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Robert Bennett: Finding answers to Benghazi

Published: Monday, Jan. 20 2014 12:00 a.m. MST

In this Sept. 13, 2012 photo, a Libyan man investigates the inside of the U.S. Consulate, after an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens on the night of Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya.

Mohammad Hannon, Associated Press

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The Sept. 11, 2012, events in Benghazi, Libya, that resulted in the destruction of our embassy and the killing of four American diplomats, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, occurred after I left the Senate, so I did not have the opportunity to attend any classified briefings on the matter. All that has been available to me has come from media sources divided along partisan lines. The New York Times insists that the Obama administration in general and Secretary Hillary Clinton in particular are completely blameless in this tragedy; Fox News says that what happened in Benghazi was a scandal of Watergate-sized proportions. I’ve stayed out of it.

Now, however, we have a serious report on the matter from a serious and well-informed source, the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. While its conclusions reflect some disagreements along partisan lines, it contains a remarkable amount of consensus on some important main points.

The first one is that the attacks “were likely preventable.” The committee’s majority — the Democrats — wrote, “The Committee believes the State Department should have recognized the need to increase security to a level commensurate with the threat, or suspend operations in Benghazi. However, operations continued with minimal improvements in security and personnel protections.”

Hillary Clinton headed the State Department while this was happening, while the “tripwire” events that should have stirred the State Department to action were being ignored. Accordingly, the key question from the Watergate investigation — “What did she know and when did she know it?” — is appropriate. Up to this point, she has not offered a satisfactory answer to that query.

Perhaps it’s because she and others in the administration were so proud of their role in getting rid of Gadhafi, which they saw as the beginning of an Arab Spring that would transform the Middle East, that they were loath to even consider the possibility that post-Gadhafi Libya could be a dangerous place in which significant anti-American attitudes could germinate. Since the people of Libya had been the beneficiaries of our actions against Gadhafi, State Department officials thought they were friends who would protect our assets.

The report says, “Although U.S. Government security forces are always preferred, the C.I.A. and State determined that local militias would provide the so-called ‘least bad option’ in post-revolutionary Libya. The former Chief of Base stated: ‘There was no alternative. You know, there really is no functioning government there. And the militia groups that both we, and the State Department, depended on were in fact kind of the de facto government there in Benghazi.’ ”

Obviously, there was an alternative. Ambassador Stevens didn’t say he “preferred” U.S. security forces; he specifically asked for them, more than once. His pleas, along with others, were ignored, and the report makes it clear that the sequester wasn’t the reason why.

The matter isn’t closed. Quoting former FBI Director Robert Mueller: “As many as 15 individuals supporting the investigation or otherwise helpful to the United States have been killed in Benghazi since the attacks, underscoring the lawless and chaotic circumstances in eastern Libya.”

Republicans on the committee focused on the “talking points” used by national security adviser Susan Rice following the attacks, but that is beside the point. The issue is not whether the Obama administration tried to spin the news about Benghazi during the campaign that’s over — but whether the Obama administration, including Secretary Clinton, had a fatal misconception of the nature of the foe we face in the war on terror. The report strongly suggests that they did.

Coming from a Democratically controlled Senate committee in a highly polarized political atmosphere, that’s news.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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