just cannot say, er … definitively. The Murphy/Webb investigative method is to conduct interviews with their network of governmental sources (in the military, intelligence, diplomatic and law enforcement communities) who remain anonymous. The authors stitch together the narrative, and we must trust that they’ve grasped the big picture, asked the right questions, not been played by witnesses who are settling scores or motivated by other biases, filled in the blanks with reasonable inferences rather than supposition, and been willing to challenge not only their sources but also their own predispositions.
One name they do name, and quite controversially, is John Brennan, President Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser at the time of the Benghazi massacre and now his nominee to become CIA director. Brennan, the authors claim, is conducting “a secret war across North Africa.” A principal aim of this war, allegedly waged with the president’s rubber-stamp approval but without his active supervision, is to vanquish al-Qaeda-aligned militant groups. Against these jihadists, Brennan is said to direct “his own unilateral operations … outside of the traditional command structure.”
Messrs. Murphy and Webb also identify Mr. Brennan’s point man as Admiral William McRaven, commander presently of U.S. Special Operations and formerly of the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC). Brennan, the authors say, hatches the plans and McRaven then mobilizes JSOC assets like SEAL Team Six and Delta Force. These special ops experts proceed to execute lethal anti-terror missions that are “off the books” — as in “not coordinated through the Pentagon or other governmental agencies, including the CIA.”
That’s not all. In his spare time, Brennan is further alleged to be running “a highly compartmentalized program out of the White House” to transfer weapons from Libya to the “rebel fighters in Syria.” That is how the authors refer to Bashar al-Assad’s opposition, adopting the Obamedia’s ennobling convention — one that deflects attention from the inconvenience that the “rebels” championed by the administration in Libya and Syria feature many of the same anti-American jihadists American forces have been fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In any event, the claimed weapons-to-Syria scheme is secret, and thus “compartmentalized,” to provide plausible deniability. The authors mostly steer clear of why deniability might be desirable. Knowledgeable readers will bear in mind, though, that the president has already been derided for forcibly disposing of the Qaddafi regime without congressional authorization, thereby empowering Libyan jihadists with both political authority and Qaddafi’s prodigious arsenal. A reprise in Syria would be roundly criticized at home, so the administration leads from behind, in the shadows.
The authors at times theorize, and at times flat out assert, that Brennan’s covert war against al-Qaeda in northern Africa is the direct catalyst for the terrorist murders of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans (the aforementioned Ty Woods and Glen Doherty, as well as Sean Smith, a State Department information technology specialist). That is, Brennan’s private JSOC forces targeted high-level al Qaeda operatives (including one said to be particularly important, but whom the authors decline to name “out of consideration for operational security”). The campaign is said to have angered Ansar al-Sharia, Libya’s al-Qaeda franchise. In retaliation, the jihadists attacked the State Department installation and a nearby CIA annex on September 11, 2012.
According to the authors, there is sad irony in this: Amb. Stevens, they insist, was deeply opposed to Brennan’s unilateral warfare, thinking it counterproductive to his mission in Libya. Consequently, the authors intuit that the ambassador “probably” did not know the details of the JSOC missions choreographed by Brennan and McRaven. Similarly in the dark, the authors contend, was David Petraeus, the hubristic figure who rode the media roller-coaster from iconic general to disgraced former CIA director — done in, according to Murphy and Webb, by his faithless CIA personal security team, which exploited the faithless director’s canoodling with the faithless Paula Broadwell. In this sympathetic account, General Petraeus seems more like Mr. Magoo than the hard-driving chief of a superpower’s premier intelligence agency.
There are holes in the authors’ retaliation theory, beginning with their own catalogue of numerous jihadist attacks against Western targets in Benghazi, long predating September 11, 2012. Certainly, U.S. forces have been killing many terrorists, but it is not like al-Qaeda needed a tit-for-tat reason to attack U.S. installations. In point of fact, al-Qaeda attacks Western targets, especially American targets, for ideological reasons — a fact that is skirted with regularity lest we focus too closely on the nexus between Islamic doctrine and Islamic extremism.
On that salient point, the authors are not exactly definitive. They refer to the “rise of Islamic extremism in Benghazi,” which is said to have posed a growing threat that Stevens uniquely recognized. But there has been no “rise.” As the authors themselves concede, Libya has long been home to such “hotbeds” of Islamic extremism as Benghazi and Derna. In fact, the authors acknowledge that Islamic extremism is “homegrown” in these parts. Of course, this indisputable fact was the basis for Qaddafi’s counterterrorism partnership with the United States and other Western governments. In light of this, why did the Obama administration suddenly swing from alliance with Qaddafi to alliance with the opposition forces arrayed against him — forces that were rife with jihadists? The authors indicate that this question is outside their ken; but it is central, and no account can be definitive without addressing it.
Our government’s curious switch of allegiances is highly relevant to another pivotal question that the authors elide: Why did the State Department have an office in Benghazi in the first place? As the authors point out — while making a compelling case that the security provided at the site was appallingly inadequate — Benghazi has long been one of the most perilous places on the planet for Americans. So why have an installation there? And why was Amb. Stevens in Benghazi on September 11 — the anniversary to the 9/11 attacks, and thus a particularly attractive date for jihadists who’d already demonstrated a desire to kill Americans in Benghazi? These questions have still not been answered, and this book does not attempt to grapple with them.
