National Journal's National Security Insiders are split on whether the Obama administration tried to cover up aspects of its response to the Benghazi, Libya, attack for political reasons.
In a contentious House hearing last week, the former deputy head of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, Gregory Hicks, said the administration did not do everything it could to respond to the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, describing his own exchange with a Special Operations team leader who was told not to fly from Tripoli to help. Republicans accuse the Obama administration of both botching security in Benghazi before the attack and lying to the American people about what more it could have done.
"There is no question that the administration and State Department tried to cover up what led up to Benghazi. Their actions in the wake of Benghazi show rampant disorganization," one Insider said. The administration turned down requests for security made by Stevens and altered talking points, another Insider added. “This is a real scandal, not made up, not mere politics."
“ 'Cover-up' is a very strong word, but I think they certainly didn't share as much information as they could have fast enough, and I think they did put a bit too heavy of a spin on the story," one Insider said. “Still, it is more of a story of ignorance and incompetence of the player involved versus nefarious and sinister."
Half the Insiders said the administration did not cover up anything. "The U.S. government is incapable of covering an old outhouse, let alone a complicated multi-agency operation," one Insider said. "It is ironic that so many think the administration is incompetent in foreign affairs yet somehow is suddenly competent enough to cover Benghazi." The potshots, one Insider said, are "hugely overblown to start tearing down Hillary [Rodham Clinton]"—the former secretary of State believed to be considering a 2016 presidential run.
"The fog of events combined with intense pressure to speak publicly produced confusing statements," one Insider said. "But ... the real issue is whether the administration properly investigated what happened and held accountable those with real responsibility. Politics is preventing [Congress] from playing that oversight role in the most meaningful fashion for the national interest.”
A slim majority of 57 percent of Insiders said the Obama administration has made diplomatic missions more secure in the wake of the Benghazi attack. "This was a wake-up call that some of these 'temporary' facilities were not adequately protected because they had fallen through the cracks of the State Department bureaucracy," one Insider said. The administration has increased security, increased funding, and decreased risk, another said, "likely to the detriment of diplomats' ability to do their jobs effectively."
The trend, another Insider added, "seems to be to create bigger and more forbidding bastions around the world, confirming the image of many that the U.S. has become Fortress America."
Forty-three percent said the U.S. has not made missions safer—for differing reasons. "There hasn't been enough time to assess, decide, fund, and act in the lumbering bureaucracy of the State Department," one Insider said. Another added: "There is nothing new about security threats to U.S. missions, which can never be made entirely safe."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign policy experts. They include:
Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel “Sandy” Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.
1. The former deputy head of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli says the Obama administration did not do everything it could to stop the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens in Benghazi. Do you believe the administration tried to cover up aspects of its response to the attack for political reasons?
- Yes 50%
- No 50%
"Certainly the administration was mindful of the political implications of the Benghazi attack, coming as it did during the height of the fall campaign season. The attack contradicted their narrative that Obama's policies had negated the terrorist threat to America from Islamic extremists, so in their initial reaction they clearly tried to shift blame in other directions. It wasn't so much their response that they were trying to conceal as the nature of the attack. But the taste of prevarication has flavored this issue ever since."
"This doesn't mean they actually did anything wrong."
"Not only did it try to cover up; it is still trying to cover up."
"The Republicans will remind us of it next election."
"That was within a week of the attack."
"Still waiting for a full accounting from the administration."
"Yes, but I'm not sure they knew what they were covering up other than a bungled response. The response was as amateurish as the cover up."
"Yes. The last thing the Obama administration wanted to do was admit that we had been attacked on 9/11 by [al-Qaida] inspired terrorists—especially after they said they had "defeated AQ."
"But some people are using the issue for political purposes now. Shameful."
"U.S. diplomats do not expect that U.S. combat aircraft or troops are on instant alert worldwide to deal with unforeseen contingencies. Diplomats know that they depend on host government security, and that embassies and consulates are not equipped and trained for sustained shoot-outs with armed attackers."
" 'Cover-up' is a strong term. They certainly tried to divert the conversation to the illogical assertion that the loss of life was important. This would have been far less of a problem with the simple statement 'I am responsible and I am accountable.' Words not found in a political dictionary. The weak responses and weaseling are disheartening as they indicate very poor leadership regardless of a cover up."
"The only reason we are still talking about this is that the president's political opponents seized on it last year in an effort to score points against him on national security, and as with other bad political habits they will not let this one go."
"We ought to ask for evidence before concluding the administration 'covered up aspects of its response to the attack for political reasons.' We've been given none. What's been proved is incompetence. What's been insinuated is truly scandalous and evil. But various media and political leaders have colluded to create a context in which people have conflated the proved with the insinuated. Republicans are making the administration look like the grownups here."
2. Has the Obama administration made diplomatic missions more secure in the wake of the Benghazi attack?
- Yes 57%
- No 43%
"We always overreact to one of these attacks."
"Yes. However, it is impossible to provide foolproof security. It remains managing risk vs. national security gain."
"Just as you can't win hearts and minds from inside a tank, you can't do so from inside a fortress. Let's strike a smart balance here."
"State's FY14 budget request for security is $4.4 billion, nearly as high as for all diplomatic operations worldwide, $5.5 billion. Good security also depends on prudent risk management that may not cost much money. For example, in the future ambassadors will likely shy away from visiting insecure outposts at times when threat environments are elevated."
"Yes, but at the cost of mission effectiveness."
"It appears that it has taken small steps in that direction. Whether more needs to be done remains to be seen."
"They have tried, but the House has largely blocked the [Overseas Contingency Operations] funding reprogramming last time I checked. Security isn't easy and certainly isn't cheap. Withholding funds to implement with the most pressing security upgrades I think makes Congress as culpable as any bad Administration decision-making should anything else happen like Benghazi in the future."
"Throwing money at a problem usually results in some measurable improvement. Problem is, that which is measured is decided by the institution in question, and is often more important to addressing the fallout than the original problem."
"I suspect the missions are more secure. Note this will likely hamper U.S. diplomacy and U.S. diplomats."
"There is no way diplomatic missions are more secure. True change would take years to implement."
"No, because they haven't gotten to the broken chain of command and responsibility that allowed Benghazi to happen. It wasn't a technology problem, but a command and leadership problem."
"They can only do so much—increase physical protection with more guns, guards, and gates is about it. Protecting our people with military force when needed is what is needed and what they failed to do."
"Depends how you define 'more secure.' They are probably somewhat more risk averse."
This article appears in the May 14, 2013 edition of NJ Daily.