The Cost of Hyping the Benghazi Case

Despite Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s testimony, Republicans won’t let go of their favorite faux scandal: Was a Clinton subordinate imprecise in TV comments about last year’s attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi? Ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar says it’s now a case of partisanship undermining true national security.

By Paul R. Pillar

There appears to be no end in sight to the fixation on the lethal incident last year in Benghazi, Libya, and to the determination to wring as much recrimination from it as possible. The topic demonstrates how much an issue launched and exploited during the heat of an election campaign can continue as a national distraction well after the election has come and gone.

One might have thought that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s swan-song congressional testimony this week would mark the end of this preoccupation, but that now seems unlikely. Anyone with an interest in undermining the political prospects of this once-and-possible-future presidential candidate, or of the administration she has been serving the past four years, has an interest in keeping the issue going.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before Congress on Jan. 23, 2013, about the fatal attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, last Sept. 11. (Photo from C-SPAN coverage)

I addressed last fall the principles that need to be borne in mind when thinking about an incident such as the one in Benghazi. I am pleased to note that the director of national intelligence — who does not have a dog in the partisan political fight that has become a subtext of this issue — agrees with my observations enough to have incorporated them explicitly into a speech. The principles remain valid.

The State Department’s accountability review board has completed its study of the incident, has issued its report, and has had all of its recommendations accepted by the Secretary of State. If this does not bring closure to the matter for anyone who has a straightforward, non-political, non-recrimination-driven concern about the incident, it is hard to imagine what would or should bring such closure.

Given the shape that the preoccupation and associated rhetoric about this incident has taken, we also should note that the fixation on it has a couple of longer-term costs. One of them comes under the heading of the perfect being the enemy of the good.

The zero-incident standard that is implied by much of the rhetoric — and that is implied by the discourse that habitually follows many terrorist incidents — risks impeding government operations in ways that outweigh whatever good can be done by pursuing the unattainable goal of zero incidents. In the case of the events in Libya, the impeding has to do with the unavoidable trade-off between diplomats and other foreign-based U.S. officials doing their jobs energetically and effectively, and keeping those same officials secure from those who might do them harm.

The longer and louder are the recriminations about Benghazi, the more that future secretaries of state and those who work for them will respond by low-risk approaches that keep their people relatively safe behind the high walls of fortress-like embassies, at the expense of doing their jobs effectively. The resulting damage to U.S. foreign policy can take many forms, including damage to counterterrorism.

Another cost concerns the common-knowledge narrative that seems to be emerging about what led to the attack in Benghazi. The narrative is simply that a terrorist group plotted the attack and that other circumstances, including an inflammatory anti-Islam video that was receiving much attention at the time, had nothing to do with it. That narrative is incorrect as well as damaging, notwithstanding all the laborious reconstructions about this particular attack not growing out of a popular demonstration.

Terrorist attacks rarely grow out of popular demonstrations, but popular anger has a great deal to do with stimulating terrorism, providing a permissive environment for it, and increasing the pool of angry people who may resort to or be recruited into terrorism. Anti-U.S. terrorism correlates with people being angry about things associated with America, including unofficial things such as the offensive video and official policies and actions.

Failure to understand that connection encourages the unproductive view that countering terrorism is just a matter of eradicating a fixed roster of terrorist groups; making that view the basis for policy increases the chance of more Americans becoming victims of terrorism.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post  at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

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7 comments on “The Cost of Hyping the Benghazi Case

