New York Times Benghazi Story Gets Some Political And Journalistic Push Back
The New York Times Benghazi report raises as many questions as it purports to answer.
Not surprisingly, Republicans have not reacted well to the New York Times report on Benghazi which, in several key respects, pushes back on the central points of the right’s talking points regarding the attack that took place. Times editor, cites just a few examples of the political pushback that has unfolded since the report was published on the paper’s website last Saturday:
The article The Times published on Benghazi this weekend infuriated many Republicans, who ran screaming to television studios.
Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight Committee, who has made a special crusade out of the attack on the American diplomatic and intelligence compound in Benghazi, was asked on “Meet the Press” to justify Republican claims that Al Qaeda agents planned and executed the operation. (The article found no evidence that Al Qaeda was involved.)
Andrea Mitchell of MSNBC put her finger on the political question when she asked Mr. Issa why Republicans “use the term Al Qaeda.” After all, she said, “you and other members of Congress are sophisticated in this and know that when you say Al Qaeda, people think central Al Qaeda. They don’t think militias that may be inspired by Bin Laden and his other followers.”
“There is a group there involved that is linked to Al Qaeda,” Mr. Issa said. “What we never said — and I didn’t have the security to look behind the door, that’s for other members of Congress — of what the intelligence were on the exact correspondence with Al Qaeda, that sort of information — those sorts of methods I’ve never claimed.”
I’m still trying to parse that sentence.
On Fox News on Sunday, Rep. Mike Rogers of Michigan insisted the story was wrong in finding that “Al Qaeda was not involved in this.”
“There was some level of pre-planning; we know that,” he said. “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.”
As Rosenthal goes on to note, insisting that al Qaeda was somehow involved in the attack is important to the GOP narrative because one of the most important elements of their “theory of the case,” to borrow a legal term, is that the Obama White House pushed an allegedly phony narrative regarding a spontaneous protest that led to the raid on the diplomatic outpost, and later the CIA Annex, purely in response to street protests regarding an anti-Muslim film that had sparked protests in Egypt earlier that day after Islamist preachers uncovered previously obscure video on YouTube and used it to hype anti-Western fervor among Egyptians in order to draw attention away from al Qaeda involvement so close to the 2012 Elections. Previously, they argue, the Administration had made the claim that the President had “decimated” the organization a central part of the re-election campaign. Indeed, one of the taglines you heard quite often from campaign surrogates such as Vice-President Biden and others that “General Motors is alive and Osama bin Laden” is dead or that “we’ve got al Qaeda on the run,” or words to that effect. If it had become public prior to the election that al Qaeda was involved in a raid that resulted in the first death of a U.S. Ambassador in more than 30 years, then it could have had a serious impact on the election. That’s why there’s been so much attention on the whole issue regarding what U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said on the Sunday morning following the attack, the talking points she was given prior to that appearance, and the revisions made to those talking points before she received them. According to the GOP theory, advisers close to the President were scrubbing the the talking points of any reference to al Qaeda or the fact that the attack may have been pre-planned, because of the potential for political damage.
The Times report seems to contradict that theory both regarding the role the video may have played in setting the mood in Benghazi leading up to the attack and in identifying the involvement of al Qaeda in the attack itself. At the same time, though, it’s important to note that the Times report does not adopt previous Administration claims that the attack was the result of a spontaneous street protest. Indeed, the principal author of the report has said in television interview since Saturday that, as previous reports have indicated, there were no spontaneous street protests in Benghazi prior to the attack and that the attack was pre-planned in at least some sense and carried out by people with some kind of advanced guerrilla training rather than just random citizens at a protest. The main areas where the Times report agrees with the Administration narrative lie in the assertions that the video, or at least news reports about the protests in Egypt regarding the video, did become known in Benghazi that day and appear to have played some role in what happened and that the groups that involved in the attack were not linked to al Qaeda.
Since the Times report was published, though, there has been push back from several journalists who have also been covering the Benghazi story from the beginning, specifically on the question of al Qaeda involvement. For example, Eli Lake at The Daily Beast contends that there is indeed evidence linking al Qaeda to Benghazi:
Some fighters who attacked the U.S. diplomatic compound and CIA annex in Benghazi are believed to be from a group headed by a former top lieutenant to Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al Qaeda. When Egyptian authorities raided the home of Mohammed al-Jamal, who was an operational commander under al-Zawahiri’s terrorist group in the 1990s known as Egyptian Islamic Jihad, it found messages to al Qaeda leadership asking for support and plans to establish training camps and cells in the Sinai, creating a group now known as the Jamal Network. In October, theState Department designated Jamal Network as a terrorist group tied to al Qaeda. The Wall Street Journal was the first to report the participation of the network in the Benghazi attacks, and the group’s participation in the attacks has also been acknowledged in the Times. The New York Times Benghazi investigation makes no mention of the Jamal Network in their piece.
