A strong majority of National Journal’s National Security Insiders disagreed with Republicans who claim the Obama administration of being deliberately misleading about the attack at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed ambassador Chris Stevens when it delayed calling it a terrorist attack.
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney and his running mate Paul Ryan — along with many Republicans in Congress — have criticized the Obama administration for saying the deadly assault was the result of a spontaneous outbreak of violence amid protests over an anti-Muslim film, rather than the work of terrorists linked to al-Qaida as the administration now asserts. But three-quarters of Insiders do not believe the Obama administration distorted the facts for political purposes.
“The explanation for any incident such as this understandably evolves as additional information becomes available,” one Insider said. “Republicans are merely grasping for one more stick with which to beat the president.”
First reports in such incidents are notoriously inaccurate, according to several Insiders. “Just because the information was wrong does not mean the administration was trying to mislead,” said one.
Still, the experts said, the administration could have handled the unfolding crisis better. “They would have served the nation better recognizing the possibilities and by citing the need for investigation before commenting to the public,” an Insider said.
Even after the contentious House hearing last week revealed inconsistencies in the administration’s stories about the Benghazi attack, there was no sign of deliberate misleading, another Insider said.
“Still, from the public view, the net effect can be the same, and the lessons learned just as elusive.”
However, a minority of 26 percent of the Insiders surveyed said they do believe the Obama administration deliberately misled people by delaying to label the assault a terrorist attack.
“Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the security situation in Libya understood right after the attack occurred that this was a deliberate, well-planned action,” one Insider said. “You don’t take a rocket-propelled grenade to a ‘spontaneous’ demonstration. You’re clearly planning something if you do.”
Separately, 76 percent of Insiders said that Romney, if elected, would not be able to fulfill his campaign pledges to eliminate any “daylight” between the positions of Washington and its ally Israel —and reach the “vital” goal of an independent Palestinian state.
“Adhering to the Israeli position on the peace process will all but guarantee the failure of negotiations to create a Palestinian state,” one Insider said. “The president will have to convince Israel to back off its hard-line negotiating stance, not support Israeli leaders who would rather derail any prospects of a Palestinian state.”
Romney, another Insider said, has already “painted himself into a corner by drinking the Israeli bathwater” and has no more chance than any of the previous U.S. administrations. “Perhaps less.” Another Insider said that Romney, backed by millions of dollars in pro-Israel cash, will effectively “put Tel Aviv in charge” of America's Middle East foreign policy. “He made it clear in the secretly recorded video that he has no intention of moving forward on a two-state solution,” the Insider said.
Some Insiders were optimistic Romney had a fighting chance to fulfill both those pledges. “The only way to get a deal between Israel and Palestine is if both sides trust the U.S. Lacking that trust, neither side will budge,” one Insider said. "The Palestinians want the U.S. to push Israel, but Israeli leaders will only be responsive to American efforts if they trust Washington — which is not the case today.”
Another Insider quipped: “Could he do any worse than the Bush and Obama administrations?”
1. Did the Obama administration deliberately mislead about the Benghazi attack when it delayed calling it a terrorist attack, as Republicans have claimed?
- No 74%
- Yes 26%
"Questions from events such as these take time to answer. Given what was happening in Cairo, it was responsible to assume what the Administration did initially, and as soon as more information came in, they updated their story. This is only an issue because it is the silly season."
"The problem was not deception, the problem was a monumental failure of intelligence. After pouring billions upon billions of dollars into the NSA to give early warnings of such an event, the attackers in Benghazi showed how easily it could all be defeated, just by turning off their cell phones. According to DNI [Director of National Intelligence James] Clapper at the GEOINT conference: "If people do not emit or discuss their behavior, it’s hard to find out what they are going to do.' Didn’t anyone think of that before we spent all that money?"
"The administration forgot the cardinal rule of crises: First reports are often wrong. But to say they spun it for political purposes is foolish."
"In most crises, information is often confused or incomplete in the early hours and days, as it was, for example, regarding the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, the 1981 Polish crackdown on Solidarity, the 1991 putsch in Moscow, and [the] 2011 Abbottabad raid. Administrations err when they pronounce too soon with undue certainty based on fragmentary data. The Obama administration misspoke but did not lie about Benghazi."
