The More Complex Truth of Benghazi

The single-minded Republican drive to exploit the deaths of four U.S. diplomats in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012 and use the tragedy to embarrass President Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has obscured the more complex reality of what happened, writes ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

David Kirkpatrick’s investigative piece in the New York Times about last year’s lethal attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi is well worth reading, though not because its conclusions ought to have been surprising to any disinterested observer of what was going on in Libya at the time.

Once dust from the confusion in the very first hours after the incident settled, the conditions that gave rise to the incident were fairly clear. One was widespread popular outrage, exhibited not only in Libya but also beyond its borders, from a scurrilous video that many Muslims found insulting to the founder of their faith.

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honor the four victims of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, at the Transfer of Remains Ceremony held at Andrews Air Force Base, Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, on Sept. 14, 2012. [State Department photo)

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton honor the four victims of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, at the Transfer of Remains Ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland, on Sept. 14, 2012. [State Department photo)

Another was lawlessness that has prevailed in Libya ever since the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi, and continues to prevail there, and that is characterized by a mélange of militias and other armed groups with a variety of interests and grievances, some of them antipathetic to the United States.

That this has not been broadly understood is due mainly to the unrelenting effort of some in the opposition party in the United States to exploit the death of four U.S. citizens in the incident to try to discredit the Obama administration and its Secretary of State at the time (who is seen as a likely contender in the next presidential election).

The line propounded in this effort is, first, that the incident can have only one of two possible explanations: either the attack was a completely spontaneous and unorganized popular response to the video, or it was a terrorist attack that had nothing to do with emotions surrounding the video and instead was a premeditated operation by a particular terrorist group, Al Qaeda.

The propounded line further holds that the administration offered the first of these two explanations, that this explanation was a deliberate lie, and that the second explanation is the truth. The Times investigation demolishes all that. As for the spontaneous aspects of the attack, Kirkpatrick reports:

“Anger at the video motivated the initial attack. Dozens of people joined in, some of them provoked by the video and others responding to fast-spreading false rumors that guards inside the American compound had shot Libyan protesters. Looters and arsonists, without any sign of a plan, were the ones who ravaged the compound after the initial attack, according to more than a dozen Libyan witnesses as well as many American officials who have viewed the footage from security cameras.”

As for a role by Al Qaeda, the Times investigators concluded that the group “was having its own problems penetrating the Libyan chaos.” The only ways in which Al Qaeda members seem to figure into the story are in expressing surprise about the attack and in having difficulty establishing any foothold in Libya. There is no evidence that what happened in Benghazi was an Al Qaeda operation.

The ceaseless efforts at political exploitation are only part of the reason that American misunderstanding about anti-American violence persists. The themes in the exploitation resonate with certain unfortunate tendencies in how Americans look at such violence and especially at terrorism.

One such tendency involves the fallacy of monocausality: to talk in terms of the reason for terrorism or for a particular terrorist attack, and to think that if a purposeful group is involved than nothing else must be. But whatever enrages a larger population, whether it is a sacrilegious video or an offensive U.S. policy, establishes the climate in which a terrorist group can operate, motivates recruits to join it, and determines the sympathy or support it will have for its acts.

Another misleading tendency is loose, careless application of the label Al Qaeda to a broad and variegated swath of Sunni Islamist extremism that does not reflect any organizational reality. This tendency misleads Americans into believing that the danger of anti-American violence in general or terrorism in particular comes from the actual Al Qaeda, the group that did 9/11, when in fact more of it comes these days from other sources, including some of those armed groups in Libya.

The political exploitation of the Benghazi incident has already gone on so long and so hard that it has helped to cement some of these misconceptions into the American public’s mind, even if the exploitation were to stop now, which it won’t.

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.)

9 comments for “The More Complex Truth of Benghazi

  1. Frances in California
    January 6, 2014 at 00:04

    I’m no fan of Hilary but Benghazi was not her fault; her Dep’t was infected with Blackwater yet people think an Embassy in a volatile country can be kept secure? They are MERCENARIES. When the hard stuff starts and they’re not winning they take off. Now, if you want something to blame on Hilary, how about the Honduran Coup? She is not “Presidential Timber” but it’s not because of Benghazi.

  2. incontinent reader
    December 31, 2013 at 13:50

    Neither Stevens’ CIA connection (including the transfer of Libyan weapons to the Syrian rebels), nor the US-NATO war against Libya and its horrendous consequences, were ever really investigated by the Congress. As for Hillary and her responsibility for the policy that turned Libya into a violent, chaotic and failed State which resulted in Stevens’ death, F.G. Sanford has it right, even if the American people don’t want to believe it, and the Republicans are unwilling to admit that ‘it was also their policy, stupid’.

    • F. G. Sanford
      December 31, 2013 at 19:01

      Thanks – you made my day. This is a fine example of both right wings of our one-party government putting on a show for public consumption. Pointing fingers at each other serves to distract attention from another CIA debacle. Folks need to start asking, “Who’s in charge of this nightclub?”

  3. Hillary
    December 31, 2013 at 07:42


    “the much stronger evidence that an Al-Qaeda cell was responsible for the assassination” of Lebanon Prime Minister Rafic Harir is a wonderful attempt to muddy the waters and continue the myth of Al-Queda of having super assassination cells to carry out these very intricate attacks wherever ..

