House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) Chairman Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Ranking Member C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-MD) issued a much-anticipated “Investigative Report on the Terrorist Attacks on U.S. Facilities in Benghazi, Libya, September 11-12, 2012” late on Friday November 21, 2014 that has administration supporters crowing—and eyewitness, on-the-ground operators pushing back forcefully. A close comparison of the report and other previously released information about the September 2012 attacks on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi shows that the operators have good reason to cry “foul.” While clever wording just might give Messrs. Rogers and Ruppersberger plausible deniability on a witness stand, the overall intent of the report is clear: exonerate the Intelligence Community (IC), and, by extension, the Obama administration, of responsibility for intelligence failures prior, during, and after the terrorist attack that took the lives of Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service Information Officer Sean Smith, and CIA contractors Glenn Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
In simple terms, this report is a whitewash of the CIA, which, along with the State Department, was responsible for arming and assisting the very jihadist militia groups that rose to power in the first place during the 2011 rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi, and who later murdered our people in Benghazi. The biggest intelligence failure of all that is never mentioned is the failure to understand the essential hostility of the jihadist ideology of the groups with which our government was dealing.
One of the most riveting revelations from members of the CIA security team who were at the Annex the night of 11-12 September, 2012 concerns the repeated refusal of CIA Chief of Base ‘Bob’ to allow them to go to the rescue of the besieged Americans at the Special Mission Compound (SMC). While the Rogers report is adamant that “…the Committee found no evidence that there was either a stand down order or a denial of available air support,” that statement is directly contradicted by accounts of events from Mark “Oz” Geist, Kris “Tanto” Paranto, and John “Tig” Tiegen. These three members of the Annex security team are co-authors of “13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi,” and have spoken out publicly in multiple media appearances. The Rogers Committee interviewed all three of them, as well as additional members of the Annex staff, so there’s no question about its familiarity with the actual sequence of events that fateful night.
According to Oz, Tanto, and Tig, COB “Bob” specifically used the words “Stand down” and also “Hold up” and “You need to wait” to keep security team members from going to the aid of fellow Americans under terrorist assault at the SMC. Despite repeated and increasingly panicked calls from the SMC, “Bob” refused to allow the Annex security team to depart that compound for nearly half an hour after the first alarm came in—a delay team members firmly believe resulted in the needless deaths of Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith. While “Bob’s” motivations may be debated—concern for the Annex’s own security, and the supposed responsibility of the jihadist 17 February Martyrs Brigade to defend the SMC—the Rogers Committee had a solemn responsibility to report truthfully about events as they happened. In this instance, the HPSCI report failed that responsibility.
Oversight and review of actions by the Intelligence Community constitute the primary mission of the HPSCI. The Rogers report devotes considerable attention and effort to conveying the impression that there was insufficient, or insufficiently specific, warning of an impending attack against the U.S. Mission in Benghazi. Unfortunately again, on multiple counts, this impression is an inaccurate one. The Rogers report Executive Summary on page 2 states that the “Committee finds that there was no intelligence failure prior to the attacks….IC provided intelligence about previous attacks and the increased threat environment in Benghazi, but the IC did not have specific, tactical warning of the September 11 attacks.” The careful wording of this claim may be technically accurate, but it is a far cry from being fully truthful about what the IC knew or should have known in the days and hours leading up to the attacks. Once again, a misleading conclusion is conveyed that whitewashes the IC performance, which was, in fact, lacking on a number of counts.
Congressional and media reporting alike confirm that prior intelligence reporting did detail earlier al-Qa’eda-linked terrorist attacks against other Western targets in and around Benghazi, as well as against the U.S. Mission itself. The implication left with the reader is that the State Department, whose activities the Rogers report does not assess (“other than where those activities impact, or were impacted by, the work of the intelligence community”), was responsible not only for the failure to properly secure its SMC facility, but for the fact that Amb. Stevens was in Benghazi at all on such a momentous date for Islamic terrorists—especially given the local security situation, which was known to both him and the State Department.
