Foreign Policy

Friday Puzzler: Why Lie About Benghazi?

By Barbara F. Walter

It’s now increasingly clear that Obama knew as early as the evening of September 11, 2012 that the attack on the US embassy in Benghazi was the work of al Qaida-affiliated terrorists. Gregory Hicks (the deputy chief of mission at the US embassy in Tripoli) said he knew immediately. Susan Rice certainly knew five days later when she went on all the Sunday talk shows insisting the attack was the result of a spontaneous reaction to a YouTube video. If Obama knew the attack was the work of terrorists, and he knew that everyone at the embassies in Libya knew it was a terrorist attack, why did he try to hide this from the American people? Obama must have known that the information would quickly leak out, and that this revelation would make him and his administration look even worse.

So today’s puzzler is this: Why did Obama lie to the American public about the nature of the Benghazi attack?


Last week’s puzzler asked why the garment-factory tragedy in Bangladesh uncharacteristically caused Western retailers to rethink operations in that country. I think there are three possible answers to this question. The first is that retailers were simply engaged in a PR game and had no intention of moving operations elsewhere. As Taylor Marvin pointed out “the newsworthy, singular character of the collapse” made it impossible for retailers operating in Bangladesh to ignore the tragedy. They had to offer some response and verbal statements to the press were easy and costless.

The second is that retailers were sincere in their concern about working conditions in Bangladesh, and their threats to leave the country were real. If this was the case, the question is why now and why Bangladesh? I think retailers are willing to pull out of Bangladesh because (a) there are so many other cheap places to manufacture clothes, and (b) Bangladesh represents the bottom of the barrel in terms of working and operating conditions. It’s easy to pull out of Bangladesh if there are numerous better places to go.

But there’s a third, more hopeful reason. An article yesterday by Stephanie Clifford reveals that American consumers are increasingly interested in the origins of their clothing and are willing to pay more for a t-shirt that isn’t made in a sweat shop. If consumers demand to know where and how their clothing is made, operating in the current conditions in Bangladesh becomes a losing business proposition.

Which do I think is the best answer? # 2. I’m not holding my breath that clothing manufacturing will come back to New England anytime soon. Still, it’s nice to know that consumers are beginning to care. Artisanal t-shirts anyone?

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  • Uh, Barbara:

    See:

    http://www.whitehouse.gov/photos-and-video/video/2012/09/12/president-obama-speaks-attack-benghazi

    He called it an act of terror. Given that there was no real evidence of who, in fact, had done the attack and, given the volatile situation in Libya at the time, just what in Hell was he – or the people at CIA or State – supposed to do? Accuse the attackers as al Qaeda operatives? Oh, that’d work, especially if they turned out to be members of one of the rebel militias we were supporting.

    I have to tell you I don’t see anything here besides the fog of war in an extremely sensitive revolution situation that the US – or, I might add, anyone else outside of Libya itself – had virtually no handle on. That this isn’t gaining squat in terms of public concern should tell you something.

  • We now know that the references to al-Qa’ida and Ansar al-Shari’ah that were cut out of the CIA’s original talking points did not, in fact, claim that they were responsible. The document said that the attack was carried out by “a mix of individuals from across many sectors of Libyan society” and that the mix included “Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida.” The reference to Ansar simply said that “initial press reports” attributed the attack to Ansar and that the group denied organizing it. Moreover, Rice told Bob Schieffer on September 16 that it was possible that local extremists, al-Qa’ida-affiliated groups, or al-Qa’ida itself could have been involved, but that this was yet to be determined. So I’m not exactly sure what the lie was. The only part of the talking points that the CIA has retracted was the notion that a demonstration preceded it. Still, a recent LA Times story said the FBI investigation has been hindered by the “hybrid” nature of the event, part terrorist attack and part mob violence (the mob violence apparently coinciding with the attack rather than preceding it). It is still possible that the attackers were inspired by the video (indeed, it seems odd to assume that Islamic extremists wouldn’t be offended by blasphemy) or the Cairo attacks earlier that day. According to one press leak last fall, some attackers call AQIM after the fact to brag about what they had done and told them it was because of the Cairo attacks. Supporting the notion that the attack wasn’t particularly well planned or prepared is the fact that the place was burned down–accoding to early State Department reports–with fuel that the attackers happened to find lying around on the compound grounds. No one “knew” who planned it, nor is it clear that they know now–that’s simply been spun that way.

    This does leave me with a question for you folks, though. The Republican argument is that Obama wanted to distract attention from the fact that it was “a terrorist attack” because he had been campaigning on his success in defeating al-Qa’ida and making America safe from attack. Yet in many cases, foreign attacks produce a rallying effect around an administration. So, do you think that the Benghazi attack, perhaps if handled differently, would have had a positive electoral impact for the president? Or did it, as the Republicans suggest, undermine his argument about his foreign policy successes? Or was there by this time some sort of, let’s call it, “terrorism fatigue” that might have countered the rallying effect that an earlier attack might have had?

    • Now that the Benghazi talking points e-mails are out, we know that no one in any agency objected to–or even remarked on–the point about the spontaneity of the attack. The CIA Office of General Counsel (OGC) objected to the CIA Office of Terrorism Analysis (OTA) including the names of the terrrorist organizations because even if we know individuals connected with those organizations were there, we don’t know if they were actually involved in killing the ambassador and because the FBI doesn’t want us making statements that could prejudice the investigation. The State Department objected to the inclusion of references to earlier attacks because it made it look like the CIA had been giving them warnings(!!!). But the White House lied when they said they only changed “Consulate” to “diplomatic post”; they also added an “of” that had been left out.

  • Uh, Tracy

    Apparently Hilary Clinton didn’t watch the President. This is from her Congressional testimony testified in January 2013:

    “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night decided to go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? “

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