And so the reckoning begins. Only hours after a special task force concluded on Wednesday that “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” may have contributed to the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, the State Department’s security chief resigned and three other officials were relieved of their duties.
What was lacking in the report, however, was any sense of who was responsible farther up the chain. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s Accountability Review Board—chaired by retired Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering and vice chaired by another national-security heavyweight, former Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen—detailed a broad failure of U.S. intelligence officials and policymakers to fully understand the growing Islamist threat in Libya, but without naming the names of those who were responsible for that failure. As the report put it, using the passive tense, “There was little understanding of militias in Benghazi and the threat they posed to U.S. interests.”
Even more damning, in its absence, was the report’s failure to step back and question whether the Obama administration, at its highest levels (starting with the president), created the conditions for Benghazi by overstating the decimation of al-Qaida and playing down the significance of the extremist elements, possibly al-Qaida-linked, that have reemerged in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Libya and elsewhere. Unless this reckoning is made, it is easy to imagine a similar disaster happening in post-Assad Syria, or elsewhere in the region. This has been a chief Republican talking point against Obama since the Benghazi attacks occurred on Sept. 11.
A disturbing subtext of the report is the broader failure of the U.S. intelligence community to catch up ideologically with extremist threats, even as the CIA and FBI have burrowed deeply into Islamist networks at home and abroad. As demonstrated by the October arrest of a would-be terrorist plotting to blow up the New York Federal Reserve, the FBI is now deeply embedded in the domestic Muslim community, and the CIA has gotten fairly adept at penetrating jihadist networks abroad, especially online (a striking contrast to the U.S. law-enforcement community’s inability to root out the nation’s Adam Lanzas before they kill).
But, in a worrisome replay of the intelligence community’s cluelessness before 9/11, the report supplies further evidence that U.S. intelligence has largely failed to anticipate how new al-Qaida-style cells have been incubating in the extremist groups enfranchised by the Arab Spring abroad. Nor has the Obama administration reckoned with the ideological backlash caused by the indiscriminate use of drone strikes.
The Pickering-Mullen report was also reminiscent of the early reports on the Abu Ghraib interrogation and detention scandal of nearly a decade ago. Even as President George W. Bush continued to blame the scandal on "a few American troops who dishonored our country," it only gradually came to light that the practices at Abu Ghraib stemmed from a series of decisions made at the highest levels, including the president himself. And much as the State Department did here, the Pentagon sought to investigate itself over Abu Ghraib, carefully limiting in rank those it questioned at first.
Thus, the Pickering-Mullen report confined its findings to the failures at “senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department,” Diplomatic Security and Near Eastern Affairs, concluding that “certain senior State Department officials” in these bureaus “demonstrated a lack of proactive leadership and management ability in their responses to security concerns posed by Special Mission Benghazi.” Even so, the task force “did not find reasonable cause to determine that any individual U.S. government employee breached his or her duty.”
The report also did not explain why U.S. intelligence was, in general, not keeping up, even though it found that “fundamentalist influence with Salafi and al-Qaida connections was also growing [in Libya], including notably in the eastern region.... At the time of the September attacks, Benghazi remained a lawless town nominally controlled by the Supreme Security Council (SSC)—a coalition of militia elements loosely cobbled into a single force to provide interim security—but in reality run by a diverse group of local Islamist militias.”
In another unsettling reminder of how laggard U.S. intelligence has remained in the 11 years since 9/11, the report drew parallels between the failure in Benghazi and what happened after terrorists attacked U.S. facilities in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1999. “Simply put, in the months leading up to Sept. 11, 2012, security in Benghazi was not recognized and implemented as a ‘shared responsibility’ in Washington, resulting in stove-piped discussions and decisions on policy and security,” the report said.
Shot through the report are other reminders of incompetence at the highest levels: the State Department’s failure to “issue a worldwide caution cable to posts related to the [9/11] anniversary; and a failure “to link formally the many anti-Western incidents in Benghazi, the general declarations of threat in U.S. assessments and a proliferation of violence-prone and little understood militias, the lack of any central authority, and a general perception of a deteriorating security environment to any more specific and timely analysis of the threat to U.S. government facilities,” as the report puts it.
The report also notes “a tendency on the part of policy, security, and other U.S. government officials to … overlook the usefulness of taking a hard look at accumulated, sometimes circumstantial information, and instead to fail to appreciate threats and understand trends, particularly based on increased violence and the targeting of foreign diplomats and international organizations in Benghazi.” The report said board members “were struck by the lack of discussion focused specifically on Benghazi.” It also said that “known gaps existed in the intelligence community’s understanding of extremist militias in Libya and the potential threat they posed to U.S. interests.”
All of which raises the question: Where do these gaps begin? The answer is: at the highest levels, of course. A real reckoning of Benghazi will have to await further reports.