The Attack in Benghazi: Worth Investigating After All

CNN reports that dozens of CIA agents were on the ground there -- and that they're being pressured to keep quiet. Why?
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Suddenly it is imperative that Congress investigate details surrounding the attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens. I've never felt that way before. But Drew Griffin's scoop* changed my mind. 

A bit of background: On September 11, 2012, Stevens and three other Americans were killed at a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, touching off perhaps the strangest political controversy in recent years. For reasons I'll never understand, many Republicans thought that the attack, or the way the Obama Administration handled it, would prove a hugely effective cudgel in the upcoming election.

"It's disgraceful that the Obama Administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions," Mitt Romney said, "but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks." Would anyone believe that Obama really sympathized with the attackers? Even if Susan Rice's controversial talking points were wrong, would Americans care? How many voters would hold an inability to stop an attack on Americans in Libya against Obama? Like many people, I figured anti-American radicals had launched the attack, guessed that Obama was as upset about it as anyone, and didn't blame him or Hillary Clinton for failing to secure a diplomatic outpost in an unstable country. I opposed Team Obama's reelection for totally unrelated reasons. 

With House Republicans and talented national-security journalists covering the story even after the election, and nothing to add myself, I tuned out every time I heard the word "Benghazi" on the news. But in May I briefly tuned back in, because it turned out that the Benghazi outpost wasn't a "diplomatic outpost." Why were so many journalists ignoring the fact that it was largely a CIA operation? The fact had been reported months before, I wrote:

I don't know what happened in Benghazi. But knowing that the U.S. facility was a CIA post would seem to help explain certain mysteries. Why wasn't the Obama Administration truthful about what happened? There may have been multiple reasons. Surely one of them was that they wanted to hide the fact that a supposed diplomatic facility was really rife with spies.

Why was the compound attacked? It seems likely that the presence of more than 20 CIA agents had something to do with it. Why were bureaucrats at the State Department so insistent on deflecting blame? Perhaps they're just typically averse to seeing their misjudgments revealed. But it also seems plausible that they conceived of Benghazi as a CIA operation, given the fact that it was largely a CIA operation, and felt the CIA bore responsibility for protecting their own assets, a rebuttal State Department officials cannot make publicly so long as we persist with the fiction that Benghazi was just a normal diplomatic facility with foreign service folks, a visiting ambassador, and no overwhelming spy presence.

Did an American ambassador die in Benghazi in part because the Obama Administration, like all its executive branch predecessors, decided to use diplomatic cover to protect covert CIA assets? What, exactly, were those CIA agents doing in Benghazi? These are the sorts of questions neither establishment Republicans nor establishment Democrats have an interest in answering.

I don't worry too much about the State Department and the CIA taking steps to keep their employees alive, and learning from instances in which they're killed. All the incentives are aligned. But the Obama Administration violated the War Powers Resolution with the way it took part in the ouster of Muammar Gaddafi, has acted in morally dubious ways abroad on many occasions, and has what I regard as an inflated sense of its ability to control foreign interventions.

So I did worry about what exactly the CIA was doing in Libya. Eli Lake has done some characteristically great reporting on the subject. And Thursday, Jake Tapper's show* published this (emphasis added):

CNN has uncovered exclusive new information about what is allegedly happening at the CIA, in the wake of the deadly Benghazi terror attack. Four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the assault by armed militants last September 11 in eastern Libya. Sources now tell CNN dozens of people working for the CIA were on the ground that night, and that the agency is going to great lengths to make sure whatever it was doing, remains a secret. CNN has learned the CIA is involved in what one source calls an unprecedented attempt to keep the spy agency's Benghazi secrets from ever leaking out.

Since January, some CIA operatives involved in the agency's missions in Libya, have been subjected to frequent, even monthly polygraph examinations, according to a source with deep inside knowledge of the agency's workings. The goal of the questioning, according to sources, is to find out if anyone is talking to the media or Congress. It is being described as pure intimidation, with the threat that any unauthorized CIA employee who leaks information could face the end of his or her career. In exclusive communications obtained by CNN, one insider writes, "You don't jeopardize yourself, you jeopardize your family as well." Another says, "You have no idea the amount of pressure being brought to bear on anyone with knowledge of this operation."

The CIA denies the allegations:

"The CIA has worked closely with its oversight committees to provide them with an extraordinary amount of information related to the attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi," the statement said. "CIA employees are always free to speak to Congress if they want," the statement continued.

Then, near the end of the CNN story:

Speculation on Capitol Hill has included the possibility the U.S. agencies operating in Benghazi were secretly helping to move surface-to-air missiles out of Libya, through Turkey, and into the hands of Syrian rebels.

To be clear, it isn't at all certain that the CIA was secretly funneling Libyan weapons to Syria, long before Congress "lifted its hurdles" on arming Syrian rebels. But if CNN's report is correct, the CIA is at minimum trying to hide something huge from Congress, something that CIA agents might otherwise want to reveal -- itself a reason for Congress to press hard for information. And if speculation about moving weapons is grounded in anything substantive, that would be an additional reason to investigate what the CIA is doing in Libya. Dozens of CIA agents were apparently on the ground in Benghazi, Libya last September.

What I want to know is why.


* Correction: This story originally attributed the report to Jake Tapper. While the report aired on Tapper's CNN program, Drew Griffin reported the story. We regret the error.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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