Did The New York TImes Help Hillary?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
January 10, 2014
Did The New York Times Help Hilary?
That the lengthy (over 7,000 words) December 28 New York Times front-page story by David Kirkpatrick, "A Deadly Mix in Benghazi," had a political agenda is beyond cavil. A Times editorial two days later, "The Facts about Benghazi," makes the point clearly. It describes Kirkpatrick's article as having "debunk[ed] Republican allegations, and announces that "in a rational world" it "would settle the dispute over Benghazi." In a concurrent blog post, the paper's editorial page editor, Andrew Rosenthal, describes the Republican allegations that he considers debunked: "The Republicans hope to tarnish Democratic candidates by making it seem as though Mr. Obama doesn't take al-Qaeda seriously." In his Aftermath section, Kirkpatrick accuses Republicans of conflating purely local extremist organizations like Ansar al-Shariah with al-Qaeda's international terrorist network.
The gravamen of Kirkpatrick's piece consists of two factual assertions: (1) there is no evidence "that al-Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault" on the compound in which U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed; (2) the attack was "fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam." The two assertions are inter-related, for to the extent that the assault was triggered by a video the less it was a well-planned terrorist operation attributable to al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups.
KIRKPATRICK'S first claim is based on extensive interviews with Ahmed Abu al-Khattala, leader of the local militia Ansar al-Sharia, which is described as sympathetic to al-Qaeda's general aims but not affiliated with it. The first point to note is that the exclusive focus on Abu al-Khattala is itself peculiar, for it forces Kirkpatrick to ignore his own paper's Oct. 29 front-page report (on which he is listed as a contributor). That story lists as directly involved in the attack al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and quotes unnamed American officials as stating that participants in the assault were drawn from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, Ansar al-Shariah, and the Egyptian Muhammad Jamal network.
The founder of the latter, Muhammad Jamal, has extensive ties to al-Qaeda. He trained with al-Qaeda in the late '80s, and was a commander in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist organization headed by Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama Bin-Laden's replacement at the top of al-Qaeda. In letters written to Zawahiri in 2011 and 2012, Muhammad Jamal describes his success in creating "groups for us" in the Sinai and Libya. He writes of his group's connections to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and of the assistance of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in smuggling his fighters into training camps. The letters seek funding from Zawahiri for Muhammad Jamal's operations.
Both the United States government and the UN have classified the Muhammad Jamal network as a terrorist organization, and the UN designation explicitly mentions the group's participation in the Benghazi assault. A State Department report describes Muhammad Jamal has having developed connections with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, as well as the senior leadership of al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Nor were members of Muhammad Jamal the only persons with al-Qaeda connections identified as having participated in the assault on the embassy compound and subsequently on the secret CIA annex. Thomas Joscelyn in the Weekly Standard quotes U.S. intelligence officials as identifying Faraj al-Shibli, a Libyan who served as Osama's bodyguard in 1990s, as being suspected of having taken materials from the American compound to Pakistan.
Numerous Democratic, as well as Republican lawmakers, with access to U.S. intelligence officials unavailable to Kirkpatrick, have said explicitly that al-Qaeda was involved in the assault. Adam Schiff (D.-Calif.), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, while generally complimentary of Kirkpatrick's reporting, added the crucial caveat that it was "deficient in that they didn't have the same access to people who were not aware they were being listened to." Senator Diane Feinstein (D.-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, quoted then CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus as having told the committee that al-Qaeda was involved. And Dutch Ruppersberger, a leading Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said that al-Qaeda's role in the assault was evident, and that those involved in the assault were experienced in the methods of attack and clearly familiar with mortars and capable of hitting targets with them.
The director of the National Counter-terrorism Center, Matthew Olson, testified to Congress on September 19 2012 that there were indications that among those involved in the attack were individuals with connections to al-Qaeda or al-Qaeda affiliates, such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. And Republican House Intelligence Committee member Devon Nenes stated, based on his interviews with four U.S. government personnel who survived the attack, that U.S. officials knew "within hours of the attacks – that al-Qaeda was responsible for the deaths of four Americans, including the ambassador."
That Libyans would have had connections to al-Qaeda is hardly a surprise. Libya has over the years sent the greatest number of fighters of any country to al-Qaeda, and the organization's number two man, until killed by a U.S. drone in 2012 was Libyan national Abu Yahyu al-Libi. But the assault did not involve only Libyans. Security cameras show among the attackers those dressed in the garb of both Pakistani and Afghani Islamists.
An al-Qaeda affiliate, the Brigades of the Imprisoned Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, had launched an attack on the compound even before 9/11/12. And what Kirkpatrick calls "the black flag of Islam," and which is identified by other news sources as "the black flag of al-Qaeda," was displayed on a long parade of militia vehicles in Benghazi weeks prior to the attack.
Finally, Kirkpatrick was entirely too credulous about his main source al-Khattala's claim to have no connection to al-Qaeda. An unclassified report prepared by the Pentagon and the Congressional Research Service describes his militia Ansar al-Sharia as "increasingly embodying al-Qaeda's presence in Libya as indicated by its active social-media propaganda, extremist discourse and hatred of the West, especially the United States." The Tunisian Prime Minister told Reuters that there is a connection between Ansar al-Sharia, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya." The latter group was founded by former Guantanamo detainee Sufian Ben Qhumu, and the group was openly pro- al-Qaeda and critical of the Libyan interim government for not having protested the American drone attack killing al-Qaeda's number two man, Abu Yahyu al-Libi. At least one report placed Ben Qhuma in Benghazi on the night of the attack.
NO MORE CREDIBLE IS KIRKPATRICK'S ASSERTION the assault on the compound was triggered by an American-made video insulting to Islam. Even Kirkpatrick's own reporting does not support that claim. He makes clear that the assault on the compound was neither spontaneous nor without warning. Indeed the entire piece begins with a September 9, 2012 meeting between local Islamist militia leaders in Benghazi and an American consular official in Libya, David McFarland, in which McFarland is warned that the Libyans cannot guarantee the safety of the Americans from extremists if the United States continues to support a secular provisional government for Libya. He was specifically warned to leave Benghazi immediately.
Fears about security at the Benghazi compound and in Libya in general were widespread among embassy staff, from Ambassador Stevens down, for months. CNN reported days after September 11 that Stevens told friends he was worried about the never-ending security threats, specifically in Benghazi. He specifically mentioned the rise in Islamic extremism and the growing al-Qaeda presence in Libya and that he was on al-Qaeda's hit list.
In the original "talking point" prepared by the CIA after the attack, and subsequently scrubbed at the urging of the White House and State Department, the CIA mentions that it had produced "numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya," and noted five attacks on Western interest in Benghazi, including the British ambassador's convoy, since April. The scrubbed talking points also mentioned "Islamic extremists" in Benghazi among the members of Ansar al-Sharia, a group devoted to the spread of Sharia law." That is the group headed by Abu Khattala, Kirkpatrick's main source.
The most Kirkpatrick can argue is that the attack was not "meticulously planned," but planned it was. As he reports, guards at the American Mission in Benghazi spotted a man taking photos on his cellphone from a window overlooking the compound about 12 hours before the attack began. When the guards approached, he fled in a car marked with the insignia of the Supreme Security Committee, a quasi-official militia. Sean Smith, one of the four Americans who would lose his life that night, presciently emailed a friend. "assuming we don't die tonight. We saw one of our 'police' that guard the compound taking pictures." And finally, in detailing the actual attack, Kirkpatrick describes how the attackers shot out all the compounds lights at the outset, indicating both advanced planning and a certain amount of battle skill.
There is not one news report from Benghazi that mentions a demonstration or protest about the video. And American officials in the best position to know have dismissed the efforts to blame the assault on the video. Charlene Lamb, the State Department official who was on live feed to Libya during the attack, told Congress in October 9 2012 that the State Department had believed from the outset that the events in Benghazi were a terrorist attack. Gregory Hicks, the number two man in the Libyan mission, told Congress that the video was a "non-event" in Libya, and survivor Adam Housely dismissed efforts to link the attack to some unseen video as "completely false."
When Ambassador Stevens bid adieu to his final visitor of the night, there was undisputedly not a single person visible around the mission compound. A Libyan guard interviewed by AP told the reporter, "There wasn't a single ant outside," prior to the storming of the compound. Another guard told CBS News that some of the attackers were armed with automatic weapons and were wearing flak jackets and had their faces covered. That is not the usual garb for even the most irate film critics.
Kirkpatrick's case for the significance of an offensive video could hardly be flimsier: an Egyptian cable station on which the video was angrily denounced is widely viewed in Libya. He also cites social media chatter, in general terms, to support the case for widespread anger.
Yet all the reports of the fighting, including his own, make clear that the assault was coordinated – even if not meticulously. The attackers carried rocket-propelled grenade launchers, automatic weapons, and mortars, and knew how to use them. Again, these are not the tools of film criticism or even the typical rioting Muslim mob. Contemporary reports describe machine-gun mounted pick-up trucks bearing the insignia of Ansar al-Sharia blocking access to the compound, which is confirmed in its general outlines by Kirkpatrick's own story.
The only mention of the video came from a Libyan lawyer passing the scene who saw the militants gathering around twenty youths from nearby to chant against the film. That, incidentally, is fully consistent with Kirkpatrick's citation of Libyan witnesses who reported being lectured by attackers about the evil of the film and the importance of defending the prophet. The video was, at most, a pretext and cover for an operation that lasted over five hours and employed the type of weaponry that requires advanced coordination if a great number are not going to be killed in "friendly fire."
Kirkpatrick's second assertion is thus even less convincing than his first.
Did The New York Times Help Hillary?
The past week has not been kind to David Kirkpatrick's reporting in The New York Times on the September 11 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, in which U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed ("A Deadly Mix in Benghazi," Dec. 28 2013). The thrust of Kirkpatrick's long, six-part narrative was to establish that al-Qaeda did not play a role in the attack on the mission compound and that attack was largely fueled by rage at a video considered denigrating of Islam.
These claims were designed to blunt Republican attacks on the Obama administration for not taking al Qaeda seriously enough, in the words of the Times' op-ed page editor Andrew Rosenthal.
If anything, argues Kirkpatrick, the fatal error was taking al-Qaeda too seriously. Thus the CIA operatives in Benghazi "kept its closest watch on people who had known ties to terrorist networks abroad, especially those connected to al-Qaeda." He gives as an example Sufian bin Qumu, "a former driver for a company run by Bin Laden." But, Kirkpatrick concludes, neither Qumu nor anyone associated with him appears to have played a significant role in the attack on the American Mission."
Wrong. The Washington Post pointed out last week that the U.S. State Department plans to designate Ansar al Sharia in Derna, with which bin Qumu is associated, as a terrorist entity, and to cite its involvement in the Benghazi attacks as one of the reasons for that designation. The Post further reported that witnesses have told American officials that men under Qumu's command participated in the attack.
Since Kirkpatrick admitted bin Qumu's ties to al-Qaeda – indeed cited him as an example of an al-Qaeda operative who drew too much intelligence attention – he is no longer in a position to deny any al-Qaeda connection to the attack.
But the Washington Post report was not the only news undermining the thrust of the Kirkpatrick's piece. The entire reason for the effort to downplay al Qaeda's involvement was that the Obama administration has based its entire claim to have effectively struck at terrorism on the fact that he destroyed bin Laden's terrorist network when bin Laden was eliminated.
That narrative has never been less credible. Far from being in its death throes, al-Qaeda appeared last week to be resurgent. Indeed the swath of territory controlled by al Qaeda is larger than ever. Ten thousand fighters, including many bearers of European passports, affiliated with al Qaeda control large areas of northern Syria. Other al-Qaeda groups are active in the Horn of Africa -- most recently with an assault on a major mall in Nairobi -- in the Egyptian-controlled Sinai, and Tunisia. And no place has the symbolic expression of al-Qaeda's research been more evident than in Iraq, where the black flag of al-Qaeda once more flew over Fallujah last week, more than six years after the "surge" in Iraq was supposed to have "rolled up" al Qaeda once and for all. And in nearby Afghanistan, the Taliban, which provided shelter to bin Laden, is poised to quickly retake large parts of the country as soon as the U.S. troop withdrawal is complete.
EVEN IF KIRKPATRICK'S REPORTING could be taken at face value, how does it exculpate former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton from responsibility? Whoever perpetrated the attack, there is no contesting that security around the American Mission was entirely lacking. The Turkish envoy, Ambassador Steven's last visitor of the night, reported, according to Kirkpatrick, that there were no American guards to the mission compound at all, just a handful of unarmed Libyans, even though a member of one of the local militias supposedly protecting the compound had been spotted conducting surveillance of the compound the morning of the attack.
Ambassador Stevens wrote in his diary five days before the attack of a "security vacuum." Requests to the State Department over the preceding six months for increased security were not only refused, but the number of American security personnel reduced. Hillary Clinton cannot claim that she had no knowledge of the repeated denials of requests for greater security that went out over her signature. As Senior Security Officer Eric Nordstrom testified to Congress, the degree of danger to diplomats in Libya was rated "HIGH," and only the Secretary of State can allow diplomats to remain in place in such a situation.
Queen of Snark, Maureen Dowd, for once got it right in summarizing State Department malfeasance: "Yet in this hottest of hot spots, the State Department's minimum security requirements were not met, requests for more security were rejected, contingency plans were not drawn up, despite the portentous date of 9/11 and cascading warnings from the CIA."
Dowd went even further by pointing out that the disaster in Benghazi was an outgrowth of a failed Libyan policy, for which Clinton was primarily responsible, which created a dangerous vacuum for militias of all stripes by effectively destroying Libya as a functioning country. The State Department nevertheless "[sent] diplomats and their protectors into a country that was no longer a country, a land with fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda," wrote Dowd (prior to the benefit of Kirkpatrick's revisionist reporting).
Another aspect of Kirkpatrick's reporting that should raise hackles is the total failure of the U.S. government to apprehend and punish those responsible for the murder of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. "We will not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act," said President Obama on the morning of September 12, prior to jetting off for a fundraiser in Las Vegas.
Yet the principal actor fingered by Kirkpatrick's reporting as leading the assault on the American Mission is Ahmed Abu Khattala. Kirkpatrick places him within the compound striding around without fear of being hit in the cross-fire. Yet Abu Khattala is still walking around the streets of Benghazi today, seemingly without a care in the world, despite all the evidence linking him to the attack. So much for the commitment not to waver in the execution of justice.
BUT THE SHREWDEST ANALYSIS of the impact of Kirkpatrick's Benghazi story belongs to Caroline Glick of the Jerusalem Post. In his misbegotten effort to salvage the Obama administration's narrative of having destroyed al Qaeda, and thus won the war on terrorism, Kirkpatrick inadvertently destroys the conceptional underpinnings of the Obama administration's entire outreach to the Muslim world.
That policy of which Secretary of State Clinton was the faithful executor was predicated on the assumption that radical Islamists are not inevitably enemies of the United States and can be turned into faithful allies. On that basis, senior administration officials called the Muslim Brotherhood a "secular organization" and were forever seeing signs of moderating influences on Hezbollah, as it had to deal with actual issues of governance. (Sadly, the author of much of this nonsense now heads the CIA.)
According to President Obama and his faithful subalterns only al-Qaeda is incapable of being appeased and won over to the American side. Even groups that operate under the name al-Qaeda are irredeemable only if they can be proven to have operational links to bin Laden's successor Ayman al-Zawahiri – what the administration is pleased to call "core al Qaeda."
One of the great believers in this approach was Ambassador Stevens, according to Kirkpatrick: "An experienced Arabist," Stevens "helped shape the Obama administration's conviction that it could work with the [Libyan] rebels, even those previously hostile to the West, to build a friendly, democratic government." And that belief cost him his life.
Kirkpatrick's narrative shows how "permeable" and constantly shifting were the lines between those Islamist militias ostensibly working with the Americans in Benghazi and those threatening American security. Those groups charged with the security for the compound either backed down or joined in the attacks themselves.
Seven American security personnel sent from Tripoli to Benghazi arrived in a borrowed Libyan cargo jet at 1:00 a.m. in the morning, hours before the two American CIA personnel at the CIA annex had yet been killed by mortar fire. Yet they were held up on the tarmac for hours by the Preventive Security Brigade, ostensibly sent to escort them to the mission compound. Within minutes of their arrival at the compound, four hours after landing, the fatal mortars had landed on the annex roof.
In his pursuit of a more complex narrative than either alleged Republican or Democratic talking points, Kirkpatrick concludes that "an intensive focus on combating al Qaeda may detract from safeguarding American interests." He is right. The key point is not command control from al Qaeda but the theological affinities of various Islamist groups that are opposed to Western democracy in all its forms. Al Qaeda is but one manifestation of that ideology.
But the blame for that "intensive focus" lies with the Obama administration, which bought into the al Qaeda narrative both to score political points after the bin Laden assassination, but even more crucially to justify the hand extended in friendship to Islamist groups throughout the Middle East.
That is the failed Middle East policy legacy that Hillary Clinton will not be able to run from in 2016. And the great irony is that the strongest indictment of that legacy derives from The New York Times efforts to bolster Clinton by rewriting the history of what took place in Benghazi.
This two-part analysis appeared before publication of the Senate Intelligence Committee's Report on Benghazi, which concluded that numerous elements affiliated with al-Qaeda were involved in the attack in Benghazi. The report also described the death of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans as "preventable" had proper security been in place.
Related Topics: American Government & Politics, Personalities
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