Benghazi Tragedy: Vast Conspiracy Or Conspiracy Theorists’ Dream?

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It’s been called a conspiracy, a conspiracy theory in search of a conspiracy, a vast government cover-up, a Republican witch-hunt, a tragedy exploited for political gain, and a sorry indicator of just how partisan politics in Washington has become.

Inside-the-Beltway publication Politico said that, as of the beginning of May, it had spawned 13 congressional hearings, 25,000 pages of documents and 50 briefings.

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Photo: Official White House photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama stands with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland on Sept. 14, 2012, in a ceremony marking the return of the bodies of U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, who were killed in the attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi.

And in a letter to Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the Pentagon says government agencies have spent thousands of man-hours and millions of dollars responding to congressional queries about it.

“It” is the consulate attack in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, in which four Americans died, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens. Although U.S. Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl’s release in exchange for five senior Taliban fighters temporarily knocked it off its perch, Benghazi has been, depending on which angle you’re looking at it from, the hottest conspiracy/overblown obsession on the block.

Even the news last month that U.S. forces captured one of the suspected ringleaders of the attack, Ahmed Abu Khattala, is unlikely to quell the conspiratorial furor, which comes in handy for riling up the conservative base ahead of elections. Already, many prominent conservatives were slamming President Barack Obama for not sending Abu Khattala to Guantanamo Bay, where he could be interrogated at length without legal protections, and instead charging him in federal court (even though hundreds of terrorism suspects have been tried in civilian courts since 9/11).  

Conspiracy theories tend to take on a life of their own — and aren’t quick to die. Among some of the tamer theories still floating around about Benghazi: Fox News presenter Eric Bolling said the attack happened before Osama bin Laden was killed by U.S. Navy SEALs, and the White House, in issuing the now infamous talking points that then U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice used in interviews to explain the attack, was trying to cover up for the fact that Obama was “soft on terror.” Administration officials back in Washington watched the attacks unfold in real time but did nothing to intervene. Requests from U.S. officials on the ground in Libya for military backup were denied, and two top military officials were relieved of their commands because they tried to provide assistance during the attack.

All of these allegations been proven to be false. What is generally accepted about Benghazi is that it was a murky, chaotic onslaught that came in waves over eight hours at two locations. The city, which was the cradle of the insurgency that toppled longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi, was a hotbed of local rebels and Islamist fighters. Many of them had links to Ansar al-Sharia, a designated terrorist organization that the FBI suspects may have been behind the attack. At the time — the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks — tensions throughout the region were running high over a U.S.-made video mocking the Prophet Mohammad.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons
The pictures of those who died in the uprising that toppled longtime dictator Muammar Qaddafi hang in the courthouse square in Benghazi, Libya's second largest city and the cradle of the country's 2011 revolution.

Extremists in Libya, perhaps seizing on the anti-American protests in Egypt and elsewhere, launched a surprise offensive against an inadequately secured diplomatic compound. The Libyan guards and militias that Americans had called on for help did not intervene. Various investigations have shown that the assault was more of an opportunistic siege coordinated in advance by local anti-Western militants, with elements of spontaneous violence, than a carefully orchestrated al-Qaeda operation.

An exhaustive report by the New York Timesturned 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.”

Conspiracy Believers 

None of that, of course, has silenced Benghazi conspiracy believers. In fact, if they believe one of the theories, they are likely to believe all of them, Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote in the New York Times in May last year.

“The best predictor of belief in a conspiracy theory is belief in other conspiracy theories,” Koerth-Baker wrote, quoting University of Westminster psychology professor Viren Swami.

She also quotes from a 1965 book by Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”

“Conspiracy theories, especially those involving meddlesome foreigners, are a favorite pastime in this nation,” Koerth-Baker summarizes. “Americans have always had the sneaking suspicion that somebody was out to get us — be it Freemasons, Catholics or communists. But in recent years, it seems as if every tragedy comes with a round of yarn-spinning.”

And a lot of that spinning occurs along partisan lines. The results of a poll published in January 2013 by Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey found that 63 percent of registered voters in the United States buy into at least one political conspiracy theory, with Republicans significantly more likely to believe in conspiracy theories (75 percent) than Democrats (56 percent).

The poll also found that “the more people know about current events, the less likely they are to believe in conspiracy theories,” unless they’re Republicans, for whom “more knowledge leads to greater belief” that there’s a conspiracy lurking somewhere.

“People tend to believe that where there’s smoke, there’s fire, so the more smoke they see, the more likely they are to believe that something is going on,” said Fairleigh Dickinson political science professor Dan Cassino.

Smoke and Mirrors

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Photo: Mbi3000 / Wikimedia Commons
A large crowd of protesters takes to the streets in July 2011 in Benghazi, the city that gave birth to the insurgency that toppled Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi.