At least two glaring intelligence failures do stand out, though. The first is the IC failure to warn either the Annex or Special Mission Compound personnel that between September 9th and 11th 2012, Muslim anger in Egypt and the broader Muslim world began to boil over on social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter over the “Innocence of Muslims” YouTube video about the life of Muhammad. The book 13 Hours notes that it was left to Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) Greg Hicks at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli to sound the alarm on September 11, 2012 with a text message to Ambassador Stevens to let him know that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo was under assault by violent demonstrators who had breached the perimeter wall and torn down the American flag. A communications officer at the SMC later telephoned the CIA Annex to convey the same information to them. The question left dangling is why it was the State Department that had to pass breaking real-time threat information to the CIA in Benghazi, when the gathering Islamic anger had been trending openly on social media sites for two whole days. In the end, of course, there were absolutely zero demonstrations or protests in Benghazi or Libya as a whole about that video, but Annex security team members have confirmed they knew nothing in advance about either the video or the online storm it generated. Given that it was their core responsibility to provide security protection to the Annex and its CIA operatives, the IC failure to ensure that they knew this information in a timely fashion left a gap in their overall situational awareness, even though their professional readiness posture to react on a 24/7 basis may not have suffered in any significant way.
The second intelligence failure involves the video that actually did matter in Benghazi: the videotaped message from al-Qa’eda (AQ) chief Ayman al-Zawahiri that went up on jihadist websites on September 10, 2012 and, in retrospect, seems obviously to have been the green light signal for the attack. Al-Zawahiri’s message called specifically on Libyans to rise up and attack Americans as revenge for the CIA drone killing of his Libyan deputy, Abu Yahya al-Libi, a few months earlier. Annex security members have confirmed they knew nothing about what should have been a red alert to the entire U.S. Mission in Benghazi. It should be noted here that even though Annex security team members were not privy to all incoming IC intel reporting, but instead were briefed by the Team Lead (a CIA case officer), they were responsible for protecting Annex and its CIA personnel. An earlier intelligence report, for example, is described on page 51 of the 13 Hours account as being extremely specific about a warning that “a Western facility or U.S. Embassy/Consulate/Government target will be attacked in the next week.” That one was considered so important that Tyrone “Rone” Woods taped a copy of it up on a white board in the security team room at the Annex, and each member of the team over the following days signed his initials to show that he’d read it. According to the book, once everyone had signed, Tanto took the report down and shredded it…on September 11, 2012.
This report got everyone’s attention (at the Annex at least), but when the commander of AQ issued an attack order that was at least equally as specific to the U.S. Mission in Benghazi, inexplicably, the IC was oblivious. This must be counted as an egregious intelligence failure and should have been identified as such in the Rogers report.
Next, on the question of the identities of the terrorist attackers, the Rogers report once again conveys a very inaccurate impression. The report’s Executive Summary says “…Committee finds that a mixed group of individuals, including those affiliated with Al-Qa’ida, participated in the attacks….although the Committee finds that the intelligence was and remains conflicting about the identities, affiliations, and motivations of the attackers.”
In light of all the threat information about al-Qa’eda, the AQ-linked Ansar al-Shariah, and jihadist 17 February Martyrs Brigade SMC guards that was abundantly available to the entire Benghazi mission, both at the Annex and the SMC, the identity of the Benghazi assault teams hardly could have been in doubt. But even if it’s conceded that the attackers included individuals from a number of different local militias, everyone in Benghazi knew, or should have known, that they were all jihadis, aka AQ affiliates. And while of late it has become unfashionable, not to mention career-threatening, within the U.S. government to mention the jihadist ideology of America’s terrorist enemies, those on the ground in harm’s way don’t have the luxury of such denial. Those in Benghazi on the night of 11-12 September 2012 knew immediately who was attacking them and reported that information up their respective chains-of-command.
There was plenty of other information available—both immediately and within days of the attack. For one thing, the closed circuit TV (CCTV) cameras mounted on the exterior of Annex and SMC buildings not only recorded for the permanent record, but live-streamed events on the ground as they were happening. That live-stream video would have been seen by dozens of U.S. government officials across the IC that night. Everyone watching knew the attackers were Islamic terrorists, well-organized, well-prepared, and well-trained for that assault. For whatever reason, however, the Annex security team members were never allowed to view this CCTV footage.
An additional and critical piece of information is revealed on page 185 of 13 Hours in Benghazi, where Tanto recalls that a member of the 17th February Martyrs Brigade handed him a Blackberry cell phone that had been recovered “outside the front of the villa” (meaning the SMC). Tanto gave the cell phone to COB “Bob” after he and other team members returned to the Annex. This phone more than likely belonged to one of the attackers. The forensic exploitation of its contents would have been completed with speed and urgency, very likely providing the Intelligence Community with a great deal of information about the entire Benghazi-based network of AQ, Ansar al-Shariah, and AQIM terrorists involved in the mission attack within days, if not hours.
