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Unanswered Benghazi Questions: 9th in a Series
[Above image: Aftermath of Benghazi attacks, obtained by Judicial Watch in a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. State Dept.]
9. Is it true that “specific measures” were taken to ensure “our preparedness and security posture” as stated in a White House press release on September 10, 2012 — the day before the terrorist attacks that overran U.S. facilities in Benghazi? If so, what were the measures and how could Libya have been so overlooked?
Either the U.S. was well-prepared for a September 11, 2012 terrorist attack, as stated by the White House on September 10, and didn’t respond properly–or the U.S. was ill-prepared for a September 11 terrorist attack and the White House misled the public in the press statement implying that it was prepared. Who is responsible for the lack of preparation or the miscommunication?
As stated by Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayoutte:
“According to a White House readout of the President’s meeting with senior Administration officials on September 10, 2012, the President, along with his principals, discussed the ‘steps taken to protect U.S. persons and facilities abroad’ in preparation for the 11th anniversary of the nation’s worst terrorist attack. We do not know who was a part of the meeting, nor do we know if anyone discussed the security situation in Libya. We also do not know why no one at the State Department has been held sufficiently accountable for ignoring the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi prior to the attack.
“Accordingly, in light of the meeting on September 10, 2012, we do not know why, on the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack in American history, after multiple attacks on U.S. and Western interests in Libya, and with rising insecurity in countries across the Middle East and North Africa, U.S. military units and assets in the region were not ready, alert, and positioned to respond.
“Readout of the President’s Meeting with Senior Administration Officials on Our Preparedness and Security Posture on the Eleventh Anniversary of September 11th
Earlier today the President heard from key national security principals on our preparedness and security posture on the eve of the eleventh anniversary of September 11th. Over the past month, Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan has convened numerous meetings to review security measures in place. During the briefing today, the President and the Principals discussed specific measures we are taking in the Homeland to prevent 9/11 related attacks as well as the steps taken to protect U.S. persons and facilities abroad, as well as force protection. The President reiterated that Departments and agencies must do everything possible to protect the American people, both at home and abroad.”
Below are previous questions published in this series
8. Did Deputy CIA Director Mike Morell really believe a flawed assessment of the attacks that few others believed? Or did he knowingly advance a false narrative to protect the Obama administration? Who provided the flawed assessment?
As the House Intelligence Committee recently reported, all Obama administration officials it interviewed “knew from the moment the attacks began that the attacks were deliberate terrorist attacks against U.S. interests. No witness has reported believing at any point that the attacks were anything but terrorist acts.” Internal documents show the State Department informed Libya just hours after the attack that terrorists were to blame. And the CIA’s top official in Libya repeatedly informed Washington D.C. officials that the attacks were “not an escalation of protests.”
Yet Morell, then the CIA’s number two official, oversaw changes to the talking points that stated the attacks were “spontaneously inspired by protests.”
Former CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell
Was he an innocent outlier who simply displayed remarkably poor analysis skills? Or was he part of a campaign to mislead the public?
Last April, Morell was called before Congress to address ongoing inconsistencies in his accounts. He told the House Intelligence Committee that he relied on a Washington D.C.-based analysis that concluded there was a protest.
A number of changes to the talking points steered attention away from the terrorist aspect and toward the protest narrative. Among the edits revealed by internal government documents: Obama administration officials deleted references to “Islamic” extremists, al-Qaeda, Ansar al-Sharia, Islam, previous attacks and “jihad.” References to “attacks” were changed to “demonstrations.”
“We did not deliberately downplay the role of terrorists,” Morell testified last year. He added that his conclusion, though it differed with his top officer on the ground in Libya and other assessments, was “based on a totality of the information available.”
Republican Congressman Mike Rogers, then-chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, countered by saying the talking points “did not reflect the best information available. They did not mention that Al Qaeda-linked terrorists were involved in the attacks, though briefings and intelligence reports assessed they were involved.”
Who was/were the analyst(s) who provided Morell with the mistaken analysis? Has this intelligence analysis failure been dissected and remediated?