    “A number of intelligence sources have reported that assassinations of foreign leaders like Hariri and Hobeika are ultimately authorized by two key White House officials, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove and Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams. In addition, Abrams is the key liaison between the White House and Sharon’s office for such covert operations, including political assassinations.”
    P.S. you are lucky to be allowed to post here or as you say “My comment got flagged by the computer” ? A regular occurrence here —-

  4. December 31, 2013 at 04:03

    A counterpoint, Arabic translators are killed by al Qaeda franchises more than soldiers who fight against them. I think like minded al Qaeda types would have killed Chris Stevens earlier if the anger over the porn didn’t give them the opportunity to do what they earlier only dreamed of doing. Besides killing translators, al Qaeda franchise lobby toward getting the US to do things to irritate the Muslim world, and to hasten bankruptcy. For instance contractor corporate offices are never attacked because contractors are the most expensive way to fight. Bin Laden from his hideout planned to derail US trains the best way to cause economic harm to the US without exciting a draft that would save money and thus delay bankruptcy.

  5. December 31, 2013 at 03:59

    Ambassador Chis Stevens had a lot more control than most ambassadors. He spoke fluent Arabic the only US diplomat to do so. He took more risk than he was supposed to be allowed to, “The martyrdom of Christopher Stevens”
    The US frequently came into places like Iraq with some of the oppressed cheering the US as liberators, to change their mind after getting tired of being pushed around or shot by some US soldier not able to tell who is who. Chris Stevens vision of the US being low key this time was craved by most of the State Department. Whatever mistake in reaction was his call while he was alive.

    Another important point before the Muslim insult porn flick tried to create massive tit for tat carnage, earlier in Lebanon in 2005 bin Laden managed to successfully create such carnage by secretly being responsible for Lebanon Prime Minister Rafic Harir’s assassination,

    Such carnage didn’t happen after the porn flick tried to get the naive actors killed, or Muslims arrested for disorderly conduct at the film showing because the ads in the Muslim papers never didn’t lead to any Muslims attending the prime mire showing.

    The riots oversees never lead to massive deaths. The reason why is that the Muslim world en-mass felt the least responsible American was killed in retaliation. When it came time to evacuate Chris Stevens couldn’t be found. I think he knowingly allowed himself to be scarified to successful prevent the right-wing terror click from successfully repeating what bin Laden accomplished in Lebanon.

    I knew Kathy Change who before the internet gathered or her writings on peace and justice, and gave them to the Philadelphia papers and neighborhood news sheets and set herself on fire in front of the peace symbol statue in front of the University of Pennsylvania library.

    I think Chris Stevens was a successful martyr unlike Cathy who only tried to be, started to investigate the conspiracy behind the systematically inflammatory porn film, and the false Benghazi exposes. Please someone finish the job. At least have a lip reader state what the original movie said about Lord Jim who was teased for being a bastard and was called in by his mother to tell of the strange circumstances of his birth.

    By the way an innocent very tender looking awkward kid with an amazing well manicured closely trimmed beard got followers, who had to hold back, by end of the movie after the pron insults had a wild blood spattered beard and delighted to torture, and other phywar techniques to generate maximum anger.

  6. Scotty
    December 30, 2013 at 20:49

    I’m old enough to remember when questioning the administrations failure to protect Americans from a massive terrorist attack was called “Hating America”

  7. F. G. Sanford
    December 30, 2013 at 14:17

    Given the season, I can’t help but think of Cindy Lou Who. Awakened by the Grinch, she asks, “Why are you taking the Christmas tree?” He explains, “This light is faulty”, pointing a gnarled finger at the offending bulb. Cindy Lou accepts the explanation, which completely distracts her from the larger issue.

    Darrel Issa’s disingenuous manipulation of the events for partisan political purposes represents a level of hypocrisy not to be outdone by Hillary Clinton’s failure to object to a foreign policy blunder resulting in destabilization of a foreign government and the consequent blow-back. Nobody seems concerned with the significant fact that Christopher Stephens died at a consular annex where his official duties would not have legitimately or routinely been performed. Had the military intervention, which has been condemned by international law scholars of every stripe, not occurred in the first place, none of this would have happened.

    Arguing the monocausality of an offensive video one way or the other is like pointing to the light bulb and ignoring the Grinch. Whether we’re stealing Christmas or stealing democracy, it’s probably about time Americans stopped looking at labels and focused on the damage they inspire. “We came, we saw, he died…cackle cackle cackle”. The Grinch couldn’t have said it any better.

  8. Willy Loman
    December 30, 2013 at 13:38

    There are two important issues in the Bengahzi attack: 1- why it occurred and; 2 – why did the State Department seem so unprepared for this type of incident? As outlined in the above article, the reasons for the attack are complex, perhaps without any defining motivation. I think that most Americans concerned about Bengazhi are engaged in the second issue and are rightly upset that there was virtually no security at the compound.

    Common sense says that the US should have implemented increased security at the compound months before the attack. There were many different militias (gangs) running around that were well extremely well armed. Only a fool would believe that all of these groups had benevolent intents towards foreigners, fellow Libyan citizens and other militias.

    The incident demonstrated a major breakdown between the actual security needs of the personnel at risk in Libya and the perceived security needs of Libya personnel by high ranking officers in the State Department. The hearings offered little enlightenment as to why the State Department so completely misjudged Bengazhi security requirements.

    No one within the State Department has really been held accountable – just a few interdepartmental transfers and postings. The absence of leadership on the attack from both President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is somewhat breathtaking. They both distanced themselves from the incident as quickly as possible and shouldered little responsibility for the inept (lack of) security policy. It seems that the Administration’s intent was to bury the incident as soon as possible rather than attempt to learn from their mistakes and adjust policy accordingly.

Comments are closed.