At least the administration knew its priorities
What many of us openly hypothesized immediately following the September 11 Benghazi terrorist attack is finally, after eight months of tooth-pulling, established fact: The Obama administration’s oft-repeated story that Islamophobia — in this instance, an anti-Islamic Internet video — provoked a spontaneous “protest” resulting in the murder of four Americans was a calculated fraud in the service of the president’s reelection campaign.
What is only now coming to light, though, is that President Obama’s blame-the-video gambit was also disingenuous when it came to the rioting at the U.S. embassy in Cairo, which also occurred on September 11, several hours before the Benghazi attack.
The atrocity in Libya resulted in the murders of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans — Sean Smith of the State Department, and Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, a pair of former Navy SEALs working as CIA contractors. Post mortem, the administration’s tireless denunciations of the video — in the face of strong evidence of a pre-planned, coordinated terrorist attack — manifested President Obama’s willingness to obfuscate. That is why many of us administration critics called on the moribund Romney campaign to pursue Benghazi aggressively — pleas that fell on deaf ears.
Obviously, the State Department should never have had a facility in Benghazi, a jihadist hotbed that is one of the world’s most dangerous places for Americans and other Westerners. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the White House had recklessly failed to beef up security at the State Department facility even though there had been several terrorist strikes in the four months prior to September 11: bombing attacks that targeted both the facility and the nearby International Red Cross offices, as well as rockets fired at the British ambassador’s convoy — a near-miss that convinced Britain to close its Benghazi offices.
The impending eleventh anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should thus have prompted a serious ratcheting up of security at the Benghazi facility. Yet the State Department denied requests, including requests from Stevens himself, for better protection.
It is not difficult to figure out why neither the September 11 attack on the Benghazi facility nor the several attacks that preceded it were responded to as jihadist terror. One need only define political cynicism down to outright deception.
To treat jihadist terror as what it is would be an admission that it remains a profound national-security challenge. To concede that there was rampant, al-Qaeda-driven jihadism in Benghazi, the heart of “rebel” (i.e., Islamist) opposition to the ousted Qaddafi regime, would be to raise questions about the wisdom of President Obama’s unauthorized war — which naysayers, including moi, argued would empower anti-American terrorists. To acknowledge that our officials were killed in a pre-planned, sophisticated terrorist operation involving mortars and other high-powered weapons that fell into jihadist hands after Qaddafi was toppled would have undermined two themes of Obama’s reelection campaign: that Obama had eviscerated al-Qaeda, heralding an end to the War on Terror, and that Obama’s policy decisions had put Libya on the course toward stable democracy.
So the administration tried very hard not to acknowledge it.
The instrument of the fraud was “Innocence of Muslims,” an amateurish, virtually unknown and unwatched anti-Islamic video about 14 minutes in length. It was written and produced by one Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, a California resident and native-Egyptian Coptic Christian with a record of petty crime. The video is said to be a “movie trailer,” but it is unclear whether there really is a full-length film fleshing out its themes of Muslim human-rights violations, including the persecution of Copts.
Why would the administration blame this obscure video for igniting the Benghazi massacre? The rationale was straightforward. The video, the story goes, was singularly responsible for provoking the “protest” at the U.S. embassy in Cairo earlier in the day on September 11. So, as the administration scrambled to conceal its various defaults in Benghazi — the failure to beef up security and to take military action in defense of Americans under attack — it realized that the seemingly spontaneous rioting in Egypt could be spun as having naturally spilled into neighboring Libya. Benghazi, then, could be framed as a similar “protest” that “spontaneously” erupted in violence.
This story is utterly untrue as to Benghazi. The State Department’s No. 2 official in Libya, Gregory Hicks, who was closely monitoring events in Benghazi from the U.S. embassy in Tripoli, was directly told by Ambassador Stevens, shortly before the latter was killed, that the facility was under terrorist attack. He directly briefed Secretary of State Clinton and her top staffers to that effect in a phone call at 2 a.m. (8 p.m. Washington time) — a time when Hicks’s most pressing concern was that Stevens might have fallen into the hands of Ansar al-Sharia, the local al-Qaeda affiliate, some of whose members orchestrated the attack. Only an hour later, in a call from the Libyan prime minister, did Hicks learn Stevens had been murdered. As Hicks testified in early May before Chairman Darrell Issa’s House Oversight Committee, the video was a “non-event” in Libya.
