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Michael Gerson: Handling of Benghazi helped politically but had real-world costs

Published: Friday, May 10 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

In this Sept. 14, 2012 file photo, Libyan military guards check one of the burnt out buildings at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, during a visit by Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif to express sympathy for the death of American ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and his colleagues in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the consulate. (Associated Press) In this Sept. 14, 2012 file photo, Libyan military guards check one of the burnt out buildings at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, during a visit by Libyan President Mohammed el-Megarif to express sympathy for the death of American ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and his colleagues in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the consulate. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON — In some cases, the fog of war is initially thick, then dissipates. Following the Sept. 11, 2012 Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans, the facts were initially clear. The fog was a later addition.

Recent congressional testimony by Gregory Hicks, Christopher Stevens' deputy in Libya, established one point beyond doubt: "The only report that our mission made through every channel was that there had been an attack," Hicks said. "No protest." On Sept. 12, Assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones informed State Department colleagues that she had told the Libyans that "the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists."

This information traveled the 5,000 miles to CIA headquarters and was incorporated into the agency's initial talking points. But somewhere in the final few miles between Langley, Foggy Bottom and the White House, the attack was called a "demonstration," and then the "direct result of a heinous and offensive video."

In pinning the blame for Benghazi on a crude, anti-Muslim video, confusion moved along the contours of convenience. For the State Department, it shifted attention away from careless security practices in an obviously dangerous place. For the White House, it avoided pre-election discussion of the war on terror. For whoever made the military decisions on that night, it obscured the timidity of their response when Americans came under attack.

But the administration's reaction to Benghazi set a precedent. Judged by its main intention, it was successful. It got the administration past the November election with little damage.

But as the administration's Benghazi narrative unravels, some additional, second-order effects have become obvious.

First, the administration was willing to shift all the responsibility for its public errors to the intelligence community. During the vice presidential debate, moderator Martha Raddatz asked Joe Biden why the White House had attributed the death of Stevens to the video. He responded: "Because that was exactly what we were told by the intelligence community."

Not quite "exactly." Thanks to Stephen Hayes of The Weekly Standard, we now know the CIA talking points were significantly modified at the insistence of the State Department and later in the interdepartmental process. The initial judgments of the intelligence community were fairly accurate. Given the importance of American intelligence credibility on Iran and Syria, is it advisable to make our intelligence services look less competent than they are for political reasons?

Second, the administration was willing to undermine a foreign leader in a fragile circumstance. Soon after the attack, Libyan President Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf insisted that "the idea that this criminal and cowardly act was a spontaneous protest that just spun out of control is completely unfounded and preposterous. We firmly believe that this was a pre-calculated, preplanned attack."

Third, the administration was willing to feed an image of irrational Muslim rage that did not, in fact, apply to Libya. Did it serve American public diplomacy to assert, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did, that Libyans had joined "the tyranny of a mob," rather than being victimized by terrorist organizations?

The administration's handling of the Benghazi attack was politically effective, but not without real-world costs.

Michael Gerson's email address is michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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