On Fox News Sunday, Schiff, a Democratic member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the intelligence indicated that al Qaeda did play a role in the attack. The intelligence community knows this, he said, from insights gleaned from eavesdropping on the night of the attack. Speaking of the Times report, Schiff said “they did not have the same access to people who were not aware they were being listened to. They were heavily reliant obviously on people they interviewed who had a reason to provide the story they did.” But Schiff also said sometimes eavesdropping has its limits as well. “Sometimes though the intelligence which has the advantage of hearing to people when they don’t know they are being listening to, that can be misleading as well, when people make claims, they boast of things they were not involved in for various purposes,” he said.
No one has disputed the participation of a local Islamist militia known as Ansar al-Sharia. The Times describes Ansar al-Sharia in Libya as a group formed in 2012 to protest the support other militias had for elections but an organization separate and distinct from al Qaeda. An August 2012 report commissioned by a Pentagon terrorism research organization found that Ansar al-Sharia “has increasingly embodied al Qaeda’s presence in Libya, as indicated by its active social-media propaganda, extremist discourse, and hatred of the West, especially the United States.” Not everyone however agreed.
In October, Tunisia’s Prime Minister told Reuters that “there is a relation between leaders of Ansar al-Sharia, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya.” The Times also states, “the Republican arguments appear to conflate purely local extremist organizations like Ansar al-Shariah with al Qaeda’s international terrorist network.” On Fox News Sunday Rogers stuck to his guns. “Do they have differences of opinions with al Qaeda core? Yes,” he said. “Do they have affiliations with al Qaeda core? Definitely.”
In this regard, it’s worth noting that the very idea of defining who is and is not part of al Qaeda. In that regard, it’s well worth remembering that, even since the September 11th attacks led the United States to attack Afghanistan, organization known has al Qaeda appears to have changed significantly. Rather than an organization centrally run from Afghanistan or Pakistan, it quickly seems to have turned into one where regional affiliates more or less affiliated with whatever is left of ”al Qaeda core” have more extensive discretion than they might have in the past. Over the years, we’ve learned of such affiliates in Yemen, Somalia, among the groups that fought U.S. troops in Iraq and now fight alongside the rebels in Syria and, in the wake of the collapse of authority, Libya, most especially in the southern deserts and the areas around and near Benghazi. Lake does a fair good job of connecting the dots between those Libyan groups and other elements in al Qaeda. If, as the Times report indicates, these groups were involved in the attack, then at the very least it makes sense to say that the attack was carried out by groups with some sense allegiance or alliance with the al Qaeda we knew when we attacked Afghanistan in 2001. In some sense, this kind of decentralized al Qaeda poses far more of a threat than its predecessor since it makes it far harder to determine where an attack may come from from.
Finally, The Wire’s Danielle Weiner-Bronner notes that the Times report leaves many questions unanswered:
Despite the impressive reporting and valuable new details, The New York Times has left us just where we started in terms of understanding the larger picture of what happened in Benghazi. We still have no clear answers about who started the assault, how much they planned it, what their connection is to larger terrorist networks, or what could have been done to stop. As Politico’s Blake Hounshell explains, those questions will never be settled, in part because people don’t want them settled. There are too many ideological questions at stake, and too much disagreement on the very terms of the debate. (Like “spontaneous” versus “planned” and “terrorist” versus “rebel.”) And as Josh Rogin of The Daily Beast adds, “you can’t prove a negative,” so how can anyone say with any certainty that al-Qeada wasn’t involved.
That’s the unfortunate part about the extent to which the Benghazi story has become a political football. Rather than trying to find real answers to the important questions that it raises both regarding the nature of the terrorism threat in Libya and elsewhere, it ignores the question of why none of the Americans on the ground seemed to have any idea of the forces arrayed against them prior to September 11th of last year, or why security at both the diplomatic post and the CIA Annex were seemingly so lax despite the fact that there had been an increasing number of attacks on Western targets in the months leading up to September 11th. These are not the type of “sexy” questions that Republicans can use to bash the President, and they aren’t the types of questions that Democrats who have largely lined up to defend the Administration want to touch on for fear of the answers they might lead to. So, once again, our representatives are failing us.