7. Why did Gen. David Petraeus, as head of the CIA, allow his deputy, Mike Morell, to call the shots on development of the Benghazi talking points, removing references to prior warnings and terrorism that Petraeus had wanted included?
One of the unravelled mysteries surrounding the aftermath of Benghazi is why, as documents reveal, CIA Director Gen. Petraeus begrudgingly allowed his subordinate, Mike Morell, to overrule him on content of the Benghazi talking points.
Gen. David Petraeus, former Director of the CIA
Morell first denied to members of Congress that he played a key role. But later, after documents revealed it, Morell admitted he removed language that his own agency had included in the talking points disclosing that the C.I.A. had provided “warnings” in advance of the attacks. Morell differed with his boss, Petraeus, who wanted the warning language included.
“I reacted very strongly to inclusion of the warning language,” Morell testified to Congress last year in explaining the changes he made. He was asked to appear before Congress to clarify discrepancies in his accounts of the talking points. “I thought it was an effort on the C.I.A.’s part to make it look like we had warned and shift any blame to the State Department…I made a decision at that moment I got the talking points I was going to take the… language out.”
It was left unexplained as to why Morell was put in the driver’s seat and was defending the State Department’s interests rather than his own agency’s and that of his boss.
Documents show that Petraeus was so disgusted by all of the edits made to the talking points that he said he’d rather they not be used at all.
Upon learning of Petraeus aquiescence, Rep. Peter King (R-NY) commented, “Petraeus seems so passive I’ve never know anyone so passive…Why was he sitting back the way he was?” That has never been publicly explained.
As the talking points were being developed, Petraeus was under F.B.I. investigation for his alleged extramarital affair, which later prompted his resignation, but Morell says he was unaware of Petraeus’ troubles at the time.
6. Who made the decision not to convene the Counterterrorism Security Group during the Benghazi attacks, as required under Presidential directive?
Under Presidential directive installed after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., a special Counterterrorism Security Group (CSG) was to be convened in the event of any action against the U.S. that could potentially be terrorist-related. The idea, say sources familiar with the directive, was to allow for the best inter-agency coordination of information and response available.
However, after the Benghazi attacks, sources told me that the Obama administration declined to convene the CSG, much to the chagrin of some of its members who felt they had valuable contributions to make but were not consulted.
An Obama administration official who was involved with the process told me that the CSG wasn’t necessary because agency principals were engaged at the highest level. However, some of these top agency officials were people who — even after the attacks — were wholly unaware of all of the resources available to the U.S.
Another question: Since the Presidential directive wasn’t followed, has the Obama administration now altered or dismissed the directive?
Had the response to the attacks gone better, it would be more convincing to argue the CSG’s expertise wasn’t needed. However, considering the night’s tragic outcome, the reasons behind the failure to use the group is worth exploring.
5. What do military After Action Reviews on Benghazi reveal? If early drafts differ from final drafts in the record, what changes were made and by whom?
The military describes an After Action Review as “a keystone of the evaluation process.” It’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which evaluation is more crucial than after Benghazi. Yet more than two years after the attacks, the After Action Reviews remain secret even to members of Congress who requested copies.
An accurate and unaltered After Action Review could provide keen insight into what went right and what went wrong from a military standpoint. It could shed light on which public claims are correct and which are faulty.
The Benghazi After Action Reports were not even shared with the Benghazi Accountability Review Board (ARB) which nonetheless concluded, “The interagency response was both timely and appropriate but there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.”
The ARB’s conclusion differs with other official accounts and analyses. It also doesn’t explain how the military could supposedly know there was no point in launching assets because “they wouldn’t get there in time,” when it had no idea how long the assaults would last or whether there would be further attacks in the region on the anniversary of Sept. 11.
When pressed during Congressional testimony as to why he did not personally review any After Action Reports, ARB co-chairman Admiral Mike Mullen stated that he was “read a summary” of an After Action Report and was satisfied with the information. He didn’t elaborate on why—as a lead investigator into what really happened—he wouldn’t have sought a firsthand review of these key, comprehensive documents.
