The More Complex Truth of Benghazi

From the Archive: More than three years after the Benghazi attack, which claimed the lives of four Americans, Republicans again are grilling former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the hyper-politicized inquiry that has obscured the more complex reality of what happened, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar observed in 2013.

By Paul R. Pillar (Originally published on Dec. 30, 2013)

David Kirkpatrick’s investigative piece in the New York Times about the Sept. 11, 2012 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 held at Andrews Air Force Base, Joint Base Andrews, 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.)

7 comments for “The More Complex Truth of Benghazi

  1. JWalters
    October 22, 2015 at 20:00

    The timing of the Benghazi attack was shortly before a presidential election, in which the Republicans, Neocons, and Israelis were trying to get Romney into the White House. In this respect it resembles the foreign policy interference that helped both Reagan and Nixon get into the White House. Reagan was helped by backroom torpedoing of Carter’s efforts to free the hostages in Iran, and Nixon was helped by backroom torpedoing of Johnson’s efforts to end the Vietnam war.

    The Benghazi attack was camouflaged by simultaneous demonstrations at several U.S. embassies in the Middle East. These demonstrations were triggered by a film of mysterious origin on the internet, which suddenly came to prominence. Zbigniew Brzezinski said (on Morning Joe) that the mysterious funding of this movie made it a “conspiracy”. (Yes, he used that word.)

    The attack date of 9/11 could plausibly have been chosen to trigger American memories of the 9/11 attack on New York City, maximizing a new round of fears over the favorite enemies of the Republicans, Neocons, and Israelis.

    Being frugal investors, the Big Money men behind these groups are milking their investment in the Benghazi attack by continuing to use it in their campaign against Hillary Clinton, and by extension the Democrats. Facts and lunacy don’t stand in their way if they can dupe American voters in their push for more war.

    For readers who haven’t seen it yet, some historical background on the rise of these forces in America is given in “War Profiteers and the Roots of the War on Terror” at

    The above link is highly recommended by Ray McGovern here

  2. Greg Driscoll
    October 22, 2015 at 12:13

    The background story – which was, and is, neglected in the U.S. media, the Congress, and even in this article – is that the Benghazi CIA station was used as a U. S. transhipment station for former Ghadaffi regime weapons destined for the so-called “democratic” opposition in Syria and also, according to other sources, a recruitment center for jihadists to go and fight the Assad Government (please notice I did not use the pejorative “regime”) in Syria. One wonders if the ghost of Ronald Reagan, supporter of jihadists in Afghanistan [fighting against the Soviet forces called in by a legitimate Afghan government] or as The Great Prevaricator called them “freedom fighters”, was hovering over the CIA station in Benghazi?

  3. Joe Tedesky
    October 22, 2015 at 09:36

    I recall the only one who reported this Benghazi attack correctly, was Webster Tarpley. Tarpley, was interviewed by Alex Jones (I know, I know), this was when Tarpley stated that his sources were telling him that this attack, was due to the attackers being upset with this certain CIA facility. It was after all a CIA facility. What I can’t seem to get, is why since this place in Benghazi, which was a CIA location, wasn’t the then CIA director David Petraeus brought up in the way Rice, and Hillary were brought up for deeper investigation? Oh, that’s right Petraeus got caught fooling around with Paula Broadwell. There must be something about that September the eleventh date,when unexplainable weird things happen, and no one can get their facts right. Maybe, it’s the date that is the problem, who knows?

    • Joe Tedesky
      October 22, 2015 at 12:04

      I am providing a link to an article, which goes on about what Paula Broadwell had to say about the Benghazi CIA site, when she gave a speech at Denver University. There is a link inside the article, where you may go to listen, and watch her give this speech.

      • Zman
        October 22, 2015 at 14:13

        As you and Greg below have stated, this was an operation dealing with Libyan weapons going to Syria. Funny how this is no longer an issue in the investigation. Then Al Qaeda is blamed…why would our surrogates attack us?. Al Qaeda wasn’t even a force in Libya at the time. Something is definitely rotten here and the truth is being hid ever so well. So who did the dirty deed? Who put a stop to the movement of Libyan arms to Syria? I have my favorite nominee, but I’m sure many would think I’m nuts. Who just called BS on all our mascinations in Syria? Why were all those military brass ‘retired’/fired? What kind of disaster would it be for any administration to have it known another ‘state player’ intervened and why. What if counterattacking the ‘insurgents’ ended up an international confrontation? Quite the Rabbit hole….and the show goes on.

        • Joe Tedesky
          October 22, 2015 at 14:49

          Here is an article reported by Tony Cartalucci a few months before the Benghazi attack, which was the attack where ambassador Chris Stevens died. Please, note that McCain’s visit took place a little more than a year before the Benghazi September 11, 2012 tragedy happened.

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