Exploiting the Benghazi Attack

The Romney campaign thinks it has an opening with the Obama administration’s shifting explanations about the lethal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But the reality is that diplomatic service is never risk free and facts about a complex event are never immediately clear, notes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

events like the attack The seemingly endless public rehashing of the attack in Benghazi that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans is not taking a form that serves any useful purpose. That would be true even without the political slant that was stemmed from efforts to turn some of the recriminations into a campaign issue.

The loss of the four public servants was a tragedy. The rehashing does not alleviate that tragedy. Some relevant truths should be recalled:

Marines carry the flag draped caskets of four U.S. diplomatic personnel who were killed in a Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The transfer ceremony was held at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, Sept. 14. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Diplomacy is a dangerous line of work. The memorial wall at the State Department listing the many U.S. diplomats, going back more than two centuries, who have been killed in the line of duty is a reminder of that. There is an inherent tension for diplomats between doing their duties well, with everything that entails regarding contact and exposure in faraway places, and living securely.

Hindsight is cheap. After any incident such as this, one can uncover warnings that might have been applicable to the incident that occurred, measures that could have been taken that conceivably could have prevented the occurrence and various other “what ifs.”

What does not routinely get noted is that the same sorts of things could be unearthed about countless other facilities that do not get attacked and countless other lethal incidents that do not occur. What is unearthed is a product of the second-guesser’s luxury of hindsight.

One always can construct an after-the-fact case that any one such incident was preventable; this is not the same as saying that such incidents in the aggregate are preventable.

Resources are limited; threats are not. Even if U.S. diplomats consistently opted for living securely over doing their jobs well, total security cannot be bought. Second-guessing about how more security should have been provided at any one facility rather than any of dozens of others elsewhere (that did not happen to get attacked this time) is just another example of hindsight.

Information about lethal incidents is not total and immediate. The normal pattern after such events is for explanations to evolve as more and better information becomes available.

We would and should criticize any investigators who settled on a particular explanation early amidst sketchy information and refused to amend that explanation even when more and better information came in. A demand for an explanation that is quick, definite and unchanging reflects a naive expectation, or in the present case, irresponsible politicking.

The public second-guessing does nothing to honor the service of those Americans who died. And it does nothing to prevent similar incidents. The Secretary of State has, per standard procedures, appointed an accountability review board (led by a highly respected and experienced retired diplomat, Thomas Pickering) to assess what happened in Benghazi. Let the board do its job.

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.)

14 comments for “Exploiting the Benghazi Attack

    October 4, 2012 at 10:52

    From the Washington Post:

    By Michael Birnbaum, Published: October 3

    BENGHAZI, Libya — More than three weeks after attacks in this city killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, sensitive documents remained only loosely secured in the wreckage of the U.S. mission on Wednesday, offering visitors easy access to delicate information about American operations in Libya.

    Documents detailing weapons collection efforts, emergency evacuation protocols, the full internal itinerary of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’s trip and the personnel records of Libyans who were contracted to secure the mission were among the items scattered across the floors of the looted compound when a Washington Post reporter and an interpreter visited Wednesday.


    The Obama Administration has done a lousy job. The writer claims Romney has “exploited” the situation..but the Obama Administration had attempted for days to pretend this was the result of a video that has been on YouTube since July. Now we find that CNN and Washington Post reporters have both been to the site and removed sensitive documents and the Ambassador’s diary..but the FBI is still not allowed access to the site, inspite of the $200 MILLION U. S. dollars given to the Libyan government after the attacks and murder of U. S. personnel..with Hillary announcing recently that the Obama Administration plans to give Libya another $400 MILLION in the coming weeks. Will the FBI we given access to the site if we give Libya $1.2 BILLION dollars..as we gave Egypt 2 weeks ago?

  2. Bill
    October 3, 2012 at 09:52

    I think the Obama Administration’s being deceptive – frankly – because I think Israel was involved in this. Just like they were involved in the Iranian Hostage Crises and its sequel Iran/Contra. And very much for the same reason: to get rid of a Democratic President it doesn’t like.

    • Jay
      October 3, 2012 at 16:34

      There’s thinking, though of course Reagan did the arms sales to Iran to surreptitiously fund his illegal proxy war in Nicaragua.

  3. Hillary
    October 3, 2012 at 09:13

    Ex CIA Agent Susan Lindauer had a lot to say about Libya but nobody listened.

    In fact they put her in prison.


    • F. G. Sanford
      October 4, 2012 at 16:23

      Can’t you see that she comes across as a stark raving lunatic? If she was a credible witness, they would have kept her in jail. It actually helps the government’s case to have her running around loose. Anybody that buys her story just looks like another crack-pot. For all I know, she could be telling the truth. But her demeanor is that of a completely delusional fruitcake who has rehearsed this story over and over again in her own mind until she believes it.

  4. calzone
    October 3, 2012 at 05:49

    Oh by the way, now there is even stronger indication that the administration was willfully lying: “Within hours of last month’s attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, President Barack Obama’s administration received about a dozen intelligence reports suggesting militants connected to al Qaeda were involved, three government sources said.” – http://uk.reuters.com/article/2012/10/03/uk-usa-libya-intelligence-idUKBRE89207120121003

    Why is it that liberals are OK with the government lying to the people when it’s a Democratic president? Of course, the Republicans are hypocritically exploiting the issue, but the Democrats are being hypocrites too.