An After Action Review is “a professional discussion of an event, focused on performance standards, that enables soldiers to discover for themselves what happened, why it happened, and how to sustain strengths and improve on weaknesses. It is a tool leaders and units can use to get maximum benefit from every mission or task.”
What specifics could a Benghazi After Action Review provide?
According to the military, an After Action Review provides:
Candid insights into specific soldier, leader, and unit strengths and weaknesses from various perspectives.
Feedback and insight critical to battle-focused training.
Details often lacking in evaluation reports alone.
U.S. Military on After Action Reviews:
“Evaluation is the basis for the commander’s unit-training assessment. No commander, no matter how skilled, will see as much as the individual soldiers and leaders who actually conduct the training. Leaders can better correct deficiencies and sustain strengths by carefully evaluating and comparing soldier, leader, and unit performance against the standard. The AAR is the keystone of the evaluation process.”
4. What do photographs taken at the White House and/or of the President throughout the duration of the Benghazi attacks show and why won’t the White House release them?
White House photographer Pete Souza is often on hand to record photographs of President Obama in action. According to the New Yorker, Souza takes an average of 20,000 photos of President Obama per month. Photographs captured the night of the Benghazi attacks–likely hundreds of them–would reveal much information about the executive branch’s actions.
Several weeks after the attacks, when it became clear that the White House was withholding information on the President’s actions and whereabouts, my CBS News producer and I requested copies of any photos taken that night. The White House photo office promised a prompt response, likely by day’s end.
However, release of the photos was apparently blocked by the White House press office. The White House photo office told us that, in this instance, their release would have to be approved by Josh Earnest. Earnest was then a deputy White House press secretary. He has since been promoted to White House press secretary.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest. Photo by White House photographer Pete Souza.
We contacted Earnest through the White House press office but he would not return our calls. We attempted this process for days, weeks, and then months, but Earnest would not respond. We asked the photo office to provide an alternate means for us to obtain the photos since the method they required, contacting Earnest, was a dead end. But they simply kept referring us back to Earnest.
According to the White House: “Pete Souza, Chief Official White House Photographer and Director of the White House Photography Office, has access unlike any other. Camera in tow, Souza travels alongside President Obama to visually document each meeting, trip and encounter for historical record. Check out his work on the White House Flickr photo stream and in the photo galleries on WhiteHouse.gov.”
The “most transparent administration in history” should release the Benghazi night photos. The media and Congress should demand them. Earnest and Souza—both paid by tax dollars and working in offices funded by tax dollars and supposedly working on behalf of the public—should be asked about the photos and what they observed that night.
The White House photo office is meant to record historical photos of the President. Yet a number of major news organizations allege it has been turned into a propaganda arm of the administration. In November of last year, more than 30 major news and media organizations, national newspapers and television networks wrote a letter protesting the Obama administration’s unprecedented limits on photo access. The news outlets include ABC, FOX, CBS, CNN, NBC,Bloomberg and the New York Times.
According to the letter:
“Journalists are routinely being denied the right to photograph or videotape the President while he is performing his official duties. As surely as if they were placing a hand over a journalist’s camera lens, officials in this administration are blocking the public from having an independent view of important functions of the Executive Branch of government.”
At the time, Earnest told reporters, “We’ve taken advantage of new technology to give the American public even greater access to behind-the-scenes footage or photographs of the president doing his job…I understand why that is a source of some consternation to the people in this room, but to the American public, that is a clear win.”
Doug Mills, a photographer for The New York Times who has covered the White House since the Reagan administration complained to then-White House press secretary Jay Carney that the “most transparent administration” in history was actually behaving more like the Soviet Union.
“I said, ‘Jay, this is just like Tass,’ Mills said in an interview. “It’s like government-controlled use of the public image of the president.”
3. Why wasn’t surveillance video that was recorded at the U.S. compound in Benghazi ever released, as promised?
In fall of 2012, U.S. officials promised to publicly release a declassified version of surveillance video taken by multiple cameras at the U.S. compound in Benghazi, as well as video recorded by an overhead drone. At one point, officials on behalf of the Director of National Intelligence told the news media the video would be released on or about Thanksgiving of 2012. However, the video was never released and, more than two years later, no explanation for the reversal in plans has been provided.
