October 2, 2012

The killing of the US ambassador to Libya is rapidly becoming election fodder, as Republicans seize on confusion over the circumstances of Chris Stevens' death in Benghazi three weeks ago and accuse the Obama administration of covering up an al-Qaeda connection.

US officials reiterated last Friday that they regard the killing of Stevens and three other Americans working for the state department at the US consulate in Benghazi as an assault by terrorists who planned the attack. But a dearth of real information about the exact circumstances of the assault has left open the question of whether such planning was merely the work of a few hours, to take advantage of a spontaneous anti-US protest over a short internet video that prompted demonstrations across the Middle East by offended Muslims, or weeks and months, to mark the 11th anniversary of al-Qaeda's 9/11 attacks on the US.

Disagreement over that question is dividing along political lines. No surprise there.

Also no surprise is the fact that most of the mainstream media have stopped reporting on the Libyan assassinations. They have moved on to the next story in the news cycle.  They’ve decided that while the administration may have made a few mistakes in statements and timing, it is otherwise not an important story – more of an election year PR gaffe, than a serious national security issue.

But they’re wrong. The Libyan assassinations aren’t just an embarrassing political problem about who said what and when on the timeline or events. There are serious questions that remain unanswered, that go to the heart of our intelligence and national security policies in the Middle East.

These questions cause those who are most concerned to ponder whether the Republicans are right. Is there some sort of cover-up?

How can one not ask that question considering that there are three broad categories that should be considered:  intelligence, security and policy.

Intelligence. The administration’s original version of events – that this was a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim YouTube video – hasn’t held up.

After nearly two weeks of dissembling, they’ve admitted it was a terrorist attack, planned in advance, by an Al Qaeda cell in Libya. But shouldn’t our intelligence community have known about this cell in advance? 

In August the Defense Department received a report from the Library of Congress entitled "Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile." The unclassified version lists a number of Al Qaeda veterans who had set up shop in Libya. It traces the franchise as progressing from the organizational to recruitment phases and predicted it was about to go operational with an attack. Didn’t the Defense Department share this report with the intelligence community, and if not why not?  Why didn’t the intelligence community at least pick up on the unclassified version of the report?

Did the new Libyan government known about the threat? After all, we just fought a war in Libya on behalf of the rebels now in charge.  They knew radical elements that had fought in the Libyan war had yet to be demobilized.  Did they know about these groups were behind the recent spate of anti-American attacks in Benghazi and if so, why didn’t they warn us that something even bigger was in the works?

One of the still unanswered questions about the Arab Uprisings in the spring of 2011 is why no one saw them coming.  

How did our intelligence community fail to connect the dots and warn that a pre-revolutionary situation exited in a host of countries in the Arab Muslim world? Every one of these countries had an explosive combination of massive youth populations, crushing youth unemployment and aging dictators with no clear succession plans. And now, has our intelligence community failed to see the possibility that these same countries, with even more crushing youth unemployment and economic distress than 18 months ago, might have their fledgling democracies hijacked by radical Islamist groups?

Security. If our intelligence community had suspicions that Al Qaeda and other armed radical militias were operating in Libya, and posed a threat to our diplomats and facilities, why didn’t the State Department arrange for adequate security?

My apartment building, in a good neighborhood in New York City, had more security on September 11 than our ambassador, who was a marked man, in one of the most dangerous places on the planet. We need to know why.

There were no Marine guards at the Benghazi Consulate. Yet there had been a recent spate of bombings against Americans, and an IED attack in June that damaged the entrance to the Consulate.

Ambassador Stevens feared he was on an Al Qaeda hit list. We know this because his diary was recovered in the wreckage of the Benghazi Consulate by the media. Indeed, nearly three weeks after the attack the FBI and other US personnel haven’t been near the Consulate because it’s still not safe.  If the area is too dangerous today, why did we think it was safe three weeks ago?

Policy.  The Obama administration has been an active proponent of rapid and radical change in the Middle East. We helped remove President Mubarak in Egypt, yet the newly elected Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi has reversed Mubarak’s pro-American policies and suggested Egypt should reevaluate its peace treaty with Israel.  President Morsi has also warned the US needs a new policy in the Middle East, while at the same time looks to us for massive economic assistance and loan forgiveness. Why?

The Obama administration led the war in Libya to topple Col Qaddafi and usher in a new democratic government.  We knew some of the rebels had Al Qaeda connections.  Did we look the other way when we armed them? Why?

The Obama administration is in danger of making the same mistakes the Bush administration made after toppling Saddam Hussein in 2003, and the Carter administration made ushering out the Shah of Iran in 1979. When a dictator is shoved aside you better have a plan for what takes his place, because his departure creates a power vacuum that ruthless, radical elements will rush in to fill.

What is our policy in the Middle East going forward? The Arab Uprising toppled autocratic governments, in most cases with a major assist from the United States. Is our job now finished?

Do we walk away and leave the rest up to them? Or should we work with these new governments and help develop them develop democratic institutions? If we’ve learned anything from the last ten years, it should be that the crucial time for US involvement is in the transition from one form of government to the next, because that’s when the violence and fringe groups try to hijack the process.  

That’s the real story behind the Libyan assassinations that the media isn’t covering. It’s not just an administration saying dumb things during an election to try and shift blame and make themselves look good.  It’s bigger than that – potentially much bigger. It's a cover-up of Watergate proportions.

If the Obama administration thinks the Libyan assassinations were a response to a YouTube video, can you imagine what is going to happen in December, when a big screen Hollywood movie shows how Americans hunted and killed Bin Laden?

The Bush and then Obama administrations set out to transform the Arab Muslim world from dictatorships to democracies. But have we now unleashed forces that will seize control and turn the entire region into an anti-American cauldron of violence?

If we don't find the answers soon, the US will be a "sitting duck" to the hunters in the Arab Spring.

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