Benghazi: conservative concerns may be reality based for once

U.S. foreign policy and a weakened CIA may have sown the seeds for disaster.

Mitt Romney embarrassed himself at the second presidential debate when he tried to score points against President Obama over the attack on the U.S. Benghazi consulate. As you no doubt recall, he claimed that the president didn’t label it an “act of terror” for two weeks. However feeble a “gotcha” it would have been, as debate moderator Candy Crowley informed Romney, the president used the words in a press conference the day after the attack.

Romney supporters then mounted a brief campaign in an attempt to kill the messenger (Crowley) by insisting that correcting Romney showed partisanship on her part. The right has continued to make the case that the president and his administration were unprepared for the attack and responded poorly. In fact, some thought this would be critical to election results.

Specifically, the right asked:
1. Why wasn’t the consulate more secure, especially with al Qaeda in the region?
2. Why weren’t U.S. forces able to fend off the attackers?
3. Why is the Obama administration hiding the truth about the attack?

Obama supporters brushed them off. But is there any truth to the right’s concerns about the Benghazi attack? At Counterpunch, Melvin Goodman, who writes about the decline of the CIA [I'm not exactly sure what constituted its peak -- RW], answers in the affirmative, but for reasons more complicated than the right believe.

It’s now apparent that the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was no ordinary consulate; in fact, it probably was. … the diplomatic cover for an intelligence platform and whatever diplomatic functions took place in Benghazi also served as cover for an important CIA base.

Furthermore

Any CIA component in the Middle East or North Africa is a likely target of the wrath of militant and terrorist organizations because of the Agency’s key role in the global war on terror waged by the Bush administration and the increasingly widespread covert campaign of drone aircraft of the Obama administration. … The U.S. campaign to overthrow Gaddafi didn’t clean the slate of these abuses; it merely opened up the opportunity for militants and Islamists to avenge U.S. actions over the past ten years.

In other words, speaking as the former CIA analyst that he is, Goodman writes

Americans are devoting far too much attention to whether a so-called proper level of security in Benghazi could have prevented the attack, instead of trying to learn the motives and anticipate the actions of these militant organizations.

The CIA should have learned from a previous incident.

The CIA failure to provide adequate security for its personnel stems from degradation in the operational tradecraft capabilities of the CIA since the so-called intelligence reforms that followed the 9/11 attacks. Nearly three years ago, nine CIA operatives and contractors were killed by a suicide bomber at their base in Khost in eastern Afghanistan in the deadliest attack on CIA personnel in decades.

Virtually every aspect of sound tradecraft was ignored in this episode.

But not much improved between then and the Benghazi attack.

The security situation in Libya, particularly Benghazi, was obviously deteriorating; the consulate was a target of a bomb in June. … Overall security for the consulate had been in the hands of a small British security firm that placed unarmed Libyans on the perimeter of the building complex. The CIA contributed to the problem with its reliance on Libyan militias and a new Libyan intelligence organization to maintain security for its personnel in Benghazi.

On the night of the attack, the CIA security team was slow to respond to the consulate’s call for help. [Also] Ambassador Christopher Stevens was an extremely successful and popular ambassador in Libya, but he had become too relaxed about security in a country that had become a war zone.

Meanwhile, at GQ, Sean Flynn, who recently wrote the definitive account of the Utoya kilings, also provides one for Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’s final days. He concludes:

Even the apparently important operational question—namely, was there enough security—seems irrelevant, because there can never be enough to prepare for every scenario. “The lethality and the number of armed people is unprecedented—there had been no attacks like that anywhere in Libya,” a senior State Department official said. “In fact, it would be very, very hard to find an attack like that in recent diplomatic history.”

But we’ll give Goodman the final word.

The Benghazi failure is one more reminder of the unfortunate militarization of the intelligence community, particularly the CIA, in the wake of 9/11 that finds our major civilian intelligence service becoming a paramilitary center in support of the war-fighter.

Cross-posted from the Foreign Policy in Focus blog Focal Points.