And there’s plenty of smoke to blow around. Just a day before the announcement of Abu Khattala’s capture, the Heritage Foundation, a conservative D.C. think tank, held an event on Benghazi that devolved into “accusations about the Muslim Brotherhood infiltrating the Obama administration, President Obama funding jihadists in their quest to destroy the United States, Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton attempting to impose Sharia blasphemy laws on Americans and Al Jazeera America being an organ of ‘enemy propaganda,’” according to the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank.

Those are just some of the eyebrow-raising theories spawned by the attack. People have also claimed that Benghazi was actually a foiled plot to kidnap Ambassador Stevens and trade him for the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing; that Obama denied the involvement of terrorists to divert attention from a covert CIA annex that was moving weapons out of Libya (an allegation raised by Sen. Rand Paul); and that CIA Deputy Director Mike Morell took “the fall” for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton so he could become CIA director if Clinton ever won the presidency (that gem goes to Rep. Michele Bachmann).

But the theory that underpins much of the anger over Benghazi is one that has legs: Was Obama reluctant to classify Benghazi as a terrorist attack because that would’ve blown a hole through his election narrative that al-Qaeda was largely defeated? 

The president did call the attack an act of terror the day after it occurred. Yet it’s those talking points Rice made shortly after the smoke settled that have stoked the fire, even though the CIA insists she was simply reciting what intelligence agencies knew at the time. The obsession with those talking points seems almost misplaced because there is a far more legitimate case to be made that officials failed to heed clear warning signs about security lapses and dangerous conditions in Benghazi.

But Rice’s talking points resurfaced as the “smoking gun” in May when the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch obtained confidential White House emails, including a memo from Ben Rhodes, deputy national security director for strategic communications, telling Rice “to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”

Kenneth Timmerman, a candidate on the Republican ticket in Maryland’s gubernatorial elections, wrote in a New York Post op-ed that the Rhodes memo “shows how the administration was trying to spin the attack as something other than their own strategic failures.”

Spin, of course, is nothing new in politics, but the memo has fed the narrative that Benghazi is “the scandal the Obama administration always said it wasn’t,” according to Timmerman, who has spun the tragedy into a new book, “Dark Forces: The Truth about What Happened in Benghazi.”

Republican Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma gave the book pre-publication praise, saying it illustrates how “Benghazi will go down as the greatest government cover-up in history — bigger than the Pentagon Papers, Iran-Contra and Watergate.” (It’s notable that all three became scandals under Republican presidents, while Benghazi happened on the watch of a Democrat.)

Massaging a Tragedy?

Democrats, meanwhile, have to admit that the Obama administration made a stupid mistake when Rhodes told Rice to talk up a benign version of what happened. It rapidly emerged that the attackers were Islamic radicals and local insurgents, not protesters upset about an anti-Islamic video, and that elements of the assault were pre-planned.

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Photo: White House Photo by Pete Souza
President Barack Obama signs a condolence book at the State Department on Sept. 12, 2012, in memory of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton looks on.

Administration officials were already calling Benghazi a terrorist attack days after Rice’s TV appearance, but by then Obama’s critics had all the ammo they needed to accuse the White House of massaging the tragedy to suit its political needs.

It’s not completely unheard of. Take for instance the 2004 Madrid train bombings, which took place just days before Spain’s general election. The simultaneous attacks during the morning rush hour on March 11 were initially blamed by Prime Minister José María Aznar and his ruling party on the Basque separatist group ETA. Very quickly, though, it was established that al-Qaeda-inspired radicals had carried out the attacks, which killed 191 people and injured nearly 2,000. Aznar’s party lost the elections, and 10 years later, some Spaniards still say Aznar tried to manipulate the tragic events for political gain.

Maybe timing is everything, and had Benghazi happened just days before the November presidential election, Mitt Romney would have made it to the White House. But Obama was re-elected and Democrats held onto their majority in the Senate.

That hasn’t deterred Republicans on Capitol Hill from using the issue to clobber Democrats. House Speaker John Boehner is setting up a select committee on Benghazi in response to the recent dump of White House emails — the latest in a string of congressional investigations that pledged to reveal explosive bombshells, none of which ever materialized. But the high-profile probe allows Republicans to keep Benghazi in the news well into the mid-term elections while taking a shot at the Democrats’ possible 2016 presidential contender, Hillary Clinton.

The Investigation

Former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering chaired the panel set up by then Secretary of State Clinton within days of the Benghazi attack to investigate, in Pickering’s words, “the security issues and whether mistakes were made and if so what they were and any corrections.” He told The Washington Diplomat that Benghazi is still a “hot potato because, from the beginning, the Republicans felt it was a very strong issue with which to attack both Obama and Clinton, particularly if Clinton were going to run” for president.  

But Benghazi is “nothing more, nothing less” than a cudgel with which to hammer Democrats, according to Pickering, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs who says that the majority of the stories about Benghazi have “no basis in fact.”

As head of the accountability board set up to dig into Benghazi security issues, Pickering said he “insisted that State give us all of the press stories they collected — and they collect everything.” He still has the cuttings, which stand a foot-and-a-half high, and he uses the photocopied articles as scrap paper for printing on the blank side.

