Originally published at Foreign Policy Magazine
By Malcolm Nance and Nada Bakos
Best Defense guest contributors
The attack on the temporary U.S. mission and a nearby CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya, during the early morning hours of Sept. 11, 2012, has fueled a political firestorm directed at then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In early 2016, a new action movie, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, will not only stoke the flames but bring Zero Dark Thirty levels of mythology to this attack. In other words, a highly complex and very nuanced, lethal geopolitical crisis will be explained by the team that gave you theTransformers films.
Real intelligence professionals don’t need Hollywood to determine what happened. We use facts, based on the best available, nearest real-time intelligence. We apply hard, sober, and reality-based analysis and years of spy-world experience to answer questions for the national leadership using evidence and a healthy dose of common sense. If the situation is critical, like this incident, the intelligence community’s rescue effort is restricted by limitations of time, distance, geography, topography, resources, communications, and the laws of physics. Even within those limitations, we get the best information relative to the WHISKEY-5 HOTEL (what, when, where, who, why, how) to the president within five minutes.
However, even the combined efforts of the dedicated men and women of the intelligence community cannot stop the torrent of B.S., innuendo, and outright crazy conspiracy theories that have sprung up from the Benghazi incident. What is even more regrettable is that this study of four deaths is set to eclipse the 9/11 Commission and become the longest-running congressional investigation in U.S. history — with very little to show for it.
Here are six points of utter B.S. that drive us absolutely head-smacking crazy:
- Benghazi was the greatest cover-up in history. Sen. James Inhofe claims that this relatively small terrorist attack in eastern Libya is one of the greatest cover-ups in U.S. history. Really? Worse than hiding the sale of 120 Hawk surface-to-air missiles and 1,000 TOW anti-tank missiles to the ayatollahs in Iran in exchange for hostages held by the terrorist group Hezbollah, then funneling the profits from that sale illegally to Nicaraguan contra guerrillas behind Congress’s back? Some people need to read a book.
- Benghazi was one of the worst incidents of terrorism. Former Vice President Dick Cheney overstated the significance of the attack as “one of worst incidents I can recall in my career.” I guess he forgot about 9/11 (2,977 dead), the Iraq War (4,886 dead), the war in Afghanistan (2,326 dead and counting), the Oklahoma City (168 dead) and Beirut barracks (241 dead) bombings, and the Pan Am flight 103 bombing (178 Americans dead). That’s almost 11,000 Americans killed… plus the four in Benghazi.
- Americans were deliberately left to die. This conspiracy theory is so absolutely reprehensible that it does not bear dignifying with a response. Speaking the words dishonors the memory of the dead. That’s how it is in a Tom Clancy war novel, but not in the real world where adults can differentiate the two concepts.
- The anti-Islam video had something to do with the attack. On the day of the attack, one of us (Malcolm Nance) was leaving Abu Dhabi for Benghazi and Tripoli to conduct a security assessment that was canceled as news of massive protests in Cairo culminated with the U.S. Embassy compound being stormed. News networks Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya showed the Muslim world aflame with disgust over the insulting video Innocence of Muslims. From within the punchbowl, everything around us looked like punch. It was not until much later that we learned the terrorist group used the outrage of the video as a mask to conduct a preplanned attack. That’s the nature of terrorism. We could go into the squabble over the talking points, but you can read more about that here.
- The CIA’s Quick Reaction Force was ordered to “stand down.” This has been proved false by no less than the House Intelligence Committee and six other congressional investigations. No such order was given. The local CIA commander told his security contractors to not rush into the consulate site until local militia support and heavy weapons could be found. Even with that reasonable caution, the QRF was on-site 24 minutes after the first radio call for help. That is a near-miraculous and instantaneous response.
- The Department of Defense could have changed the laws of space and time. Air Force bombers and National Missions Force personnel deployed to Sicily arrived well after the attack ended and after survivors had left Benghazi and were out of danger. Many pundits believe that if the president had snapped his fingers, fighter jets would have miraculously appeared over Benghazi, with adequate fuel, bombs, intelligence, and targets to stop.
Most importantly, what should the hearings and investigation accomplish? For starters, help the State Department fix its security apparatus — there were obvious gaps in the response to the attack — and work toward a goal of achieving a more professional response. Ask the State Department, Department of Defense, and CIA to scrub their emergency response protocols for each of their overseas locales, identifying gaps for response time of rescue efforts.
The question isn’t how to stop this from ever happening again, because it will happen again, in some form or another. Engagement with local populations is a cornerstone for diplomatic relations — it can’t go away nor should it. Help the American people understand that those who sign up for these types of jobs understand the risk.
Benghazi was a terrible tragedy, and there are lessons to be learned from it, but the continued desecration of the memory of thousands of dead citizens, soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines, and intelligence officers is despicable.
Malcolm Nance is a former Naval Intelligence officer with 34 years of experience in the Middle East and North Africa. He speaks five dialects of Arabic. In 2011, he was a strategy advisor to the Libyan Transitional National Council in Benghazi and at the Ajdabiyah battle front.
Nada Bakos is a former CIA analyst and targeting officer who served on the team charged with analyzing the relationship between Iraq, al Qaeda, and the 9/11 attacks. During the Iraq War, she was the chief targeting officer following Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. She is currently working on a book scheduled to be published by Little, Brown and Company in 2016.