  1. F. G. Sanford on said:

    “The State Department’s accountability review board has completed its study of the incident, has issued its report, and has had all of its recommendations accepted by the Secretary of State.” Sounds like they followed the same protocol the bankers on Wall Street followed in the aftermath of the financial melt-down. After all, none of that was really THEIR fault, and we can trust them when they say, “We won’t let it happen again”. We should be understanding and sympathetic to Madam Secretary too. After all, by campaigning for, then gloating over the destabilization of Qaddafi’s government, which enabled terrorists to make off with most of his conventional weapons arsenal and set the stage for escalated violence in Mali, she was only pursuing the same Neocon agenda her Republican detractors would have pursued had they been in her place. “The longer and louder are the recriminations about Benghazi, the more that future secretaries of state and those who work for them will respond by low-risk approaches that keep their people relatively safe behind the high walls of fortress-like embassies, at the expense of doing their jobs effectively.” If doing their jobs effectively includes destabilization of foreign governments, perhaps those loud, long recriminations aren’t such a bad thing. There are consequences to meddling in complex regional disputes among cultures our government attempts to manipulate by consulting “think tanks” instead of real experts. The real experts would have cautioned about the consequences of military intervention, and the connection to “blow-back”. We routinely fail to accurately assess the consequences of these interventions. “Failure to understand that connection encourages the unproductive view that countering terrorism is just a matter of eradicating a fixed roster of terrorist groups; making that view the basis for policy increases the chance of more Americans becoming victims of terrorism.” Christopher Stevens was someplace he had no business being and he was doing something he had no business doing the night he died. The idea that nobody touched on that reality is the real farce. The hearings which engaged Madam Secretary did nothing to shed any light on why an American Ambassador was at an unsecured consular annex in the middle of a war zone under circumstances which defy logical explanation. The American public has a short memory. “Anyone with an interest in undermining the political prospects of this once-and-possible-future presidential candidate”… should remember that elements rumored to be affiliated with terrorists may have been armed and engaged in the destabilization of Libya, Syria, Mali and perhaps ultimately Algeria during her tenure. Of course, we can’t really blame her, can we? She was just doing her job. You know, like the bankers on Wall Street. Maybe we shouldn’t call it “blow-back”. The thugs where I grew up called it “pay-back”. And you know what they say about pay-back. Besides, 2016 is a long way off.

  2. incontinent reader on said:

    Amen.

  3. VivekJain on said:

    Why doesn’t Paul Pillar question the lethal incidents known as the illegal, ever-numerous, unnecessary, imperialist wars?

    The GOP may be trying to score “political points” by grandstanding for its base, but note the consensus between the two pro-capitalist, pro-war, pro-imperialist, pro-corporate parties, neither of which diverges from the sociopathic goal of global dominance.

    Paul Pillar euphemistically refers to the CIA presence in Libya as a ” U.S. mission”. Why the deception? The article from October 2012 titled “Second-Guessing About Benghazi” published in “The National Interest” dishonestly obscures what these imperialist agents actually do. (And observe the clever use of “duty” and “service”–the false impression that spies and diplomats serve the interests of the American people has long been cultivated for the popular imagination.)

    Pillar says that the cynical line of questioning “undermin[es] true national security.” Our numerous social problems are related to Washington’s violence and violation abroad. American people define “national security” in terms of “social health”, not “military power” as the Beltway does.

    I have no confidence in the study by the State Department’s review board. A conflict of interest precludes any meaningful, reliable scrutiny. Pillar seems to say, “Well, you got your report, move on. Case closed. Nothing to see here.” This only calls into question Pillar’s own integrity and motives.

    The administration lied in its early response. Deepa Kumar has written about the Islamophobia underlying the statements and Glenn Greenwald too has documented the discrepancies in the narrative by the WH. Why no mention of America’s illegal war on the people and government of Libya? Or the illegal weapons transfer that’s largely been ignored by analysts at consortiumnews?

    Pillar mentions the concern of secretaries of state for keeping “their people relatively safe behind the high walls of fortress-like embassies, at the expense of doing their jobs effectively.” What do “their jobs” entail? In whose interests? At whose expense? What has “U.S. foreign policy” been about all these years? Does Pillar think we’re all dupes?

    Also, what’s with the awkwardly-affixed line about “counterterrorism”? Washington’s foreign policy involves inflicting terror on populations abroad. Since when have US policymakers cared about blowback or the costs borne by civilians, American or not?