“I read all the stories because I wanted to read what people were saying. I would have to tell you that about 80 percent of the comments had no basis in fact. Clearly,” Pickering said.

That’s not to say the State Department didn’t drop the ball.

Among the board’s 29 different findings was that “State, over a period of time, had made decisions about what to do about Benghazi which were not adequate to meet the needs of the task,” Pickering said.

He said his investigation uncovered “serious errors in the way in which people were assigned to Benghazi on the security side,” and there were “inadequacies in local Libyans hired to deal with buildings in the compound,” which, he noted, was “neither a consulate, nor an embassy, nor an official mission."

"It was the place where Ambassador Stevens, when he was the special representative to the Benghazi people at the time they revolted against Qaddafi, went and talked with them and helped them when we decided we wanted to provide military support when Qaddafi threatened to massacre Benghazi. It was his house for a while and then it became an office and a house. It was a reasonably large-sized compound but not very well done in terms of security,” Pickering said.

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Photo: Judicial Watch
The conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch filed a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain information related to the 2012 attack in Benghazi that killed four Americans. Among the items the group received was photos of the burnt-out diplomatic compound.

On that note, the accountability board cited “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” at senior levels, although it did not directly investigate Clinton’s role in those failures. A separate bipartisan Senate report concurred that the State Department did not provide the Benghazi outpost with enough protection despite well-known dangers. (Secretaries of state aren’t normally involved in diplomatic security arrangements, and Clinton has said she did not know about the requests for added security in Benghazi but takes responsibility for the attack.)

The State Department has since adopted most of the board’s recommendations and beefed up embassy security around the world. 

Pickering’s team also looked very carefully into the question of “whether there could’ve been any immediate military support and we concluded, after having a long discussion with the military with the help of Adm. Mike Mullen, the vice chairman of the review board, we didn’t think there was a real possibility of doing that,” he said.

And yet, conspiracies persist that an order came from up above for the military to “stand down,” even though those theories have been consistently debunked by the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee and the Pentagon.

Obama’s announcement that U.S. Special Forces had caught the suspected “mastermind” of the Benghazi attack may finally unravel the mystery of what happened that day and silence his skeptics. Or it may unleash a whole new deluge of conspiracy theories. Just after news of Abu Khattala’s capture broke, speculation began swirling that the administration engineered the timing of the raid to divert attention from the escalating violence in Iraq. A U.S. official rebuffed that suggestion, telling the New York Times that these kinds of operations take months of planning.

Competing Scandals

Interestingly, the possible breakup of Iraq after Sunni-led militants captured large swaths of territory sidelined another controversy that had conspiracy theorists salivating: the swap of Bowe Bergdahl, America’s last prisoner of war, for five members of the Afghan Taliban.

For a brief time, Bergdahl replaced Benghazi as the scandal du jour. It began with whispers that Bergdahl’s father had converted to Islam and was a Taliban sympathizer, as evidenced by his long beard (which he said he grew to show solidarity with his son and better understand his captors). It quickly snowballed into unsubstantiated rumors that Bergdahl was not only an emotionally distraught soldier and possible deserter, but a Taliban colluder as well. 

On June 6, Fox News reporter James Rosen revealed that “secret documents prepared on the basis of a purported eyewitness account” showed that Bergdahl had, during his five years of captivity, converted to Islam, “fraternized openly with his captors and declared himself a ‘mujahid’ or warrior for Islam.”

But what he called “real-time dispatches” were actually generated by the Eclipse Group, which Rosen himself describes as “a shadowy private firm of former intelligence officers and operatives” that delivers “granular intelligence on terrorist activities and other security-related topics.”

Rosen goes on to note that the group is run by Duane R. (“Dewey”) Clarridge, who worked for the CIA in the 1980s and is “best known for having been indicted for lying to Congress about his role in the tangled set of events that became known as the Iran-Contra scandal.” Not exactly an impeccable source.

Theories on those Taliban prisoners are also proliferating on the internet, as seen in an image making the social media rounds of a man who looks like one of the five released Taliban fighters, posing in front of five severed heads.

The image was sent to me by a distant acquaintance on Facebook. Just as other journalists did with Rosen’s revelations about Bergdahl converting to Islam and declaring jihad, I questioned the veracity and provenance of the image purporting to be one of the Taliban fighters. I also asked the sender not to send me any more stuff like this because even scratch-the-surface investigations show almost all of it to have “no basis in fact,” to borrow from Pickering’s words. My request to be excluded from emails of this genre resulted in a barrage of invective from the sender, accusations that I could not accept the truth, and an insistence that the man in the picture was one of the exchanged prisoners and he was a monster.

The paranoia, distrust and passion surrounding Benghazi and Bergdahl have also grown to monster-like proportions. The anger that many people feel toward these scandals is very real, even if the “scandals” themselves may not be. But it’s an election year and there’s already a lot of smoke out there, so people will be looking for a fire.


About the Author

Karin Zeitvogel is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 2, 2014

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