In an interesting and related twist, the authors initially take pains to point out that the State Department’s facility in Benghazi was not a consulate; it was, instead, a “Temporary Mission” that was “set up on a much more ad hoc basis.” Yet, the authors decide to join the chorus anyway, weakly explaining that they will call the temporary mission a “consulate,” even though it was not one, because “it served a similar purpose.” But it did not: A consulate is a mini-embassy that conducts diplomatic services; the Benghazi “temporary mission” did not. U.S. diplomatic services in Libya are provided in Tripoli. In Benghazi, the best the authors can say is that State hoped to “help build diplomatic inroads … during a transitional period in Libya[.]”
Well, whatever was going on elsewhere in Libya, it was not much of “a transitional period” in Benghazi. There, as in Derna, the populace prominently featured jihadists who hated America, both during and after Qaddafi’s reign. As the authors suggest, the CIA certainly had reasons to be in Benghazi: to gather intel against anti-American actors (intel we were no longer getting from Qaddafi); to hunt down WMD and the rest of Qaddafi’s extensive arsenal that were sure to fall into jihadist hands once the Obama administration decided to switch sides; and to gather up weapons — presumably for Brennan’s covert pipeline to Syria, although the authors are not entirely clear on what, if anything, the CIA knew about this alleged scheme. But why on earth did the State Department need a facility in a place so dangerous, a place where Western targets were so regularly attacked that other countries (like Britain) had the good sense to leave?
When it comes to the fallout of the massacre, the authors assume an irritating “above it all” posture, harrumphing that commentators on the left and right have leveled only politically motivated, recklessly inaccurate criticisms — such that this purportedly “definitive” and courageously apolitical book is necessary. Obama detractors come in for special condemnation, with the authors claiming to explode their “myths” about presidential malevolence. But their assertion that the principal case against Obama is that he is a “callous, evil man” who expressly denied military help to Americans under siege is a straw-man.
To be sure, there was a fringe claim that the administration ordered military commanders to stand down as they were preparing to send air support and other assets to the bloody scene — a report which, as the authors observe, has been debunked. Nevertheless, the principal condemnation of Obama has been his dereliction of duty, not any affirmative obstruction of subordinates. The president was well aware, early on, that the compound was under terrorist attack, yet he was weirdly disengaged and failed to take rudimentary aggressive and protective measures, an abdication that was likely the difference between life and death for at least two of the victims — Woods and Doherty. In the aftermath, despite being well aware that the operation against the compound had been a lengthy, coordinated terrorist assault, and that there had been no protest in Benghazi over the infamous “Mohammed video,” the president and his underlings willfully misled the public by insisting, for many days and in several high-profile forums, that the murders were the result of spontaneous rioting over the video. That shameful sleight-of-hand came to include the adhesive prosecution of the producer of the video — under the guise of a probation violation — resulting in his imprisonment for, in effect, exercising his constitutional free-speech rights (which is to say, resulting in the imposition of sharia blasphemy standards over First Amendment liberty).
Far from undermining this indictment of Obama, the authors actually support it, conceding that the president is “aloof and rather ineffective.” Their attempt to absolve Obama of culpability, their effort to help him evade accountability in a book that pretends to demand accountability, is embarrassingly lame. “The reality of the modern state,” they burble, is “bureaucratic machinery” that is “extensive and sprawling,” too cumbersome for any president to steer. “[T]here is no way for American power to be projected effectively if every bureaucrat is waiting for the President to bless his actions.”
How ridiculous. What we now know, no thanks to this “definitive” account, is that the president did nothing but tell his defense secretary and counterterrorism adviser to deal with the siege. He did not give them orders to move available military assets into the theater, he did not demand to be updated while Americans were under attack, he did not even pick up the telephone to call his secretary of state (whose subordinates were being mauled) or to call the Libyan authorities — who would not be in power without his help against Qaddafi — to demand that they provide all necessary assistance and clearance to the few American reinforcements who were trying to respond. That last abdication is crucial. As the authors relate, the team of JSOC and CIA operatives led by Doherty in Tripoli was significantly delayed and had to bribe Libyan pilots ($30,000) to take them to Benghazi; there, the authors report, “the US team was initially held up at the airport for a few hours. It’s unclear whether this was intentional or not, but the Americans eventually forced their way through” the Libyan obstructionists.
So oddly intent on absolving the president are the authors, they don’t seem to notice that their conclusion that “it appears as if every informed agency and organization [in our government] tried its best to give whatever help it could during the attack” comes exactly two sentences before they recount how the CIA chief in Benghazi refused to authorize Ty Woods’ proposal to attempt to rescue Amb. Stevens. Woods had to browbeat his superior — and the authors admit that Woods’ heroic rescue mission may well have been against orders. That’s the CIA trying its best?
Remember, Obama is the president who, we’ve been told, personally pores over enemy combatant files to determine who should be killed — the president who, supposedly, was deeply engaged in famously successful Navy SEAL operations to kill Osama bin Laden and rescue hostages from Somali pirates. Yet somehow, Murphy and Webb tell us, “the 9/11 Benghazi attack really doesn’t involve the President all that much one way or the other.” Well, Obama certainly did choose not to involve himself. How odd that two special forces veterans would think the commander-in-chief gets to make such a choice.