The Benghazi ‘Scandal’ Smokescreen

Official Washington can’t figure out how to have a meaningful discussion on critical foreign policy issues, like the alleged need for a stay-behind force in Afghanistan or rules for drone wars. Instead there’s a ginned-up scandal over Benghazi talking points, notes Independent Institute’s Ivan Eland.

By Ivan Eland

For weeks and months, the foreign policy debate in the United States has focused on the non-issue of whether the Obama administration played politics with the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Although the more important issue should be how to improve the security of diplomatic facilities in Libya, Republican and media focus has been on whether the administration played down the premeditated nature of the attack to look better during the election.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, one of several Republican senators who has elevated the Benghazi talking points into a major Washington dispute. (Photo credit:

In the worst case (and the evidence is mixed here), that the administration engaged in such spin, so what? Is it any news that presidential candidates manipulate both perceptions and reality to get elected? Didn’t Mitt Romney change his positions on everything from abortion to health care in his unsuccessful candidacy for president?

The worst case of pre-election shenanigans in foreign policy may have been perpetrated by Republican Richard Nixon, who, when running for president against Democratic Vice President Hubert Humphrey in 1968, asked the South Vietnamese government to block an incipient U.S. peace deal with North Vietnam, because he promised to give them a better deal after he won the election. A peace deal ending the Vietnam War would have been a big boost to Humphrey. [For details, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]

After this near treasonous chicanery, it seems silly for Republicans to parse words with Democrats about whether the Obama administration should have called it a “terrorist attack” sooner instead of saying that extremists took advantage of a spontaneous protest. Again, who cares?

Shouldn’t the media, Republicans, Democrats, and really all Americans be more concerned with issues of security of the American homeland and plans to continue foreign wars that may compromise the former?

Ignored in the teapot tempest over Benghazi are news reports of plans for the United States to keep 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan past the “withdrawal date” of 2014, including a counterterrorism force of 1,000 fighters and a continuing drone war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Most important, this counterterrorism force is likely to combat not only al-Qaeda but groups that don’t focus their attacks on the United States, for example, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Pakistani group that attacked Mumbai, India, in 2008. Making unnecessary new enemies has been a staple of post-Cold War U.S. foreign policy, and this fits right in.

Similarly, in the drone war against militants over Pakistan, the U.S. has targeted not only al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban, but also the Pakistani Taliban, who retaliated by trying to bomb Times Square in New York City. Prior to that targeting, the Pakistani Taliban focused their attacks on the Pakistani government, not the United States.

In the same vein, the U.S. has made new enemies by targeting with drones al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and al-Shabab in Somalia. Although it uses the name al-Qaeda, the former group was formerly focused on attacking the government of Yemen. Since the United States escalated its strikes against AQAP, the group has attempted to attack the United States three times, including using the underwear bomber to attempt to blow up a U.S.-bound flight to Detroit.

Gregory D. Johnsen, a journalist, who conducted on-the-ground interviews in Yemen and examined testimonies from al-Qaeda fighters, is convinced that civilian casualties from drone strikes are the main impetus for al-Qaeda’s rapid rise in that country. Although al-Shabab of Somalia has not yet targeted U.S. targets at home, significant numbers of Somali-American fighters, many from Minneapolis, who have gone to Somalia to fight with the group, could be used to retaliate in the United States for U.S. attempts to eradicate the group in Somalia.

Also, the use of drones raises important constitutional questions, especially in the cases of Yemen and Somalia. According to the post-9/11 congressional authorization of the use of military force, the president can use such force “against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on Sept. 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons.”

The former categories would cover retaliatory attacks against the main trunk of al-Qaeda and the latter category would cover the Afghan Taliban, presumably anywhere in the world they were or migrated to, including Pakistan. However, the U.S. has run out of main al-Qaeda targets in Pakistan and has used drones to attack targets associated with the Pakistani Taliban, thus entering a constitutionally questionable zone.

