How Can We Understand Benghazi Without Probing the CIA's Role?

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After catching up on coverage of the Benghazi attack over the weekend, there's something that has me very confused: why are so many journalists ignoring the fact that the Americans there were mostly CIA? Here's how The New York Times began a Benghazi story published online Sunday: "A House committee chairman vowed Sunday to seek additional testimony on the Obama administration's handling of last year's deadly attack on the American diplomatic post in Libya." 

Mark Steyn's latest National Review piece on Benghazi doesn't mention the CIA. Neither does this Weekly Standard piece, in which Victoria Toensing complains that a recent report about Benghazi "was purposefully incomplete and willfully misleading." And Stephen F. Hayes, whose work on Benghazi is widely cited among conservatives, refers to "the assault on the U.S. diplomatic post" and CIA warnings about a "potential attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in the region."

Am I wrong in thinking that this is madness?

The compound in Benghazi was not just a "diplomatic post" or a "diplomatic facility."

According to a Wall Street Journal article published way back in November 2012, "The U.S. effort in Benghazi was at its heart a CIA operation, according to officials briefed on the intelligence. Of the more than 30 American officials evacuated from Benghazi following the deadly assault, only seven worked for the State Department. Nearly all the rest worked for the CIA, under diplomatic cover, which was a principal purpose of the consulate, these officials said."

Doesn't that fact need to be acknowledged if the goal is to figure out what happened? I'm not invested in any outcome. If the Obama Administration is proved to have acted badly, I won't be surprised: as someone who thinks that President Obama violated the U.S. Constitution and the War Powers Resolution when he unilaterally volunteered American forces for the rebellion against Colonel Gaddafi, it seems to me that he's guilty of scandalous behavior in Libya regardless, and I am always eager for more transparency in the American government's conduct abroad. At the same time, I have no faith in the Republican Party to make good use of its oversight authority, and presume they're more interested in winning the next election than forcing transparency in foreign affairs, which they generally oppose, or improving State Department policy.

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Moreover, I don't know what happened in Benghazi.

But knowing that the U.S. facility was a CIA post would seem to help explain certain mysteries. Why wasn't the Obama Administration truthful about what happened? There may have been multiple reasons. Surely one of them was that they wanted to hide the fact that a supposed diplomatic facility was really rife with spies. Why was the compound attacked? It seems likely that the presence of more than 20 CIA agents had something to do with it. Why were bureaucrats at the State Department so insistent on deflecting blame? Perhaps they're just typically averse to seeing their misjudgments revealed. But it also seems plausible that they conceived of Benghazi as a CIA operation, given the fact that it was largely a CIA operation, and felt the CIA bore responsibility for protecting their own assets, a rebuttal State Department officials cannot make publicly so long as we persist with the fiction that Benghazi was just a normal diplomatic facility with foreign service folks, a visiting ambassador, and no overwhelming spy presence.

Did an American ambassador die in Benghazi in part because the Obama Administration, like all its executive branch predecessors, decided to use diplomatic cover to protect covert CIA assets? What, exactly, were those CIA agents doing in Benghazi? These are the sorts of questions neither establishment Republicans nor establishment Democrats have an interest in answering. Says John McCain of Benghazi, "I would call it a cover-up to the extent that it was willful removal of information." The purpose of the CIA presence in Benghazi is certainly being excluded from official statements and covered up, but the Republicans clamoring for transparency and excoriating the Obama Administration for lying are okay with certain lies and opaqueness.

The disclosure they're seeking is decidedly partial.


I don't know why the press is playing along. If the American facility in Benghazi was a CIA operation disguised as a diplomatic post, let's call it a CIA facility, probe whether that fact helps explain why it was attacked, and investigate the CIA's failure to protect its personnel along with the State Department's failure to protect its employees. At present, journalists like Hayes are writing as if we should credulously accept whatever former CIA director David Petraeus says as if it's the true account of what happened. I've got no objection to getting to the bottom of Benghazi. But so long as we all pretend that it's a story about a diplomatic mission that was attacked, we'll be missing part of the truth. And so long as Republicans continue to champion the White House's prerogative to expand executive power to fight terrorism and invoke the state secrets privilege to obscure the true nature of its actions abroad, calls for "transparency" on Benghazi will be peculiar. I'm for transparency, but I want the whole story of Benghazi, including the CIA's role in it.

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.


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