Dpt. of State / Foreign Policy / National Security / Politics / Presidency

The Failures in Libya

When asked this past Sunday if the recent terrorist attack on American diplomats in Libya was an “intelligence failure,” senior White House Advisor David Plouffe said, “No, this was an event obviously … a complex event.”

Let us ignore the obvious tautology of Plouffe’s remarks and his clear desire to obfuscate the issue instead of providing any actual statement of White House policy. We are left with the incredulous statement that a successful terrorist attack that murdered an American diplomat and three other Americans was not an intelligence failure. If it was not, as Plouffe said, an intelligence failure than the only alternative is worse – it was a security failure. That is, the U.S. government knew that a terrorist attack was being planned but failed to provide adequate protection for American diplomats.

The truth is undoubtedly a mixture of both — a failure both to accurately diagnose Libyan terrorist threats, but also a failure to secure new Libyan diplomatic sites. The question is why did our government fail? In a chaotic war zone, in the planet’s most tumultuous region, on the eleventh anniversary of the September 11th attacks, the threat to American’s safety should have been clear. But the connections were not drawn, the security was not increased and, once again, an American target was vulnerable. So let us “look forward” as Mr. Plouffe desires, but let us do so, by understanding the underlying causes of the intelligence and security failures of the Libyan attack.

Failure of Bureaucracy

It has been widely reported that the Libyan attack was an assault on the American consulate in Benghazi. While this was true in all meaningful respects, this was not statutorily the case; the facility was actually classified as a “liaison office” by technical bureaucratic definition. This linguistic difference that should only matter to a lawyer, unfortunately meant that security requirements for the compound were far below the standards dictated by State Department rules for embassies and consulates.

The facility, for example, failed to abide by rules such as the 100 foot “standoff” between buildings and roads or the use of “blast-resistant” construction techniques and materials. This also meant that the usual security contract processes for hiring diplomatic protection was also not met. A much smaller contract was awarded to a British firm that hired local Libyan security under a laxer safety standard – a particularly deadly oversight, as the Libyan terrorists had insider knowledge of the Benghazi consulate and its security procedures. All of this remained unchanged despite numerous warning signs, including an attempted bombing of the compound earlier in the summer.

It is important to understand that it is not this particular, poor building classification that is the problem. It is the set of bureaucratic rules that prevent the application of common sense. Any individual decision maker would have rated Benghazi as a facility in need of far greater security than, say, the American embassy in Reykjavik, but the bureaucracy has managed to take that decision out of the hands of individuals and, in so doing, made it prone to systemic failures like those that occurred in Benghazi.

Failure of Communication

These bureaucratic failures were compounded by an inability to communicate the intelligence threats that were assessed throughout the federal agencies. According to the House Oversight Committee, the Libyan mission had repeatedly requested additional security for their diplomatic facilities. The Library of Congress, with the cooperation of the Department of Defense, published a report in August about the threats of Al Qaeda in Libya. The commander of AFRICOM lamented in June that the U.S. had failed to deal with Al Qaeda in northern Africa at its weakest point and warned of the growing strength of the organization. U.S., British and UN diplomats had all faced insurgent attacks over the summer.

But the lack of a deadly attack and the absence of communicable intelligence getting through to Washington led to little attention for Libyan security and no changes on the ground. Quite the contrary. According to an unnamed official quoted by the New York Times, “That the local security did so well back in June probably gave us a false sense of security” An eerie reminder of some viewpoints after the 1993 world trade center bombing attempt – and a perspective that undoubtedly should not persist after 9/11.

Failure of Politics

Hindsight, as the saying goes, is 20-20. While the security and intelligence failures do demonstrate underlying problems with the governmental institutions from the White House on down, it is unfair to blame the current administration for the entirety of these failures. The response that emerged from the Oval Office, however, put politics ahead of future security.

Even putting aside the seemingly lackadaisical reaction by President Obama in the immediate aftermath of the attack (that is, jet-setting to a Las Vegas campaign fundraiser), at no point in the weeks that followed did the president seem to remember that it is more important to be president than to be reelected. The White House, initially, blamed the attacks on a spontaneous riot caused by an offensive YouTube video and stuck to this line despite evidence within 24 hours of the attack of significant planning, the use of heavy weaponry and ties to Al Qaeda.

The political reasoning of the administration is easy to follow. Blaming a spontaneous mob changed the focus of the coverage of the attack. Instead of looking at Libyan stability and its role in the war on terror, the media has spent weeks discussing the extent of ‘free speech.’ Instead of discussing President Obama’s foreign policy positions and past decisions relating to Libya, the media pounced on Mitt Romney for his ‘exploitative’ political attack. A spontaneous mob, furthermore, is a one-off event and would fall out of the news cycle more quickly.

But that political calculation, and the necessarily misleading rhetoric of the administration that made that calculation possible, are detrimental to American security precisely because it ignores the truth of the Libyan attack. If the administration pretends that the Libyan attack was not terrorism, than how can they honestly address the problems in security, intelligence, bureaucracy and communication that the successful attack uncovered? And if the media obsequiously plays politics with the issue, then how can American’s put pressure on the government to fix these problems within the security infrastructure?

They can’t. And they won’t. And, sadly, the same failures will happen again.