  4. Rehmat on said:

    The terrorist attack on CIA compound in Benghazi, like the 9/11, was an inside job – but blamed on the so-called “the Muslims who hate our democracy!”. The Zionist-controlled United States will spen many decades to discuss Benghazi issue to confuse the American public – as it has been doing to fool the public about president JFK assassination which was ordered by Israel’s first prime minister David Ben Gurion.

    The Zionist lawmakers will waste tens of millions of taxpayers’ money to cover Zionist crimes.

    Canadian Jewish academic, Henry Makow PhD, who as a young Zionist spent a few years at illegal Jewish settlement in occupied Palestine – says that the murder of US ambassador was an Israeli false flag operation to push America into war with Iran.

    “The US ambassador to Libya murdered earlier today was a martyr to Zionist attempts to draw the US into war with Iran.

    http://rehmat1.com/2012/09/12/libya-you-reap-what-you-sow/

  5. Hillary on said:

    Obama the US Nobel Peace Prise winner’Record”
    .
    Signed the NDAA into law – making it legal to assassinate Americans w/o charge or trial.
    Initiated, and personally oversees a ‘Secret Kill List’.
    Waged war on Libya without congressional approval.
    Started a covert, drone war in Yemen.
    Escalated the proxy war in Somalia.
    Escalated the CIA drone war in Pakistan.
    Maintained a presence in Iraq even after “ending” the war.
    Sharply escalated the war in Afghanistan.
    .
    Yes –”Washington’s foreign policy involves inflicting terror on populations abroad. Since when have US policymakers cared about blowback or the costs borne by civilians, American or not?

  6. Worst things about the Benghazi hearings? ILLUSION and RHETORIC.

    It seems the more that is put out about the Benghazi attack, the less information there is; even the hearings were not investigatory. Instead the hearings about Benghazi were–

    1/ political polarization rhetoric in a theater of the absurd which steers the public away from real issues;

    2/ a rhetoric directly within the framework of the illusary terrorist threat of the perpetual Global War On Terror (GWOT) which the globalizers and Military Industrial Complex profiteers use as cover for their new brand of colonialism/imperialism/exploitation wherein they are dividing anew the lands of the Middle East and Africa; and

    3/ a rhetoric which skirts the actual intent of the New Globalized World Order which individuals like Secretary Clinton write about for the One Percent through the venue of the Council on Foreign Relations, etc.

    So what are some issues? Here are a few to ask questions about:

    o WHY ARE WE IN AFRICA WITH AFRICOM and WHAT IS THE STATE DEPARTMENT’S ROLE WITH AFRICOM?
    o WHAT IS AND HAS BEEN GOING ON IN BENGHAZI UNDER USA STATE DEPARTMENT COVER, THAT IS, WHAT COVERT CIA and AFRICOM PROGRAMS WERE OPERATED OUT OF BENGHAZI?
    o WHAT ROLE DID AMBASSADOR J. CHRISTOPHER STEVENS PLAY IN CIA and AFRICOM PROGRAMS?
    o WAS AMBASSADOR STEVENS THE UNDERSTUDY OF DEATH SQUAD ARCHITECT JOHN NEGROPONTE?
    o DID THE STATE DEPARTMENT THROUGH AMBASSADOR STEVENS PLAY AN OPERATIONAL ROLE IN COVERT CIA PROGRAMS USED TO DESTABILIZE LIBYA AND SYRIA AND OTHER SOVEREIGN STATES IN THE REGION?

    Bizarre theatrics between the Senators and the Secretary of the State Department are no substitute for the actual INFORMATION GATHERING this country needs to find out what is going on.

    Frenetic hand-wringing about fear, fear, FEAR of terrorists and the illusion that we must further tighten security are not a substitute for THE ABSOLUTE REQUIREMENT OF GETTING TO THE BOTTOM OF SECRETtED FOREIGN POLICY AND SECRET FOREIGN PROGRAMS OUR EXECUTIVE BRANCH REFUSES TO DEVULGE TO THE PEOPLE OF THE UNITED STATES.

    No more dramatics from senatorial drama kings and State Department drama queens.

    In an effective democracy it would be possible to conduct a REAL investigation that gives The People REAL answers and facts.