Similarly, attacking militants who had no role in 9/11 in Yemen and Somalia is clearly unconstitutional because Congress has not authorized it. Although AQAP in Yemen and al-Shabab in Somalia are loosely affiliated with the main trunk of al-Qaeda, they are different organizations that had nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks and mainly focus their attacks on their respective governments, thus leaving them outside the congressional authorization.

According to The New York Times, Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who is a critic of the drone strikes, noted, “We don’t say that we’re the counterinsurgency air force of Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, but we are.”

Of course, the Bush and Obama administration lawyers would not have agreed with this straightforward analysis. In fact, at this writing, the Obama administration is still struggling, years after the drone war’s inception and after conducting 300 drone strikes that have killed 2,500 people, to find a firm legal basis to cover it all. That’s probably because it’s difficult to do.

Moreover, philosophically, within the administration, officials are still debating whether drone strikes should be used as a last resort against imminent threats to the United States or can be used more liberally to help allies attack their enemies or to stop guerrillas from holding territory.

This is a curious debate, because the administration long ago went far beyond merely nixing imminent terrorist threats to the United States. In fact, the widened U.S. efforts in Pakistan and Yemen do not necessarily even kill specific, named combatants (so-called personality strikes), but any gun-carrying person in areas held by militants (so-called signature strikes). In these dangerous countries, many people who carry guns are not extremists, which means these strikes risk a potential backlash against killing innocents.

The drone strikes are also ironic, because before the 9/11 attacks, the United States regularly condemned Israel for targeted killings of militants. Most countries believe such killings are a violation of international law. Even “targeted killings” is a euphemism for “assassinations.”

In Yemen, the U.S. has even assassinated Americans, including the famous Anwar al-Awlaki and his 16-year-old son, who was likely not even an Islamist militant, without a trial under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution or any due process of law under the Fifth Amendment.

Without a separate congressional authorization for hostilities in that country, these killings were clearly unconstitutional. Such not-so-secret “covert” use of drone attacks without explicit congressional authorization is dangerous for a constitutional republic.

Since the adversaries know they are being attacked and these drone wars are in the media, calling these conflicts “covert” only allows the U.S. government to run wars without the necessity of congressional authorization. Thus, such efforts are merely a continuation of the president’s spurious constitutional claim, first used by Harry Truman in the Korean War, that the executive can take the country into an offensive war without congressional approval. Drone attacks make this constitutional abuse easier, because the probability of politically toxic U.S. casualties is reduced to near zero.

With so much to worry about in U.S. foreign policy, why do Republicans and the media continue to focus on the non-issue of Obama’s alleged Benghazi spin?

Ivan Eland is Director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at The Independent Institute. Dr. Eland has spent 15 years working for Congress on national security issues, including stints as an investigator for the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Principal Defense Analyst at the Congressional Budget Office. His books include Partitioning for Peace: An Exit Strategy for Iraq The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed, and Putting “Defense” Back into U.S. Defense Policy.

9 comments for “The Benghazi ‘Scandal’ Smokescreen

  1. December 5, 2012 at 04:14

    I don’t think all government distortions are bad. I am glad that Roosevelt didn’t let the Nazis and and Japan know that the West broke their secret code.

    How more US lives at Pearl Harbor could have been saved is debatable since Japan was actually planning to invade Hawaii but at the last minute changed their mind.
    However, Churchill the people of Coventry England die just so Hitler wouldst have guessed their secret code was broken.

    Today the CIA and am sure Hilary, knew that Benghazi attack was in the planning before the Hate movie almost set off a tit for tat rampage between the US and the Muslim World.

    By the way Mohammed was fist without facial hair but later a neat Renascence Christ like beard, and was competently neat and clean looking to the last bloody scene where his beard was disheveled. a and the donkey and throwing the word bastard around fit other religious leaders for insult purposes better.