2. When Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reportedly told family members of the Benghazi victims that the U.S. was going to find and prosecute whoever made the “awful” Internet video (rather than pledging to catch those who committed the murders), what crime did she envision the video maker had committed? On what information was she relying when she thought that the government could–and should–persecute a filmmaker who was exercising free speech in America? When U.S. officials asked YouTube to remove the video, what was the legal, ethical or policy basis for doing so and who in government was consulted? Had Mrs. Clinton or President Obama watched the entire film prior to disparaging it? What steps, if any, did administration officials take to have Nakoula charged?
The maker of “Innocence of Muslims,” Nakoula Nakoula, describes himself as an Egyptian Christian. He says he made the film about radical extremists who seek to destroy the American culture and way of life. After his film was incorrectly blamed for the Sept. 11, 2012 violence, Nakoula was arrested for violating terms of his probation set after a bank fraud conviction for which he had served one year in jail. The content of film itself broke no U.S. laws.
In the days and weeks after the attacks, top U.S. officials steered fault for the attacks toward the video, though we now know from internal documents that they had almost immediately privately concluded the terrorist group Ansar al Sharia was to blame. The State Department had sent a message to Libyan officials saying so–even as U.S. officials claimed otherwise to the American public.
With whom did Mrs. Clinton and other officials consult before sending the message that the maker of the video would be prosecuted? What crimes did they mistakenly believe had been committed through Nakoula’s free speech act? In asking that the video be withdrawn from YouTube, has the administration set a precedent that dictates any video offensive to some Muslims should not be posted on the Internet? Does that policy extend to videos that offend some Christians or those belonging to other religions — or to no religion? Under what legal basis and on whose specific advice did U.S. officials follow this course of action?
Below is the first article in this series published Dec. 26, 2014
1. Where was President Obama throughout the long night of the Sept. 11, 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya? What decisions did the Commander-in-Chief make and what actions did he take while Americans were under assault on foreign soil? Considering that the U.S. embassy in Egypt had already been overrun earlier in the day, and that further attacks on other U.S. facilities were anticipated throughout the night, how involved was the President in tracking the volatile, regional developments?
More than two years after the fact, President Obama’s decisions and actions during the Benghazi attacks remain secret with little justification as to why they should be so shrouded. Members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi plan to seek the information. The committee is led by Republican Trey Gowdy of South Carolina. The lead Democrat on the committee is Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland.
The information blackout is in stark contrast to the aftermath of the successful 2011 raid to capture Osama bin Laden when detailed accounts, including a timeline of the President’s briefings, were released to the New York Times and other news media. Then, Obama and his top advisers did not hesitate to reveal details such as:
• The President had received divided advice on whether to move forward with the bin Laden raid.
• President Obama walked into a room adjacent to the Situation Room, said “I need to watch this,” and sat next to Brigadier General Marshall “Brad” Webb, assistant commanding general of Joint Special Operations Command.
• The President said, “We got him,” referring to bin Laden.
• After the raid, the first person the President called was former President George W. Bush. He also called former President Bill Clinton that evening.
In fact, the President’s supposed hands-off approach to the Sept. 11, 2012 Mideast attacks is a divergence from the level of involvement described during the bin Laden raid. By Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s account, Obama told him to “do what he needed to do” to handle Benghazi, then “left [specifics] up to us.” The President reportedly had no further contact with Panetta or Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey during the long night of attacks, deaths and evacuations.
Note: This is the first in a series of articles that will list and examine unanswered questions about the Benghazi terrorist attacks.
Here is a brief excerpt from my Benghazi chapter in Stonewalled. MRS. CLINTON’S BENGHAZI CHAPTER …In a June 18, 2014, interview with Greta Van Susteren of FOX News, Clinton said that her own assessment of the Benghazi attacks “careened from the video had something to do with it, the video had nothing to do with […]