Stephen F. Hayes
January 13, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 17
To hear it from the New York Times editorial page, the many issues surrounding the attacks in Benghazi are now settled.
In a December 30 editorial, published under the headline “The Facts About Benghazi,” the newspaper proclaims an end to the 15 months of debate about the fatal attacks on the U.S. consulate on September 11, 2012. Citing an “exhaustive investigation by The Times” that it says “goes a long way toward resolving any nagging doubts about what precipitated the attack” and “debunks Republican allegations,” America’s Newspaper of Record declares that “in a rational world” the investigation “would settle the dispute over Benghazi.”
It’s hardly surprising that the New York Times would find the New York Times the final word on an issue.
But for the rest of us, rational and irrational alike, this revisionist account is neither authoritative nor definitive. The central thesis of the piece is wrong, and the sweeping claim the author has made in defending it is demonstrably false.
Here’s the background.
In a long, front-page article published in late December, David Kirkpatrick, the Cairo bureau chief of the New York Times, offered an account of the attacks in Benghazi based largely on interviews with Libyans there, including some who participated in the attacks. From these interviews and others, Kirkpatrick declared that there is “no evidence that al Qaeda or other international terrorists had any role in the assault.”
It’s a startling claim, even beyond the challenge of proving a negative. In an interview on Meet the Press following the publication of the article, moderator David Gregory asked Kirkpatrick how he could be sure that there was no involvement of al Qaeda or international terrorists. Kirkpatrick responded: “I think honestly if you asked anybody in the U.S. intelligence business, they would tell you the same thing.”
But that’s not true.
We have been asking people in the U.S. intelligence business about al Qaeda and the Benghazi attacks for 15 months. Virtually all of them have told us the same thing: Terrorists associated with al Qaeda and its affiliates were involved in the attacks.
So we were puzzled. How could a star New York Times reporter claim that no one in the U.S. intelligence community believes al Qaeda or other international terrorists had any role at all in the attacks, when we were talking to more than a dozen such sources who said the opposite?
Part of the answer is obvious: We were talking to different people. But that doesn’t explain why Kirkpatrick would claim that his sources reflect not just the consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community, but the unanimous view.
The bigger problem for Kirkpatrick is the fact that over the past 15 months many people in the “U.S. intelligence business” have contradicted his main argument on the record.
Consider what Senator Dianne Feinstein told host Bob Schieffer on Face the Nation, back on December 2, 2012, about a briefing from CIA director David Petraeus shortly after the attacks. “General Petraeus briefed us on the 13th,” she said. “There is a transcript. He said very clearly that there were al Qaeda elements involved.”
Presumably Feinstein, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, qualifies as someone in the “U.S. intelligence business.” So does the CIA director.
Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counter-terrorism Center, testified on September 19, 2012, that there were “indications that individuals involved in the attack may have had connections to al Qaeda or al Qaeda’s affiliates, in particular Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.”
There were others. Representative Dutch Ruppersberger, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, reported without qualification that al Qaeda had a role in the Benghazi attacks. “The people involved in the group were affiliates of al Qaeda and other extremist groups,” he said during a press conference on November 16, 2012. He continued: “That was well organized—command and control—and that [had] people who had experience in attacking and are al Qaeda and other extremists. They knew how to shoot mortars and hit targets.”
Even some Republicans joined intelligence officials and Democrats contending that al Qaeda-affiliated jihadists participated in those attacks. The two top intelligence committee Republicans on Capitol Hill, Mike Rogers in the House and Saxby Chambliss in the Senate, have consistently pointed to al Qaeda ties among the Benghazi attackers.
So on the one hand Kirkpatrick claims no one in the U.S. intelligence business believes al Qaeda and its affiliates played any role in Benghazi; on the other, many individuals in the U.S. intelligence business say they believe al Qaeda and its affiliates played a role in Benghazi.
Who to believe?
Perhaps the Times uncovered new information that invalidates those earlier claims.
Not according to Representative Adam Schiff. A Democrat who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, he responded to the New York Times piece by telling Fox News Sunday’s Chris Wallace that, while there were local militias and others who participated in the attacks, “the intelligence indicates that al Qaeda was involved.”
Several sources tell The Weekly Standard that the evidence of al Qaeda involvement has gotten stronger over the course of the investigation. Representative Devin Nunes, a Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, met privately with four U.S. government officials who were in Benghazi. “The latest information I have is based on interviews with the U.S. intel personnel on the ground before, during, and after the attacks. These interviews have solidified what U.S. officials knew within hours of the attacks—that al Qaeda was responsible for the deaths of four Americans, including the ambassador.”
Intelligence officials say operatives from the Muhamad Jamal network, based in Egypt, participated in the attacks, along with terrorists tied to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and Ansar al Sharia in Libya.
The extent of coordination between these groups and al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan varies. Some in the intelligence community, including many national security officials in the Obama administration, are eager to separate “core al Qaeda” from regional and local affiliates. In some cases, local extremist groups are just that—local. But each of the groups involved in the Benghazi attacks has ties to broader al Qaeda—including its leadership.
Muhamad Jamal, the namesake of the Egyptian network, has ties to al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri and was corresponding with him in the months before the attacks.
An unclassified report published by researchers at the Library of Congress in August 2012, just a month before the Benghazi attacks, said that Ansar al Sharia “has increasingly embodied al Qaeda’s presence in Libya.” That study, “Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile,” produced in coordination with terrorism analysts at the Pentagon, looked at the growing presence of al Qaeda in post-Qaddafi Libya. It concluded that “al Qaeda senior leadership (AQSL) and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) have sought to take advantage of the Libyan Revolution to recruit militants and to reinforce their operational capabilities in an attempt to create a safe haven and possibly extend their area of operations to Libya.” Al Qaeda leaders “dispatched trusted senior operatives as emissaries and leaders who could supervise building a network. Al Qaeda has established a core network in Libya, but it remains clandestine and refrains from using the al Qaeda name.”
And contrary to the claims of the New York Times, many of those in the U.S. intelligence business continue to insist that members of this al Qaeda network participated in the Benghazi attacks.