Belmont Club

Sleight of Hand

Reports the FBI has still not started investigating the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi half a month after it occurred suggests that they’re really not going to.  The real crime of interest is not the murder of Ambassador Stephens but something else. While the ambassador’s death was tragic it may have been incidental. Collateral. The real objective of the Benghazi attack may have been US intelligence operations in North Africa and the Middle East.

“It’s a catastrophic intelligence loss,” said one U.S. official who has served in Libya and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the FBI is still investigating the attack. “We got our eyes poked out.”

The CIA’s surveillance targets in Benghazi and eastern Libya include Ansar al-Sharia, a militia that some have blamed for the attack, as well as suspected members of al-Qaida’s affiliate in North Africa, known as al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

These would have been the second set of eyes they got poked out. According to Michael Scheuer, former head of the Bin Laden search unit, the “Arab Spring” dealt a major blow to US intelligence efforts in the region because it disrupted the CIA’s ability to render suspects to Arab intelligence services.

“The help we were getting from the Egyptian intelligence service, less so from the Tunisians but certainly from the Libyans and Lebanese, has dried up – either because of resentment at our governments stabbing their political leaders in the back, or because those who worked for the services have taken off in fear of being incarcerated or worse.

“The amount of work that has devolved on US and British services is enormous, and the result is blindness in our ability to watch what’s going on among militants.”

Scheuer it will be recalled advocated US custody of detainees in the aftermath of September 11 because it was receiving bum information from the detainees tortured by the foreign intelligence agencies.  With the decomissioning of Guantanamo it was back to that high minded and humanitarian mode of questioning that Bush wished to reduce but which Obama caused to restore: rendition.

But he screwed that up too and some capability was probably being rebuilt from the ground up, perhaps by using militias and other subnational units in the role that Arab national intelligence agencies formerly performed. The Independent was one of the first to suggest that intelligence assets had been targeted in the Benghazi attack.

The US administration is now facing a crisis in Libya. Sensitive documents have gone missing from the consulate in Benghazi and the supposedly secret location of the “safe house” in the city, where the staff had retreated, came under sustained mortar attack. Other such refuges across the country are no longer deemed “safe”.

Some of the missing papers from the consulate are said to list names of Libyans who are working with Americans, putting them potentially at risk from extremist groups, while some of the other documents are said to relate to oil contracts.

CNN found Ambassador Stephen’s diary among the Benghazi ruins suggesting that none of the bad guys were interested in it or they would have scooped it up already. None of the attackers has been publicly describe as having been captured. They’re not hanging around the ruins of the the Benghazi consulate, which is probably a dry hole now, waiting for the FBI to spot them.

One of the reasons why the administration clung to the story that an anti-Muslim video sparked the attack for so long was because it could not admit to itself the more catastrophic alternative: that the attacks on the embassies were part of a big counterintelligence operation against the US. James Clapper apparently came to the reluctant conclusion some hours after the attack that it was his bailiwick not Hillary’s which was in the crosshairs.

Shawn Turner, spokesman for Clapper’s office, said that in the immediate aftermath of the attack, U.S. agencies came to the view that the Benghazi attack had begun spontaneously after protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo against a short film made in California lampooning the Prophet Mohammad.

Turner said that as U.S. intelligence subsequently learned more about the attack, “we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating that it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”

If Benghazi were an offensive counerintelligence operation then Clapper’s admission is is a half-truth at best. The organizations which mastermind such things are other intelligence agencies, only a handful of which would have been capable of carrying out something on this scale. Neither the rag-tag militias nor the remnants of al-Qaeda would have been able to do it. But some Arab intelligence agencies, or Iran’s or the ISI — might. If so then the attack may not have been masterminded by “al-Qaeda”, but it was for the benefit of al-Qaeda.

The whole thrust of what Roger L. Simon has called “Benghazigate” — an organized pattern of lying to lay the blame on the wave of attacks on an unknown video producer has been designed to avoid answering two questions:

1) who masterminded the attacks;
2) what help did they have from persons inside the United States.

These questions are probably being asked in parallel and explain the involvement of the FBI, whose remit is domestic counterintelligence. The FBI is probably not asking “who killed Stephens”. It is probably asking who knew where the safe house was? Who knew what the contingency plans were? And above all, when did you first hear about what must have been the cover story, the anti-Mohammed video. Answers to either or both of these questions would open a whole can of worms.

The biggest possible can of worms would be that the CIA had its “eyes poked out” to prevent it from seeing some dangerous operation that is even now hatching in the intelligence shadow of the ‘Arab Spring’: the possibility that there is something out there which has to be kept secret from US intelligence. How better to do it than to disrupt a major center of US intelligence operations in the area?

So it’s better for the public to think that an unknown video producer was the cause it all. The alternative, explanation: that the enemy intelligence agencies destroyed the CIA’s efforts to recover from the ‘Arab Spring’ and that America is now flying blind in the Middle East would be a hard thing to admit.

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