October 6, 2012

White House still evasive on Libyan security failures

OKLAHOMA CITY — Almost one month after the September 11 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, the Obama administration's constantly evolving explanations raise more questions than answers.

Initially, the White House blamed the attack on the spontaneous violence of an unorganized mob provoked by an obscure video posted online. When journalists and others on the scene uncovered heavy assault guns and rocket-propelled grenades, it became clear within 24 hours that the attack was much too organized and well-armed to be the work of random protestors.   Yet U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was still blaming the video five days later.  Not until September 19 did National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen publicly acknowledge the assault was a terrorist attack, followed in the next two days by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  Even after others in his administration finally stated the truth, President Obama was still hedging and pointing toward "natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video."

While it's common in volatile situations  to get some details wrong as the facts are still being gathered, what's troubling is the pattern of dissembling from White House officials in the weeks since the attack and the growing evidence that the administration did not take adequate security precautions despite warnings of possible attacks.

Most of the information we have comes from the media and whistleblowers who have gone around their government supervisors to directly inform Congress about security lapses.  The FBI team dispatched to investigate the attack remains hundreds of miles away from Benghazi in Tripoli, and the State Department investigation team hasn't begun its work or even held a meeting yet.  As of October 1, the Obama administration had withdrawn all U.S. officials from Benghazi.

Why would the White House be reluctant to let the facts come out?  Evidence from whistleblowers and reporters indicates a pattern of lax security even after months of escalating threats.  In a letter to Secretary Clinton requesting answers, leaders of relevant congressional panels such as the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Armed Services committees listed 13 separate Libyan security incidents dating back to April when an explosive device was thrown at a U.N. convoy.  On June 6, the consulate itself was attacked with an improvised explosive device that created a crater “big enough for forty men to go through,” according to government sources.

CNN recovered a diary belonging to Ambassador Chris Stevens that alluded to "never-ending" security threats.  Yet repeated requests for increased security were denied.  On the night of the attack, the consulate was defended only by four lightly armed Libyans and five American security officers.

All of this raises new questions about U.S. involvement in Libya.  President Obama justified his unilateral decision to intervene without first obtaining the constitutionally required congressional approval on the grounds that U.S. military operations would be limited and jeopardy to American lives slight.  The president's reluctance to increase American security presence or send military to guard the consulate may or may not have been influenced by concerns that doing so would compound the original misjudgment and embroil America more deeply in a volatile situation best avoided.

Regardless of the reasons why, security was obviously inadequate.  The administration's cooperation with the congressional inquiry is essential to identifying and correcting weaknesses in our security both at home and abroad. This urgent duty is impossible as long as the White House refuses to admit the basic facts.  The assault in Libya was a terrorist attack against American citizens on sovereign U.S. territory, plain and simple.  It's time for the Obama administration to acknowledge this fact and act accordingly.

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