Benghazi: What is America's 'Need to Know'?

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What most of us don't realize about diplomacy:

When news breaks, reporters want answers to their questions. Politicians want enough information to point a finger at who is to blame. And Americans want to know what happened and why it happened. But we are not always, in fact we are usually not, going to get all the answers to all our questions.

Four Americans died on September 11, 2012.

Anytime one of our citizens dies in service to our country, it is a tragedy. We want to know what happened and how it can be kept from happening again. We hope, at the very least, we'll learn a lesson from the loss.

What about Benghazi? Did Ambassador Christopher Stevens, State Department specialist Sean Smith, and security contractors (and former SEALs) Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods make the ultimate sacrifice for America because of a pre-planned attack? Why did Stevens travel 600 miles from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli to the known dangerous mission in Benghazi in the first place? Why did the U.S. stay in Benghazi after other western countries pulled out? What was the purpose of the attack? Who executed the plan that brought about the deaths of these Americans? Why wasn't military support sent immediately in response to this attack? Was the significant date selected by the attackers for the emotional impact it would have on Americans if their murderous plan was carried out?

Nine official investigations by congressional committees and the state department have been held. Each one has found the CIA and the military acted properly in response to the attack, according to reporting by the Associated Press. The ninth was held in October 2015 by congressmen who questioned former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for 11 hours. The preparations for that hearing cost taxpayers more than the budgets of nine other congressional committees. The work on this hearing consumed more than 500 days. That number is greater than the investigations of the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, Iran-Contra, and Hurricane Katrina. At the conclusion, the committee chairman said no new information had been learned.

The previous House intelligence committee said after a two-year investigation that many Americans performed courageously in the attack. Officials from State, Defense and the CIA did what they could to save lives, making “reasonable tactical decisions about how to respond to the attacks.” After the first assault on the facility, a team rushed from the CIA base about a mile and a half away to help; another CIA-military team was dispatched from Tripoli; a Predator drone was in the air above the scene in 90 minutes. “There was neither a stand down order nor a denial of available air support, and no American was left behind,” the panel concluded.

In spite of all the investigations, there are aspects of this tragedy that our government may never decide are within the American public's "need to know" - no matter how much we would like to think we have a right to know. The imperatives of diplomacy may be more important to our country in the grand scheme of things.

At one point in our careers my husband and I both worked for the U.S. Army. He was a soldier and I was a civilian employee. We had the same security clearance. But he couldn't walk into my office and go through the files on my desk, and I couldn't sit in on his command and staff meetings. Yes, we had the same level of clearance, but in both cases access to our work was based on a "need to know."

By all accounts, Stevens went to Benghazi because he needed to report before September 30th, the end of the fiscal year, on the physical, political, and security environment in Benghazi. Secretary of State Clinton wanted to convert Benghazi from a temporary facility to a permanent constituent post. There were funds to accomplish this conversion that would not be available in the next fiscal year. Clinton hoped to travel to Tripoli and make the announcement in December 2012. Stevens had been in Benghazi for a few days before September 11 trying to meet that deadline and needed no approval from Washington for making the trip.

The State Department Accountability Review Board omitted any mention of this purpose for Stevens’ September 11 presence in Benghazi. The report said the ambassador had dinner with the Benghazi city council on the previous night and had a briefing that day at the CIA Annex. “Ambassador Stevens was scheduled to remain in Benghazi until September 14, and his visit was timed in part to fill the staffing gaps between TDY [temporary duty] principal officers as well as to open an American Corner at a local school and to reconnect with local contacts,” the report said.

The deteriorating security situation in Benghazi had been the subject of a meeting embassy officials held August 15, 2012, where they concluded they could not defend the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi. The next day, the embassy drafted a cable outlining the dire circumstances and saying it would spell out what it needed in a separate cable.

Army Lieutenant General Carter Ham, then the head of the U.S. Africa Command, did not wait for the separate cable. Instead Ham telephoned Stevens and asked if the embassy needed a special security team from the U.S. military. Stevens told Ham it did not, according to several reports. Weeks later, Stevens traveled to Germany for a scheduled meeting with Ham at AFRICOM headquarters. During that meeting, Ham again offered additional military assets, and Stevens again said no.