Clinton did not speak with Hicks again that evening, even after the news of Stevens’s death. She did, however, speak with President Obama by telephone at 10 p.m. Washington time — one of the very few details that have been disclosed about Obama’s activities that night. Shortly afterward, despite what Clinton had learned from Hicks, the media began reporting that Clinton had put out a press statement on the Benghazi attack, which included the following:
Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.
Beyond its lack of real-world connection to the siege in Benghazi, this explanation failed to convey that the “some” who were “justify[ing]” the commission of “vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet” prominently included the State Department itself.
Earlier in the day on September 11, hours before the rioting in Egypt, diplomats at the U.S. embassy in Cairo began tweeting repeated condemnations — in Arabic — of “religious incitement,” proclaiming that they “vehemently reject[ed] the actions of those who abuse the worldwide right to freedom of expression in order to injure the religious beliefs of others.” They coupled this with the release of an insipid statement, in English, deriding “the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims.”
State did not make this up out of whole cloth. Reports about the video had begun making the rounds in Egypt. Moreover, on September 9, just two days before the rioting, the grand mufti of Egypt publicly inveighed against the video. Egypt is a predominantly Islamist country, and in light of sharia’s savage treatment of those who speak ill of Islam or its prophet, there was good reason to believe the video would factor into any anti-American protest.
The video, however, was very far from the exclusive cause of rioting at the embassy. In fact, as reported by Raymond Ibrahim, an analyst who closely follows the Arabic media, the Egyptian press reported on September 10 that jihadist groups — some of which now have political arms that participate in Egypt’s Islamist government — were “threatening to burn the U.S. Embassy in Cairo to the ground” over the failure of the United States to release imprisoned jihadists, prominently including the “Blind Sheikh” (Omar Abdel Rahman, whom I successfully prosecuted for terrorism in the Nineties). This dovetailed with a threat by Abdel Rahman’s son a few weeks earlier to conduct a Tehran-style raid on the embassy and take Americans hostage to coerce his father’s release.
Ibrahim’s reporting matches what The Weekly Standard’s Stephen Hayes uncovered about the CIA’s pre-riot admonition to the State Department: “On 10 September we warned of social media reports calling for a demonstration in front of the [Cairo] Embassy and that jihadists were threatening to break into the Embassy.”
This information was eventually purged from the infamous “talking points” with which the Obama administration armed Susan Rice, a close Obama confidante who serves as his ambassador to the U.N., as she prepared to discuss the Benghazi attacks on the Sunday talk shows. Notably, neither the Egyptian press report cited by Ibrahim nor the CIA warning cited by Hayes mentions the video.
Then, of course, there was the Cairo rioting itself. To be sure, there was plenty of caterwauling about the video. Yet it was only one item on the familiar menu of grievances Islamic supremacists lodge against the United States. Significantly, many of the rioters expressed their support for al-Qaeda, gleefully chanting, “Obama, Obama, there are still a billion Osamas!” They demanded the Blind Sheikh’s return to Egypt, called for the release of other jihadists, and tore the Stars and Stripes down from our flagpole, replacing it with al-Qaeda’s black banner of jihad.
The Obama administration chose to hear only peeves about the video. In the days that followed, Obama, Clinton, Rice, White House spokesman Jay Carney, and other administration officials studiously denounced it — the best publicity it could have received. They spoke as if it were a legitimate rationale for anti-American violence while desperately pleading with Muslims to understand that the U.S. government — as opposed to irresponsible Americans exercising their lamentable First Amendment rights — had nothing to do with it. Obama and Clinton actually filmed a public-service announcement condemning the video for Pakistani consumption.
More shamefully, when the coffins of our fallen officials from Benghazi were brought home, Clinton used the occasion of this solemn ceremony to tell the grieving families that the government would get the producer who was responsible for the video. And the government did just that — arresting Nakoula in the dead of night and locking him up on a trivial violation of supervised release from incarceration for a prior conviction. Nakoula continues to sit in a jail cell even as the evidence that the video had no relevance to the Benghazi carnage, and that Obama and Clinton well knew it, accumulates into proof.
Obama was campaigning for reelection on the demonstrably false claims that his leadership had decimated al-Qaeda and that his policy of empowering Islamic supremacists in the Middle East had promoted stability and real democracy. The video canard was as much an administration creation as an administration reaction to real events. In truth, the video had no bearing on the Benghazi massacre, and its pertinence to the prior rioting in Egypt was vastly overblown. It did, however, enable the Obama campaign to stay on offense: With a compliant media and an opponent unwilling to engage him on the issue, the president was free to beat his Islamophobia straw man rather than address his catastrophic Middle East record.
His story is unraveling now. But in the campaign stretch run, it did the trick.