"There is immediate tension in [an] event like this between the operational responses that are triggered and the political tendencies of those around the President. Any first report is incomplete or wrong, but that has never been a barrier to the overwhelming political desire to appear to be relevant; applies to both Obama and Romney is this case."
"Deliberately mislead, probably not, but clearly mishandled on so many levels."
"First reports are always wrong. If security teams are present and there's no attack, Hill critics complain of wasteful spending, even though the presence of security stops attacks."
"No, but rank incompetence and wishful thinking constitute one hell of an excuse."
"Who can know for sure? It seems very unlikely that they would have dared to share different information than the intel indicated."
"I'm open to being persuaded, but I've seen no evidence as yet that they lied rather than screwed up."
"In the fog of a fast-unfolding conflict, the administration tried to meet the media's insatiable demand for news with the facts they knew at the time. Republican arguments otherwise are politics at its worst."
"The Obama administration is not competent enough to know what happened in Benghazi to then mislead the public."
"Anyone with even a rudimentary understanding of the security situation in Libya understood right after the attack occurred that this was a deliberate, well-planned action. You don't take a rocket-propelled grenade to a 'spontaneous' demonstration. You're clearly planning something if you do."
"I wish it weren't so, but the evidence is increasingly leading any objective mind to that conclusion."
2. Could a President Mitt Romney fulfill his pledge to eliminate any “daylight” between the positions of the United States and Israel, and reach the “vital” goal of an independent Palestinian state?
- No 76%
- Yes 24%
"A President Romney will quickly learn the complexities of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process go well beyond cute slogans."
"Both Israelis and Palestinians lack internal political consensus on how to negotiate a solution. Moreover, at least for now, the U.S. has more interest than does Israel in fostering Arab spring democratic shifts with new governments that will have varying degrees of Islamist participation. There is no daylight with Israel on protecting its basic security, but beyond this, daylight will persist."
"I believe the Romney who is talking when he thinks no cameras are on, and that Romney said peace is hopeless."
"There are fundamental policy differences between Israel and the United States. Palestine is one of them."
"Even if one ignores Romney's earlier discarding of the goal of a Palestinian state and believes he actually would want to do something about achieving one, he would never do it by outsourcing U.S. policy to an Israeli prime minister who has repeatedly shown he has no intention of allowing any Palestinian state worthy of the name."
"Would be a very big mistake — this is clearly political posturing, naiveté, or both."
"Only if he outsources American Mideast policy to Israel, which serves the interests of neither nation."
"Absolutely not. Romney seriously misreads the Middle East. Israeli interests are not necessarily American interests."
"Absolutely not. This is Foreign Policy 101, and he fails the test."
"You can't be the referee if you're wearing one of the team's uniforms and playing a position on the field for them."
"I guess he could if he decided to make the United States purely an Israeli puppet. He certainly shouldn't."
"The only way Romney could eliminate all daylight between Israel and the U.S. would be to cede U.S. sovereignty to Israel's wishes. And if Romney did do that, it is unlikely that the current Israeli administration would create such a Palestinian state. The statement is nonsensical."
"The two positions are almost antithetical to each other. Israel is reluctant to allow an independent Palestinian state, no matter what they say publicly. But it's clear a President Romney would work very closely with Israel to eliminate any Iranian nukes."
"America's close ties with Israel are an asset to negotiations, but the U.S. must maintain the ability to press both sides toward compromise."
"Adhering to the Israeli position on the peace process will all but guarantee the failure of negotiations to create a Palestinian state. The president will have to convince Israel to back off its hard-line negotiating stance, not support Israeli leaders who would rather derail any prospects of a Palestinian state."
"The only way to get a deal between Israel and Palestine is if both sides trust the United States. Lacking that trust, neither side will budge. The Palestinians want the U.S. to push Israel, but Israeli leaders will only be responsive to American efforts if they trust Washington — which is not the case today."
"Why not? Who wants a Palestinian state that would look pretty much like Syria?"
"Could he? Yes. Will he? Unlikely with the current names being floated for NSA, DOD and State."
National Journal’s National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign-policy experts.
National Security Insiders Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel “Sandy” Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, 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, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, 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, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, 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.