Ham was in Washington for a meeting of all combat commanders when the attack was under way. Although a decision was made to send a drone from eastern Libya toward Benghazi, by the time it arrived above the facility, the attack on the mission was winding down. Ham said they knew when it was over.

Although he had authority to scramble a jet to the scene, Ham decided there was "no necessity and there was not a clear purpose in doing so." When asked what would have been the downside to sending one anyway? "To do what?" he asked. "It was a very, very uncertain situation."

Ham said although U.S. officials were looking for indicators about a possible attack on US interests during the 9/11 anniversary, there was no information that an attack on the U.S. facility in Benghazi was imminent. And as often has been said by others about the significance of that date, it was September 11 everywhere on the planet.

One reason for the refusal for additional security might have been budget constraints, such as those reported by The Washington Times. The attack in Benghazi had followed two years of major cuts by Congress to State Department funding for embassy construction and diplomatic security. Ham commented at an Aspen Conference Center discussion following his retirement in 2013 that "If you want to have stand-by security available to deploy within two hours to anywhere in the world, you better be prepared to write a really big check." Apparently decisions on Capitol Hill had already been made before Benghazi not to write that check.

Eric Nordstrom, a sixteen-year veteran of State Department security and the regional security officer from September 2011 to July 2012, told the House Oversight Committee, “I had not seen an attack of such ferocity or intensity previously in Libya, nor in my time in the diplomatic security service. Having an extra foot of wall, or an extra half-dozen guards or agents would not have enabled us to respond to that kind of assault. That was far beyond any security level contemplated for the Benghazi consulate." As Nordstrom told the committee, in February 2012 he requested that the number of diplomatic security personnel assigned to the consulate be doubled, from two to four. There were five in the compound on the night of the attack.

Former journalist and founder of the not-for-profit, Media Matters for America, David Brock wrote, "Facts that get lost in the grim news of that night include that, due to the incredible heroism of a small group of Americans, five U.S. personnel were saved while under heavy fire, the ambassador's body was recovered at the height of the mayhem, and 30 people were evacuated from the annex."

A dramatization of the actions of that "small group of Americans" has recently been released as a major motion picture.


Rules of Diplomacy

Stevens might also have rejected the offers to step up defenses because there was an understanding within the State Department that officials in Libya would not request more security through open channels. That was no doubt the reason for the "separate cable" he sent to ARICOM HQ. There are always concerns about the political fallout of seeking a larger military presence in a foreign country. Libya was still being touted as a foreign policy success and such actions would bring that status into question. If you review U.S. history, especially in this specific region, that scenario is standard operating procedure diplomatically..

Most Americans could not tell you what was the first documented attack on Americans by Al Qeida. No, it wasn't the USS Cole, attacked by suicide bombers while refueling in the port of Aden, Yemen, October 2000. No, it wasn't our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998.

On November 13, 1995, Al Qeida claimed responsibility for bombing the headquarters of the Office of the Program Manager for the Saudi Arabian National Guard (OPM-SANG) in Riyadh. At the time they called themselves the Islamic Movement for Change. Was this an especially difficult mission to execute? It should have been, but, no, it wasn't. All the bomber had to do was drive into the parking lot, leave the vehicle next to the side of the office building, and walk away. It didn't even require a suicide on the part of the bomber to accomplish. And five Americans died that day along with several workers from other nations.

Why was it so easy? Because of Middle East diplomacy. The security for that building was the responsibility of the host country just as it was in Benghazi. This bombing occurred almost four years after the First Gulf War. Didn't our state department realize the dangers that still existed in that region? Yes, it did. But providing our own security for joint ventures like this one between the U.S. and the host country would have sent the wrong diplomatic message. So Americans died in a building with almost no security.

