On December 30, 2009 a suicide bomber dispatched by Al Qaida detonated the explosive vest he was wearing inside of the CIA's Khost Base near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. Seven CIA officers, including close friends of mine, were killed. A number of others were wounded.
On October 19, 2010, the CIA announced the results of its inquiry into the causes of this tragedy. The issues were legion. How in an area known to be so dangerous, in the midst of a struggle against such a ruthless foe, was an individual brought unsearched into such a sensitive facility? Why was he put in immediate proximity to virtually the entire complement of the Base? Who had approved the handling of this case in this fashion? The number of gross errors in the tradecraft used in high-risk environments that would have had to occur to produce such a result was staggering.
Despite this, the CIA's review, after acknowledging some errors were made, concluded that no disciplinary action of any kind should be taken against anyone. No one would be relieved. No one would be removed from service. In the words of then CIA Director Leon Panetta, all of the decisions made that lead to the Khost debacle were "reasonable" and based on the findings of the task force and the independent review, responsibility could not "be assigned to any particular individual or group".
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the bureaucratic language of Washington I will translate. "There are far too many senior officers with their fingerprints on this op to dig any further. Close the file."
On September 11, 2012, Ambassador Chris Stevens, U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans were murdered in attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and associated structures. In the midst of an intense firefight at the consulate, as other members of the consulate staff fled to another location, Ambassador Stevens was somehow left behind in a burning structure. He was apparently found hours later by Libyan nationals and taken to a hospital where he was pronounced dead. The U.S. Government only recovered his body when it was returned to us at the Benghazi airport by Libyan authorities.
Already the bureaucratic gamesmanship is beginning in regard to this incident just as it did with Khost. The President and Secretary of State have reluctantly acknowledged that the storming of a U.S. diplomatic facility and murder of American diplomats can be considered terrorism. They have made reference to some sort of internal review of the events in Benghazi that will be conducted. They have made no reference to the blatantly obvious fact that Ambassador Stevens and the other personnel posted to Benghazi were left dangerously exposed and died due to incompetence and neglect.
To understand how virtually inconceivable the events in Benghazi are, it pays to review quickly at least some of the many players who are responsible for ensuring that this kind of thing never happens.
First, there is the CIA's senior representative in country. He is the Ambassador's principal intelligence advisor. It is his job to have his ear to the ground and to provide advance warning of demonstrations, attacks and threats. Either no such warning was ever given, meaning the requisite intelligence was not being collected, or it was given and ignored. Either way some hard answers are required.
Next, there is the Regional Security Officer (RSO), the representative of the Diplomatic Security Service in country. He is the man who is responsible for the physical security of all U.S. diplomatic installations in country and for the security of all diplomatic personnel. Obviously, job number one for the RSO is keeping the Ambassador alive.
Libya just finished a brutal civil war. It is awash in heavily armed militias, many of them hostile to us. These militia groups pursue their own agendas and exist largely outside government control. You do not need a classified briefing to recognize that in this environment an ambassador moving around outside a secure site with a handful of local guards and a handful of other Americans is a disaster waiting to happen.
A prudent security official in this environment would probably have started by telling the Ambassador to stay on the embassy compound and, when the Ambassador insisted on moving outside, would have ensured the presence of a large, robust, heavily armed American security presence. He would also have thought out in advance all of the possible contingencies, ensuring that evacuation in the event of an attack was preplanned and that a reaction force to respond to an emergency was standing by. Apparently, none of that was done in this case.
Behind the Ambassador, his intelligence advisor and the RSO, are, of course, the legions of bureaucrats in Washington, DC who are briefed constantly on the Ambassador's movements and what sites are being acquired and occupied in country. Dozens of such individuals would have been involved in approving the use of the buildings that were stormed in Benghazi and would have concurred with the security plans for those structures and for the Ambassador.
Walid Musbah, a self-proclaimed Qaddafi volunteer fighter captured by rebels, was put into the back of a pickup truck by rebel fighters. | Photo: Rod Norland |
Behind all of these individuals in both the Embassy and Washington, stand the full capabilities of the U.S. Government, including the Department of Defense (DOD). Contingency planning is done continuously, in fact, within DOD for securing embassies and consulates, responding to emergencies, evacuating personnel, etc. Were hundreds of Marines required to guarantee the security of the diplomatic presence in Libya, in other words, they were available.
Despite all of this, despite the hundreds of billions spent on defense and counterterrorism, despite the millions of dedicated American personnel around the world with extensive experience in operating in dangerous areas, Ambassador Stevens died, abandoned and alone, in a burning structure in a hostile land. He was by all accounts, an exemplary public servant, committed to his profession and this nation. He deserved much better.
After action reviews of incidents like this are done for at least two reasons. First, perhaps, they are done for the dead. We lost some of our very best in Libya. We owe it to them to find out exactly why, to hold those who failed in their responsibilities accountable and to do the right thing.
After action reviews are also done for the living. They're done to make sure that no other American Ambassador is ever abandoned and left behind in a facility overrun by hostile forces. They're done, because it is our obligation to make sure that the great men and women who volunteer for the tough jobs down range are as safe and secure as possible and that they have the best possible chance of coming back alive to their families and loved ones.
We failed in both those responsibilities in regard to Khost. In the end we were more concerned with saving careers at CIA Headquarters than we were with making sure that intelligence officers came home in one piece. It is already beginning to smell like we will take the same road in regard to Benghazi. The timing is inconvenient. The President is up for reelection in November. Now is not the time to dig into the question of why we were left so exposed, to what extent Washington may have resisted requests for additional security, the possibility that we were more focused on appearances than reality.
Let's not let that happen. Let's not let the Washington bureaucracy sweep yet another tragedy under the rug. Let's tell the truth. For the dead. And for the living.