On the morning of Thursday, October 12, 2000, the USS Cole, an American destroyer, docked in the harbor of Aden, Yemen for routine refueling. A little after 11 am, a small boat approached the side of the warship and detonated an explosive device onboard. The blast ripped a 40 by 40 foot gash in the hull of the Cole, killed 17 sailors and injured 39 more. If not for the immediate and heroic damage control measures of the crew, the ship would have been sunk.
The attack on the Cole came roughly two years after the twin Al Qaida attacks on the US Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and amidst rising indicators that Al Qaida was targeting US interests worldwide. Suspicion fell on Al Qaida as being responsible for the Cole attack almost immediately and as information began to trickle in from intelligence channels all available information supported the hypothesis that Osama Bin Laden had struck again. The conclusion was obvious. We were at war.
Unfortunately, that conclusion was inconvenient for the administration of President Bill Clinton. His emphasis was on domestic matters and the "peace dividend" gained by the end of the Cold War. The timing was not right for a focus on foreign affairs or national security. A move to combat Al Qaida militarily would conflict with the central narrative of Clinton's presidency, that we were at peace, prosperous and safe.
And, so Clinton did not order retaliatory attacks against Al Qaida in Afghanistan nor direct the CIA to begin to hunt down Al Qaida operatives worldwide. He dispatched the FBI to Yemen and directed them to undertake an investigation. All further action in response to the attack was delayed until such time as the results of the investigation were in and had been properly evaluated.
The FBI is a great organization. There is no better, more professional law enforcement agency on the planet. Law enforcement organizations, however, of necessity, need to work in settings where there are laws to be enforced and where they enjoy the authority to conduct investigations and make arrests. None of that applied to Yemen.
From the beginning of the investigation, the FBI agents on the ground faced hostility and stonewalling from the Yemenis. The FBI team sent to Yemen was surrounded on the tarmac at the airport on arrival by Yemeni special forces armed with automatic weapons. Those weapons were trained, not on external threats, but on the agents themselves. Speakers in the Yemeni Parliament called for "jihad against America", while the investigation was still in progress. Evidence was withheld. Witnesses simply disappeared. Yemeni authorities pushed the theory that the Cole had been damaged as the result of some sort of internal mechanical malfunction and asked the United States to pay for the cleanup of the port necessitated by the attack. The situation grew so hostile that the FBI eventually moved its base of operations from a hotel on shore to a US warship offshore.
As if all of this were not bad enough, the FBI faced considerable opposition from within the Department of State itself. The US Ambassador to Yemen appeared more focused on protecting delicate Yemeni sensibilities than on finding the attackers. Her confrontation with the Bureau eventually escalated to the point where she effectively declared the FBI team lead persona non grata and forbade him entry to the country.
President Clinton had declared in the aftermath of the Cole bombing, "If, as it now appears, this was an act of terrorism, it was a despicable and cowardly act. We will find out who was responsible and hold them accountable". It did not matter. The point of the investigation was never really to find out what had happened, it was to give the Administration an excuse for dragging its feet and avoiding the inevitable confrontation with Al Qaida.
The FBI soldiered on, gathering in the end remarkable amounts of evidence despite the obstacles placed in its path. Nothing was done. No retaliation was ever ordered.
We are in grave danger of seeing the same tragedy unfold in regard to the attack in Benghazi that killed our ambassador and several other Americans.
In the aftermath of the attack, President Obama made the obligatory remarks. He condemned the attack. He praised Ambassador Stevens. He vowed that terror would not be tolerated.
And, then, he dispatched the FBI to conduct an investigation and determine what had happened.
The FBI team sent to Libya spent the first several weeks after arrival stranded in Tripoli, some 400 miles from the "crime scene". That delay was apparently caused by the need to assemble security for the team and the necessity to get Libyan permission for the team to travel inside Libya. When they eventually made it to Benghazi the FBI spent all of 12 hours on the ground. By all accounts, after touring the burned out consulate building, already picked over by hundreds if not thousands of curious Libyans, they resorted to visiting the local "thieves market" in hopes of finding evidence that had been carried away. Then they returned to Tripoli.
The flag of al Qaeda
The flag of al Qaeda in the streets and fluttering atop Benghazi’s courthouse. |
Meanwhile the State Department announced that it had created an independent panel to look into the security failures in Benghazi, and the Pentagon stated that it would be conducting its own internal review of what had happened.
It is a technique as old as politics. When pressed to take action you do not want to take, appoint a commission, create a "blue ribbon" panel or order an investigation. It provides the illusion that you are taking the matter seriously without the inconvenience of actually requiring you to do anything. It also creates a perfect, and unassailable, excuse for dithering and delay. No action can be taken, of course, until such time as the investigation is complete, and, with any luck, by that time no one will actually be paying attention anymore.
This Administration has been selling for the better part of eighteen months the myth that the "Arab Spring" ushered in a period of peace, prosperity and democratic enlightenment in the Middle East. Benghazi was the final, ugly proof, after the Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt and increasing spread of fundamentalism across that region, that this narrative was a fiction.
This Administration has also been selling, since the death of Osama Bin Laden, the story that Al Qaida is defeated and the war on terror is drawing to an end. "General Motors is alive, and Osama Bin Laden is dead
" is the campaign rallying cry. The truth, that Al Qaida is a many-headed hydra rapidly morphing and spreading, from Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia to Mali and Nigeria, is unpleasant and unlikely to appeal to the American people.
An election is looming. The President is billing much of his hope for reelection on the theme that the world is a better, safer place under his stewardship. Now is no time to confront reality. Whatever bitter truths the American people may ultimately learn are best learned after the polls close and the President is reelected.
The FBI will continue to attempt to do its job to the best of its ability. Good men and women will wade through frustration and obfuscation and try to sort out what happened. As usual, they will perform miracles and will discover a great many things despite the best efforts of others to prevent them from doing so. It will not matter. We are not looking for the truth. We are stalling for time.