As Mitt Romney recently learned in a fairly painful lesson, you don't assign blame before you have the facts. Nobody currently has all of the facts about what happened in Benghazi, but what is interesting is how many conclusions are being based on a single unsourced conference call about the events of 9/11/12.
As we all know by now, the State Department disavowed early reports that the attack on the Benghazi consulate was "spontaneous" or "had arisen following protests" against that youtube video. Specifically, last Tuesday, 10/9, a pair of unnamed State Department officials on background told reporters in a conference call:
"The ambassador walked guests out at 8:30 or so; there was nobody on the street. Then at 9:40 they saw on the security cameras that there were armed men invading the compound," a senior State Department official said. "Everything is calm at 8:30 pm, there is nothing unusual. There had been nothing unusual during the day outside."
Asked about earlier State Dept. reports that there had been protests at the consulate similar to those which had been raging at the embassy in Cairo and elsewhere, and whether the attacks had evolved spontaneously from the protests, the unnamed officials said "That is not our conclusion. We don't necessarily have a conclusion about that."
Obviously this contradicts earlier claims from the Obama administration, particularly those from UN Ambassador Susan Rice. But more interestingly, it *also* contradicts earlier reporting from multiple sources that described protesters at the gate.
Fighters involved in the assault, which was spearheaded by an Islamist brigade formed during last year’s uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, said in interviews during the battle that they were moved to attack the mission by anger over a 14-minute, American-made video that depicted the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s founder, as a villainous, homosexual and child-molesting buffoon.
"A group of armed assailants mixed with unarmed demonstrators gathered at the small compound that housed a temporary American diplomatic mission" in Benghazi. "Interviewed at the scene on Tuesday night, many attackers and those who backed them said they were determined to defend their faith from the video’s insults," the Times reported.
The attackers were part of a mob blaming America for a film they said insulted the Prophet Mohammad.
By late Tuesday evening, as many as 50 heavily armed militants had gathered outside its high walls.
They joined protesters outside the consulate who were demonstrating against an American movie that they believed denigrated the prophet Muhammad. But according to one witness, the new arrivals neither chanted slogans nor carried banners.
“They said, ‘We are Muslims defending the prophet. We are defending Islam,’ ” Libyan television journalist Firas Abdelhakim said in an interview.
Stevens, who had spent many years in Libya, had arrived Monday from the embassy in Tripoli for a week of routine meetings. A friend who spent Monday and Tuesday with him said Stevens held meetings with nongovernmental organizations and militia leaders on both days. When the friend dropped Stevens off at the consulate Tuesday afternoon, he said, nothing appeared to be amiss — beyond the protesters.
The first protesters had showed up around noon. Wanis al-Sharif, the deputy Libyan interior minister, said in an interview that the demonstrators were angered by a low-budget American film that portrayed the prophet Muhammad in a blasphemous manner. As the day wore on, Sharif said, the anger escalated and people with weapons infiltrated the crowd.
Reuters and the Times are both standing by their early reporting. Unlike the conference call everyone is basing conclusions on, the early reports were actually sourced to named eye witnesses, Libyan government and security officials, and even interviews with the actual protester/attackers and their supporters on the scene before and during the attack.
Why would these two unnamed sources in the State Department disavow reports of protests outside the gate? It's hard to say. But consider this, the same sources on the same conference call also claimed:
"There had been no attacks like that anywhere in Libya in the time that we had been there. So it was unprecedented," the official said. "In fact, there hasn't been an attack like that in recent diplomatic history."
This is itself inaccurate: Benghazi has seen a string of violent attacks in recent weeks and months, including an attack on a British convoy, an rpg attack on the International Red Cross/Red Crescent, and a bomb exploded at the gates of this same compound. Without speculating at all about motives, we can see that the individuals offering this information are not themselves entirely well-informed on recent events in Benghazi. Given the lack of factual accuracy reported on this call, we should suspect other factual claims, particularly when they contradict multiple independently-sourced independent reports about the attacks.
I'd submit that hanging this entire argument from one unsourced conference call, when multiple earlier sources offer a consistently different picture of the day's events, would be a mistake.
According to the New York Times, and unfortunately for ever-hopeful Republican propagandists, the consulate attackers who killed Ambassador Stevens were local militants, not al Qaeda fighters, and they were acting out of anger in response to the video, not carrying out a pre-planned & coordinated attack. This is according to the words of the attackers themselves, to video evidence, and to accounts from local Libyans in Benghazi who know the attackers, know the militias, and know something about their motivations.
To those on the ground, the circumstances of the attack are hardly a mystery. Most of the attackers made no effort to hide their faces or identities, and during the assault some acknowledged to a Libyan journalist working for The New York Times that they belonged to [Ansar al-Shariah]. And their attack drew a crowd, some of whom cheered them on, some of whom just gawked, and some of whom later looted the compound.
The fighters said at the time that they were moved to act because of the video, which had first gained attention across the region after a protest in Egypt that day. The assailants approvingly recalled a 2006 assault by local Islamists that had destroyed an Italian diplomatic mission in Benghazi over a perceived insult to the prophet. In June the group staged a similar attack against the Tunisian Consulate over a different film, according to the Congressional testimony of the American security chief at the time, Eric A. Nordstrom.
At a news conference the day after the ambassador and three other Americans were killed, a spokesman for Ansar al-Shariah praised the attack as the proper response to such an insult to Islam. “We are saluting our people for this zeal in protecting their religion, to grant victory to the prophet,” the spokesman said. “The response has to be firm.”
Other Benghazi militia leaders who know the group say its leaders and ideology are all homegrown. Those leaders, including Ahmed Abu Khattala and Mohammed Ali Zahawi, fought alongside other commanders against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. Their group provides social services and guards a hospital. And they openly proselytize for their brand of puritanical Islam and political vision.
They profess no interest in global fights against the West or distant battles aimed at removing American troops from the Arabian Peninsula.
As the facts become clearer it is more and more apparent that the Obama administration's handling of this case has been largely accurate, and appropriately cautious. It appears that the attack *was* in response to the video, that it *was* a relatively spontaneous and improvised attack, and that it was not a coordinated terror strike of the kind associated with global terror groups. The connection with Al Qaeda in the Maghreb appears to be tenuous, and attributing this attack to al Qaeda, the way Republicans have rushed to do, only puts an entirely undeserved notch in that organization's belt.
Other Benghazi militia leaders who know Ansar al-Shariah say it was capable of carrying out the attack by itself with only a few hours’ planning, and as recently as June one of its leaders, Mr. Zahawi, declared that it could destroy the American Mission.
United States intelligence officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have said they intercepted boastful phone calls after the fact from attackers at the mission to individuals affiliated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. But they have also said that so far they had found no evidence of planning or instigation by the group. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, described the participation of individuals “linked to groups affiliated with or sympathetic with Al Qaeda” — acknowledging, at best, a tenuous or indirect link.
“It is a promiscuous use of ‘Al Qaeda,’ ” Michael Hanna, a researcher at the Century Foundation, said of those charging that Al Qaeda was behind this attack. “It can mean anything or nothing at all.”