Finally, the Associated Press (AP) published an excellent piece of investigative journalism on October 27th, 2012. AP reporters had gone to Benghazi and interviewed the SMC’s neighbors. Their report clearly states that the local eyewitnesses identified the attackers as Ansar al-Shariah by the logos on their trucks as they set up roadblocks around the compound prior to the attack. Obviously, if wire service reporters could get this information, Benghazi CIA officers should have acquired and reported it, too. If they did not, then that too is an intelligence failure.
The next critical element of the Rogers report that needs scrutiny involves the weapons shipments that were sent from Benghazi to Turkey for overland delivery to the Syrian al-Qa’eda-and-Muslim-Brotherhood-linked rebels fighting there against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. The relevant passage from the Rogers Executive Summary reads: “…the Committee also found no evidence that the CIA conducted unauthorized activities in Benghazi and no evidence that the IC shipped arms to Syria.” Once again, wording is everything.
According to an August 2012 report from CNN, President Obama signed an Intelligence Finding to authorize clandestine support for Syrian rebels by the CIA and other agencies sometime in early 2012. The same CNN report says that an earlier Finding was signed in 2011 to authorize CIA support to the Libyan rebels. Such Findings carry a great deal of legal weight and likely trump the U.S. Criminal Code ban on providing material support to terrorism. So, even if the IC had been providing arms, funding, intelligence, and other support to AQ in Libya in 2011 and later, in Syria in 2012, it wasn’t, strictly speaking, “unauthorized.”
Furthermore, the Rogers report itself reproduces a question-and-answer session before the HPSCI that featured testimony from Acting CIA Director Mike Morell. On page 87 of the report, Morell plainly admits that arms were leaving Benghazi and going to Syria. Sections of the exchange are redacted, but the clear implication is that the Turks were involved as middlemen in the movement of weapons from Libya destined for the Syrian rebels. Morell’s testimony tried to give HPSCI member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA) the impression that the only CIA role in this gun-running was monitoring that movement, not participating in it. At this point in the session, however, HPSCI Chairman Rogers intervened to shut the conversation down from going any further.
Fox News reporter Catherine Herridge shed further light on the shipment of weapons destined for the Syrian rebels out of Libya by way of Turkey with an important 25 October 2012 story in which she revealed that the Libyan-flagged ship, the “Al-Entisar,” reportedly loaded with weapons from Libya, had been docked in the Turkish port of Iskanderun on September 6th, 2012. Readers will recall that Ambassador Stevens’ last meeting, a mere five days later, on September 11th, was with the Turkish Consul General in Benghazi. Semantics again: the ships didn’t dock in Syria, they docked in Turkey. So, the Rogers report technically can say that the arms shipments didn’t go to Syria—even though Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier had seemed shocked during her own Congressional testimony at the suggestion that Libyan weapons shipments might have been going, precisely, to Turkey. Technically once again, it might be said that she knew perfectly well the weapons were destined ultimately for delivery in Syria, not Turkey. In any case, someone needs to reconcile these accounts.
Finally, lending some measure of credence to CIA denials of involvement in the Libya-Turkey-Syria gun-running operation is the State Department’s own in-house magazine, which in its December 2011 issue, describes how Stevens and the Libyan Muslim-Brotherhood-led Transitional National Council worked together and “launched the U.S. government’s cooperative program with the council to collect dangerous weapons such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles.” So, it seems possible that the Libya-Syria gun-running operation was directed by the State Department after all. Outstanding questions for the Select Committee on Benghazi might include how many of these so-called MANPADS were collected, by whom, stored where, and how they were shipped out of Benghazi.
To sum up, then, the November 21, 2014 Rogers report on the September 11, 2012 attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi leaves far too many misperceptions to go unchallenged. From IC warnings about the impending attack, to the unambiguous COB “Stand Down” order to the Annex security team, to the AQ terrorist identity of the attackers, and finally to the gun-running operation itself, there is still a great deal to be investigated here. The Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi—which issued our own Interim Report last April—calls on Rep. Trey Gowdy and the entire Select Committee on Benghazi to keep investigating this tragic fiasco until there is full accountability and as much transparency as possible for the American people—and especially, for the families of those who gave their lives in Benghazi.
Clare M. Lopez is the Vice President for Research and Analysis at the Center for Security Policy, and a member of the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi.