Beyond Benghazi: Where Are the Libyan Missiles?

by Peter Kirsanow

Since White House press secretary Jay Carney is determined to perpetuate the delusion that “there are no unanswered questions about Susan Rice’s appearance on the Sunday talk shows,” a diligent member of the White House press corps might want to accommodate the press secretary by pivoting to a question that has been hovering over the president’s “leading from behind” strategy since the overthrow of Moammar Qaddafi more than a year ago:

The question is, “Where are the 20,000 Libyan heat seeking, surface- to- air missiles that were left unsecured after the rebel takeover last year?”

The question has bearing not only on the administration’s overall strategy regarding Libya and the Middle East, but on national security as well. It has the added benefit of satisfying Carney’s desire to ”move on” from questions about Rice.

The urgency of securing Libyan weaponry after the president’s campaign to depose Qaddafi was plain from the outset. Shortly after the dictator was deposed, scores of al-Qaeda and Islamist flags were raised throughout Benghazi, including the rebel headquarters in that city. According to rebel leader Abdel-Hakim al-Hasidi, a significant number of Libyan rebels were al-Qaeda fighters, many of whom had fought U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. That would have alerted even a casual observer to the possibility that Qaddafi’s massive weapons stockpiles might end up in the hands of some bad actors. It would have also counseled such observer to do everything possible to secure those stockpiles. Securing such stockpiles might even be more imperative than leading from behind. 

Soon afterwards, however, a U.N. envoy reported that Libyan weapons depots were left unguarded after Qaddafi’s overthrow. Since “leading from behind” meant a light or non-existent American footprint in Libya, securing Libya’s vast munitions stockpiles was left in large part to the rebels — that is, the same folks who couldn’t wait to raise the aforementioned flags.

The weapons depots contained, among other things, chemical and radiological material, including an estimated 7,000 drums of uranium. At the time, assistant secretary of state Andrew Shapiro stated that terrorist groups were interested in obtaining Libyan anti-aircraft missiles which “could pose a threat to civil aviation.” Furthermore, the Washington Post’s David Ignatius reported last May that former CIA officers, apoplectic about the missing weapons, stated that the missiles included Russian-made SA-7 and SA-24 missiles.

Forbes reported last year that the administration dispatched a State Department employee and five private contractors to track down the 20,000 missiles. When pressed on this meager response, the White House promised to deploy more personnel.

Unsurprisingly, an indeterminate number of missiles remain unsecured. A week after the attacks on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi, the Post reported that looters acquired some of the missiles when they overran a militia compound in Benghazi.

Just one shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missile in the wrong hands can ruin your whole day. Someone may want to grant Carney’s wish to put questions about Rice on hold (but only for a moment) and ask him how many missiles are unaccounted for and what the administration is doing to lock them down. The same question should be asked about the whereabouts of the drums of chemical and radiological material. 

This is just one of the reasons it’s not time to “move on” from questions about Benghazi . If the administration couldn’t competently handle security at our diplomatic facilities in Libya, it raises legitimate questions about its competency in securing the Libyan missiles as well.

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