CNN has found an apparent mistake in Hillary Clinton’s new book’s treatment of the Benghazi attacks and her department’s handling of them. Clinton explains that members of Congress were surprised there were no Marines stationed at the diplomatic facility in Benghazi in September 2012. She then writes the following about the U.S. government’s security across Libya:
So while there were Marines stationed at our embassy in Tripoli, where nearly all of our diplomats worked and which had the capability to process classified material, because there was no classified processing at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, there were no Marines posted there.
Except in September 2012, there were no Marines stationed in Tripoli, either, according to the 2013 testimony of the top U.S. military officer in Africa, General Carter Ham before Congress.
A Clinton aide argued to CNN that the passage is just confusingly written, and her point was that there were Marine guards posted to the embassy in Tripoli after the attack, while there were none in Benghazi during the attack. This doesn’t make much sense grammatically or logically — not least because Marines were only posted to Tripoli after the diplomatic compound in Benghazi was closed.
Why does this detail matter? For one, Clinton should be able to get the facts straight about a situation for which she accepted ultimate responsiblity.
But it also matters that there weren’t Marines at the embassy in Tripoli, for at least two reasons: The U.S. security team that was protecting the embassy in Tripoli and occasionally dispensed security to Benghazi wasn’t able to send most of its resources to Benghazi by plane on the night of the attacks — just two military personnel were sent — specifically because a number of them had to stay back to guard the Tripoli embassy.
More broadly, the low level of security that seems to be reflected by the lack of Marines in one of the world’s most dangerous places was part of a deliberate policy choice. When Diane Sawyer asked Clinton recently whether there was anything State could have done to make the facilities more secure, Clinton said, “What I did was give very direct instructions [to] the people who have the expertise and experience in security. I’m not equipped to sit and look at blueprints, to determine where the blast walls need to be or where the reinforcements need to be.”
But the U.S. vulnerability in Libya wasn’t mostly due to the details, it was due to a deliberate policy choice to have a low-profile security presence in the country. The Clinton State Department, and by association the Obama White House, wanted to maintain a relatively low profile in Libya, avoiding a uniformed military presence as much as possible and relying on locally provided security instead. There are upsides to such a policy — a massive defensive military presence can make it harder for U.S. diplomats to win trust from local officials and the populace, etc. (Think of why Ambassador Chris Stevens liked to go for runs outside diplomatic compounds, giving his security detail some agita — he is said to have preferred a low-profile presence, though he did ask for more security, too.) But there are obvious risks to this approach, and Libya was a very bad place to take them. The Obama administration — the State Department in D.C. — seems like it may have been loath to account for these risks because it wanted to think that NATO had taken the side of pro-Western forces in overthrowing Qaddafi and could trust local militias to look out for Western interests. When threats and attacks before September 11, 2012, suggested otherwise (as intelligence clearly had long before we took the rebels’ side), and when those in Libya were asking for more security because of the dangerous situation, the State Department in D.C. refused to address the situation.
We don’t know quite what decisions Secretary Clinton made and how much the low-profile policy was her personal idea. But the highest security officials in her department, her top lieutenants, stuck by it, and it made a difference.
Or, at least, that was in part the conclusion of the Accountability Review Board the State Department convened to investigate the attacks. They recommend that the department should have minimum security standards for places like Benghazi and should never rely so much on host governments (let alone host militias). Secretary Clinton wasn’t interviewed for the report, but you’d hope her book researchers at least read it. While I and most people haven’t had a chance to see her book yet, the mistake here suggests she isn’t honestly reckoning with what went wrong in Libya.