NY Times Big Benghazi Story: Assertions And Dogs That Didn’t Bark
This story is getting a lot of play today as moving the ball forward on the Benghazi story because of the number of interviews with Benghazi militia figures it includes.
Here’s what writer David Kirkpatrick claims:
Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.
Let’s take the video angle first and see how little there is to back up this assertion.
Credit where it’s due: the story is remarkably well sourced. There are at least half a dozen Libyans with senior level roles in various Benghazi militias quoted by name.
That strength is also a great weakness. For all the people on record in the story, none of them say that the video was the motivation for the attack.
After running down the Egyptian TV networks available in Benghazi that covered the video and a Libyan website that featured the story the only on the record comments about the role of the video in the attack is this:
Hussein Abu Hamida, the acting chief of Benghazi’s informal police force, saw the growing furor and feared new violence against Western interests. He conferred with Abdul Salam Bargathi of the Preventive Security Brigade, an Islamist militia with a grandiose name, each recalled separately, and they increased security outside a United Nations office. But they said nothing to the Americans.
In an interview, Mr. Gharabi [leader of the Benghazi’s Rafallah al-Sehati Brigade] said that he had known about the building rage in Egypt over the video, but that, “We did not know if it was going to reach us here.”
Based on that information, Kirkpatrick asserts:
There is no doubt that anger over the video motivated many attackers. A Libyan journalist working for The New York Times was blocked from entering by the sentries outside, and he learned of the film from the fighters who stopped him. Other Libyan witnesses, too, said they received lectures from the attackers about the evil of the film and the virtue of defending the prophet.
So none of the leaders of the militias would say the attack was due to a video. Instead we’re supposed to accept some 3rd hand accounts about “the evil of the film”.
For a story so well sourced, the attribution for this key claim is notably weaker than one finds in the rest of the piece. At other points when Libyans aren’t willing to go on the record Kirkpatrick offers far more precise attributions…
“a young Islamist who had joined the pillaging said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution”
“A self-described jihadi commander..said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.”
But for support for one of the key assertions of the story the only sourcing we are given are generic “guards” and “witnesses” who are never directly quoted as individuals, just lumped together to support the narrative.
Even if you accept this weak sourcing as definitive, that the guards knew of the film the night of the attack and others heard lectures about how “evil” it was, that’s not the same as saying they were motivated by those thoughts to commit the attack. The Times is simply making that leap and insisting we do as well.
The second key claim of the piece is that it undermines Republican claims that al-Qaeda was responsible for the attack.
“What happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, prompted by the video.”
Republicans, pouncing on the misstatement, have argued that the Obama administration was trying to cover up Al Qaeda’s role. “It was very clear to the individuals on the ground that this was an Al Qaeda-led event,” Representative Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said last month on Fox News.
Rice’s “misstatements”, or lies depending on your degree of charity, were not simply about al-Qaeda involvement but rather about the implication this was simply a “spontaneous” attack that could not have been predicted or prepared for by the Obama Administration, specifically Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
While the story mentions in passing several earlier attacks on US and western interests in Benghazi, nowhere in this supposedly exhaustive report is their mention that Ambassador Chris Stevens and his security staff repeatedly warned of the deteriorating security situation and the need for additional security assets. The story quotes an optimistic cable from Stevens but does not delve into main State’s refusal to provide the requested help.
Whether or not al-Qaeda was involved in the attack is another question the story claims to answer but to the extent it does provide an answer, it’s simply by assertion.
But the Republican arguments appear to conflate purely local extremist organizations like Ansar al-Shariah with Al Qaeda’s international terrorist network. The only intelligence connecting Al Qaeda to the attack was an intercepted phone call that night from a participant in the first wave of the attack to a friend in another African country who had ties to members of Al Qaeda, according to several officials briefed on the call. But when the friend heard the attacker’s boasts, he sounded astonished, the officials said, suggesting he had no prior knowledge of the assault.
Is this really “the only intelligence” making the connection? I don’t know and my guess is neither does the author. It’s simply what an administration official told him. Color me skeptical of an official with a vested interest in this being true or at least what the public believes to be true.
I’d say at best the question is open whether or not there was al-Qaeda involvement in the planning of the attack.
Added: Maybe not so open. Democrat reacts to this story:
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), a senior member of the [House Intelligence] committee, also said al Qaeda was involved. “I agree with Mike [Rogers] that … the intelligence indicates that al Qaeda was involved,” he said.
Again, none of Kirkpatrick’s source go on record one way or the other about al-qaeda. Do you really expect one to say, “oh yeah, we totally worked with al-Qaeda on this”? They have heard of armed drones in Libya you know.
End of addition
Kirkpatrick’s story certainly adds something,, though not as much as is being claimed, to the understandings of the crosscurrents and multiple agendas at play in post-Ghadaffi Benghazi. It does nothing to definitively answer the questions it claims to. But it has already done one important job…Republicans are not official “on defense” over their charges against Obama and Clinton.
The media will insist this closes the book on Benghazi (to the extent it was ever open in the main stream media) but nothing in it absolves the Obama administration of the main charges: that officials, including Obama, claimed this attack was the result of a protest over a video and not what it really was…a planned attack that occurred in an increasingly dangerous city on an American facility that the administration repeatedly failed to reinforce despite warnings from officials on the ground.
That’s a story the media still isn’t interested in and they never will be.