    • Jay
      October 3, 2012 at 16:45

      Folded Pizza:

      Liberals aren’t okay with Obama lying about this. Just like liberals don’t like the fact that he didn’t pursue real medical insurance reform, that he has continued and in some ways surpassed GWBush’s civil liberties abuses, that he did not worked to repass Glass-Steagal. Still he’s a much better president than either of the Bushes or Reagan. And he’s still a better choice in November than Mittard.

      Why is it you can’t read the point above about there being frequent warnings about trouble for US facilities the world over?

      • calzone
        October 3, 2012 at 16:59

        Oh really? So, liberals are not okay with Obama lying about this?

        Why is it then that liberals are defending him, and criticizing conservatives for “exploiting the Benghazi attack.”

        I mean, of course conservatives are exploiting the attack, but that’s not the point. Unfortunately, conservatives are the only ones who are correctly calling out Obama for lying to the American people about this.

        But as you said above, other presidents have lied about bigger issues, so it doesn’t matter that Obama is lying about this.

        That’s your liberal logic at work and that is exactly why the country is in the shithole that it’s in.

  5. calzone
    October 3, 2012 at 04:41

    Thanks for this piece, Mr. Pillar, but in my opinion it doesn’t the key issue of this case. The question is, why did it take so long (weeks, not days) for the administration to concede that the attack was premeditated and committed by organized militant groups? To me this is the heart of the matter, and can only be answered one of two ways: it took far too long for the intelligence to be analyzed properly, or two, the administration was intentionally dissembling.

    My guess is that they were lying, and the reason they were lying, I think, is because they didn’t want to be criticized for backing these terrorists last year in the war to overthrow Gaddafi, only to be double-crossed by them this year. This is a classic case of BLOWBACK, a case in which the very people that we supported in an illegal intervention betrayed us, and actually stormed the US embassy and killed the ambassador.

    The Obama administration was embarrassed, so they lied. Simple as that. If it was the Bush administration that had done this, Democrats would be screaming bloody murder and Republicans would be rallying to the administration’s defense.

    • calzone
      October 3, 2012 at 04:42

      I meant to say, “it doesn’t address the key issue of this case.”

    • F. G. Sanford
      October 3, 2012 at 10:13

      Calzone, you nailed it right in the middle of the pizza. Hillary gloated over Gadaffi getting stabbed in the rectum (Yes, that was the actual cause of death), laughing about it and exclaiming, “We came. We saw, he died!” Support for this bunch of terrorist thugs would have been roundly criticized as Neocon Imperialism had it been conducted by the Bush administration. There has been a seamless transition from the Republican foreign policy strategy to the Democratic foreign policy, and it should be as plain as the nose on anybody’s face. Nothing changed, from Gitmo to Afghanistan. Expecting any outcome other than the one they got was just plain incompetence. Or…are they just covering for the fact that they don’t really call the shots? I’m not saying anybody deserved this, but they sure got what they asked for. Reference: Robert Fisk’s article in the Independent:


      It must surely dawn on somebody that, if the basic strategy of systematic destabilization of these countries by supporting militants has not changed from the Republican to the Democratic administrations, it is obviously NOT the Executive branch or the State Department calling the shots. When the contents remain the same regardless of what label is on the box, you must assume the product was manufactured in the same factory. Americans just seem oblivious to the fact that it doesn’t matter who they vote for, or are unwilling to hold them to their campaign promises. We got in bed with a bunch of barbarians, and this is the outcome we should expect. The same appears to be on the cusp of happening in Syria. Don’t get me wrong: there are no redeeming qualities about the Assad regime, except that he is definitely the lesser of two evils. Our electoral system appears to have been reduced to the same parameters: pick the bad…or the really, really bad. In Libya, we picked the really, really bad.

      I gotta wonder: Surely, professor Pillar must see through this hypocrisy.

      • calzone
        October 3, 2012 at 10:39

        F.G., I agree with you on every point. It’s truly amazing that the most logical reason for the administration’s dissembling on the embassy attack — that the people who carried out the attack were the very people that we were arming last year in support of their civil war — is the least discussed aspect of this entire sad episode.

        So, you have the GOP attacking the administration for lying about the attack, but failing to acknowledge this obvious point (because, of course, the US support for al-Qaeda in the Libyan civil war was a bipartisan policy), and now you have Democrats like Pillar defending the administration on the most ridiculous pretenses (basically that in the fog of war, intelligence is hazy, and being an ambassador is inherently dangerous, etc.).

        Is there anyone out there willing to tell the truth, regardless of partisan allegiances?

        By the way, it’s really time to acknowledge that the entire two-party system is an utter and complete failure. Whoever people decide to vote for is their own personal business, but in my view, voting for either of these two parties is willfully naive. It’s not even a question of the “lesser of two evils” anymore. All you’re doing by voting for either of these parties is playing your designated role in the charade known as US electoral politics.

        Obama has even come out and SAID that it is not possible to change Washington from within. Well, god damn, if not even the PRESIDENT has power to change things, do you really think that YOU have any power? Newsflash, you don’t — at least not while you keep playing by their rules and voting for the only two official parties that are allowed to compete on an even playing field. Voting for either of these parties is voting for the status quo of war, lawlessness and imperialism.

        • Jay
          October 3, 2012 at 16:36

          So Obama lied about a foreign policy disaster. Other presidents have told much bigger lies.

          • calzone
            October 3, 2012 at 16:54

            By the same logic, a murderer who only kills one person should be acquitted because, hey, after all, there are murderers out there who kill many more people than just one.

            It’s pretty much the same logic that every child has used at one point or another, which is usually responded to with the cliche, “two wrongs don’t make a right.” I don’t know, that argument never worked for me when I was eight years old, and it shouldn’t work for Obama either.

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