    A little hut like a carnival American native tepee, on the inside became a huge room. Many systematic attempts to bait people into murder,

    Thank you CIA for appeasing the hate,

  2. Bill Jones
    December 4, 2012 at 17:53

    What the Obama regime was trying to keep secret was that the attack was staged to rescue a couple of Libyan citizens who were being held in the Benghazi CIA black torture and rendition site, a practice the Chosen One had allegedly eschewed.

  3. Eddie
    December 2, 2012 at 23:04

    Good analysis Dr Eland. The Republicans are merely using this episode as one of their ruses… since they don’t have any positive popular policies, they have to keep their base diverted with these contrived/Faux-Noise ‘crisis’ breathlessly reported every day. If Susan Rice had told the truth about CIA activities operating out of the Benghazi embassy, then the Republican hacks would be hyperventilating just as much that she had ‘compromised national security’ or some such other fallacious attack.

  4. Hillary
    December 2, 2012 at 20:08

    “Ignored in the teapot tempest over Benghazi are news reports of plans for the United States to keep 10,000 soldiers in Afghanistan past the “withdrawal date” of 2014, including a counterterrorism force of 1,000 fighters and a continuing drone war in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”

    Of course the warm loving US Public will be kept “Calm” as long as none of their military are in harms way & the killings continue with “Obama Nobel Prize killer drones”.

    The horrendous plight of the victims is TOTALLY ignored in the US media.

    US non stop killing of humans in Pakistan , Afghanistan & Yemen & Palestine etc. is totally immoral & obviously results in angry People after revenge.

    General Petraeus followed presidential orders & exercised his right to murder any man, woman or child on the planet..but had no right to cheat on his wife.

    Only in the USA.

  5. security issue?
    December 2, 2012 at 13:18

    Was there a security violation given that there was sensitive and reportedly classified information being kept at the site, but insufficient security to protect it?

  6. concerned citizen
    December 2, 2012 at 13:15

    “The information was correct, but the interpretations were not,” Muhammed Saeed al-Sahaf said. “I did my duty up to the last minute.” Remember him? Remember Baghdad Bob? more from the information minister during OIF: – a site which identifies its purpose as “This site is a coalition effort of bloodthirsty hawks and ineffectual doves united in admiration for Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf, Iraqi Minister of Information (currently on administrative leave).”

    Truth from government is important not only for informing people, and maintaining credibility, but also because when lies are told to citizens when the rest of the world knows the truth, it gives comfort to and emboldens the enemy, and unites disputing internal factions.

    There are many parallels between the statements made by Susan Rice (not just about Benghazi) and the statements made by Baghdad Bob. It’s very upsetting, and I hope that Congressmen from all parties, and from minority groups, will come forward with the truth and with the insistence that lies and misleading statements are not the American way. I hope Congress wants truth and transparency in government. Just because something is classified or still being investigated is no excuse for lying – falsely accusing others of murder – and acting like someone exercising their first amendment rights to post or protest a posted video makes them ultimately responsible for murder.

  7. F. G. Sanford
    December 2, 2012 at 12:10

    Gee whiz, after Susan Rice campaigned for the “humanitarian bombing” under the guise of R2P, did she have any stake in the attempt to put a benign face on the disastrous outcome in Libya? Calling it a protest that got out of control wouldn’t take the onus off her failed policy, now, would it? I don’t know what other motive that hissing viper could possibly have contemplated. The Q&A session Paula Broadwell conducted,thinking she was in the presence of fawning admirers, also seems to have been buried by the press. The self-admitted status seeker, coveting her future role as a potential director of the NSA, claimed that Benghazi was being used as a black prison site, and that the whole affair was a ruse to free clandestine detainees. She bracked, “You probably haven’t heard, because the story hasn’t been vetted yet…” etc. There are a dozen good reasons to can Susan Rice, but her bogus press conference comments aren’t among them.

    • aa
      December 2, 2012 at 18:18

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    • Andrew
      December 2, 2012 at 18:49

      Miseleading the American people and knowingly withholding material facts about the attack are real issues. If this were a Republican President the author would be crucifying him. It’s more than a “non-issue.” Security breakdown is interrelated with this issue.

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