“Exclusive: America ‘was warned of embassy attack but did nothing’” reads the sensational and misleading sub-headline on a story in The Independent in London, which goes on to provide no corroboration for this claim beyond an anonymous source. Like a number of partisan groups, CNN also used this meme in a follow-up story headlined “Romney adviser blames Obama for Libya, Egypt attacks.
In response to the early warning story, Politico reported that “Shawn Turner, spokesman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, emailed: ’This is absolutely wrong. We are not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent.’” USA Today quotes White House spokesperson Jay Carney using almost identical language.
Even the Independent did not claim there was any “actionable intelligence” two days before September 11, when attacks to commemorate the anniversary have been expected for years by American outposts around the world. Moreover, the consulate (not embassy) in Benghazi had been attacked before and the region was well known to have a numerous armed groups hostile to the U.S. as well as the Libyan government in Tripoli and each other.
Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who died in the September 11 attack on the consulate in Benghazi, was well aware of the dangers of the region, having reported on the area in a State Dept. memo in 2008, when he was deputy chief of mission in Libya. His cable was made public by Wikileaks in 2010-11. At the time, Stevens wrote at length about the radicalization of the region, which supplied a large number of jihadis to fight in Iraq, disproportionate to the region’s population.
Leaving out any context, the Independent made its claim in a single, unelaborated sentence.“According to senior diplomatic sources, the US State Department had credible information 48 hours before mobs charged the consulate in Benghazi, and the embassy in Cairo, that American missions may be targeted, but no warnings were given for diplomats to go on high alert and ‘lockdown’, under which movement is severely restricted.”
Suggesting “American missions may be targeted” is a far cry from having anything like actionable intelligence. It is more a description of daily life for the American diplomatic corps throughout the Middle East. It is equally accurate to suggest, based on the Stevens cable that Americans had credible information that they might be targeted in Libya at least four years before the recent attack in Benghazi.
Although the substance of the Independent’s story is both unreliable and, in context, almost meaningless, outlets like GOPUSA.com picked it up as if was true and meaningful “information” that the Obama Administration is running away from. The Drudge Report headlined the report in red, bold-faced capital letters, while others like Glenn Beck’s The Blaze gave it similar weight while adding “there are shocking reports about the Ambassador possibly being sexually assaulted before being killed,” for which he offered no source whatsoever.
Contrary to the implications of the headline Obama-was-warned-but-did-nothing, an editorial in the Independent just the day before had commented: “Thus far, the statements from the White House have remained measured. With the presidential election fast approaching, Mr. Obama may be inclined to let domestic political gain be his guide. Given that the stability of much of the Middle East is at stake, he must resist the temptation. “
Similarly the paper ran columns by Patrick Cockburn (Sept. 12) and Robert Fisk (Sept. 13), both of which discussed the events in North Africa with far greater nuance and complexity than the Romney campaign and many of its supporters.
Likewise, the International Crisis Group on Sept. 14 issued a report on Libya that takes a sober, in-depth look at the fragility of a tribal country with a weak central government. The report concludes with 18 recommendations, following this observation: “There is much to celebrate in post-Qadhafi Libya but also reason to worry. The battle between central government and armed groups is not yet won, yet of late, the latter have been acting as if they enjoyed the upper hand. If steps are not swiftly taken, reversing this trend is only going to get harder – and what has been a relatively good news story could turn depressingly sour.”
For the most part the mainstream media have ignored the specific but undocumented claim of an attack warning, but Jake Tapper on ABC Good Morning America came close, commenting raising in passing with 20-20 hindsight that “many questions remain about insufficient security at those diplomatic posts on the anniversary of 9/11.”
At a White House press conference, in an argumentative eight-minute exchange, Tapper pressed Jay Carney on the intelligence issue, asking if there was “any intelligence,” not just actionable intelligence, coming close to challenging whether Carney was answering truthfully. Tapper comments that the attacks of 9/11 were “a failure of imagination,” and asks whether the Obama administration “messed up”?
Given the historical record in its present state, there is little basis for concluding yet that the Obama administration failed to do due diligence. There is there is much more evidence, both testimonial and documentary, to support a headline to the effect: “President Bush was personally warned before 9/11 but did nothing.”