Politics & Policy

The Times’ Benghazi Report: Convenient for Clinton

Take the Grey Lady’s much-ballyhooed story with a heavy dose of skepticism.

The division of the “Hillary for President” campaign known as the New York Times issued a lengthy white paper on Sunday, entitled “A Deadly Mix In Benghazi.” This article, the paper explained, was based on “months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there . . . ”

In other words, the article is centered on interviews with extremists and terrorists, whose words are taken as gospel. That they may have changed their stories, or be putting forth stories for their own benefit rather than because the new stories are true, is a subtlety beyond the Times.#ad#

What does the paper find? Two things: that the attack was by terrorists who were not acting under al-Qaeda’s orders, and that it was largely spurred by the famous “Innocence of Muslims” video. As to the first, that seems right but is anyway well understood in Washington. You don’t need to be in the CIA to know that there are lots of terrorist groups, some linked to al-Qaeda and some not. The Times is correct that “an intensive focus on combating Al Qaeda may distract from safeguarding American interests” if that focus does in fact distract from recognizing the existence and danger from other groups. Judging by the comments from many members of Congress, this is pretty widely understood: Think of the Boston Marathon bombers, who had no al-Qaeda links. Where those who have seen the intelligence disagree with the Times is on whether there were in fact zero al-Qaeda links in the Benghazi attack. Democratic congressman Adam Schiff, an Intelligence Committee member, said on Sunday that “intelligence indicates al-Qaeda was involved.” House Intelligence chairman Mike Rogers spelled it out when asked, “What did they get wrong?” by Fox’s Chris Wallace. Rogers answered, “That al-Qaeda was not involved in this. There was some level of pre-planning; we know that. There was aspiration to conduct an attack by al-Qaeda and their affiliates in Libya; we know that. The individuals on the ground talked about a planned tactical movement on the compound — this is the compound before they went to the annex. All of that would directly contradict what the New York Times definitively says was an exhaustive investigation.”

The paper’s second conclusion is that “contrary to claims by some members of Congress, [the attack] was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.” This would be very convenient for National Security Adviser Susan Rice and for Hillary Clinton, were it true. But even the Times’ own story suggests that it is not. For one thing, the Times report says, “The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.” Moreover, the Times states that “surveillance of the American compound appears to have been underway at least 12 hours before the assault started.” In fact the Times story begins with Mohamed al-Gharabi, the leader of the Libyan militia called the Rafallah al-Sehati Brigade, saying that he told American diplomats on September 9 that “since Benghazi isn’t safe, it is better for you to leave now.” “I specifically told the Americans myself that we hoped that they would leave Benghazi as soon as possible,” he said, also suggesting that trouble was brewing for September 11, 2012, before the video (and the rioting it caused in Cairo) came into the picture.

This tracks with what the No. 2 guy in the U.S. embassy, Gregory Hicks, testified under oath to Congress: “The video was not instigative of anything that was going on in Libya. We saw no demonstrations related to the video anywhere in Libya.” He told ABC that “the video was a non-event in Libya.”

CNN reported shortly after September 11 that “a source familiar with Ambassador Stevens’ thinking said in the months before his death, he talked about being worried about what he called the never-ending security threats, specifically in Benghazi. The source [is] telling us that the ambassador specifically mentioned the rise in Islamic extremism, the growing al-Qaeda presence in Libya, and said that he was on an al-Qaeda hit list.” That doesn’t sound like a spontaneous response to the video. Representative Darrell Issa, who chairs the Oversight Committee that investigated Benghazi, said on Sunday that “we have seen no evidence that the video was widely seen in Benghazi, a very isolated area, or that it was a leading cause. What we do know is that September 11 [the date of the 2012 attack] was not an accident.”

We’ll never know whom the Times thought it important to interview and whom it believed, but we do know that it had no access to the intelligence that members of Congress saw. And we are being told by members of Congress that the embassy staff had it right in saying the video was unimportant, and that there were some al-Qaeda links. So the much-ballyhooed Times story, based on months of reporting, seems to come down to this: Do you believe the intelligence our agencies collected and the reporting of our diplomats on the scene at the time, or do you believe what the New York Times was told by Libyans, many of them Islamic extremists and some of them terrorists, more than a year later? The answer to that question probably depends on what position you hold in the Hillary Clinton campaign.

— Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow in Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former deputy national-security adviser.

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