Yes, there was a guard on the parking lot. One. He probably handed his weapon to the next guard after his shift without even checking to see if it was loaded. Yes, you had to have a code to open the front door of the headquarters. In 1990, when my husband received orders assigning him to this organization, he was briefed by a general who had been assigned there six years earlier. During the briefing the general gave my husband the keypad code to the main door at HQ. It hadn't changed. Why? The Saudi's would have asked us what we were worried about? Didn't we trust them? Diplomatic rocking the boat.

These are some of the restrictions diplomacy places on Americans in foreign countries and their own state department. In hindsight we always ask how tragedies like Benghazi could possibly have happened. Until they do happen, we dance the diplomacy two-step with tenuous partners in various parts of the world - and hope for the best because the alternative is to have no relationship at all with these countries and governments.



Stevens Was Aware of Dangers

During the uprising against Muammar Qaddafi, which began in Benghazi, Stevens had stood with its people, spending most of his time in the streets. His translator was Habib Bubaker who ran an English school in the city. Stevens spoke Arabic but preferred the specificity of English for official meetings.

Bubaker reported that because of reports of elevated Islamists' activity in the area in the previous days, Stevens altered his routine and traveled with two body guards during the September visit. He went without his daily run on the streets outside the compound. He also conducted as many meetings as possible inside the walls of the U.S. mission instead of at various locations around the city, as was his normal practice. All of his appointments on the 11th were inside the compound.

September 14 was to be the most important day of the trip. "An American Space" was to be opened that would offer English lessons, Internet access, show films, and stock a library. The United States would provide some computers, books, and the rest of the materials and support—but it would be owned and operated by locals. "An American Space," Stevens planned to say, "is a living example of the kind of partnership between our two countries which we hope to inspire."

Bubaker stated, "The attackers who overran the American mission in Benghazi were suspected to be, not surprisingly, Islamic militants. It is unlikely, though, that they had any idea who, exactly, they were poisoning with diesel smoke. If Chris Stevens had been the target, it would have been simpler to hit his convoy, or grab him on his morning run, or snatch him from a meeting. Also, a live American ambassador would have been a more valuable asset than a dead one."

Ten days after the attack 30,000 Benghazi civilians marched in the streets and drove the Islamist militias from their city. Thousands sent condolences to the family of Ambassador Stevens.



Questions Persist

Questions certainly persist concerning this tragic loss of American lives. And it seems, in spite of the information already published by the sources listed at the end of this hub, answers to more questions will be sought for an undetermined period of time to come. It all begs the question: What is the average American's "need to know" about the workings of the state department or about the mission of U.S. diplomacy? I'd venture to say, our need to know will always be limited. I'd also venture to say, there are valid reasons for that.

The U.S. State Department is not a public relations arm of our government. It does not exist to promote a positive image of our country to the world. It exists to defuse volatile relations with our enemies, to maintain fragile ties with countries that are not completely sure about us and we are equally not sure about them, and to milk our political capital with our allies for all it's worth while they are still our allies. The fact is that Benghazi was one of 157 attacks involving diplomatic facilities in the past 15 years resulting in nine other lives lost. Sound like a precarious business? You bet your life.


Sources for this hub: FORBES, Atlanta Journal Constitution, Wall Street Journal, GQ, Washington Times, David Brock, the Associated Press, Aspen Security Forum (July 17, 2013)



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Comments 37 comments

Parvej Molla profile image

Parvej Molla 2 years ago from Dhaka, Bangladesh

Excellent.


grand old lady profile image

grand old lady 2 years ago from Philippines

I learned a lot from this hub. Good work.


alancaster149 profile image

alancaster149 2 years ago from Forest Gate, London E7, U K (ex-pat Yorkshire)

'Need to know' applies here as well, although most are not aware of it. Things aren't altogether obvious to most of us there's such a thing as a 'D-Notice': a clamp on newspaper or media coverage might be applied because of wider implications, 'covers' or even 'deep covers' might be blown etc.

Ever seen, when you ask a question, somebody taps the side of their nose with the index finger?It means: 'Ask me no questions, I'll thee no lies'. Most of the elderly here are used to the 'Watch what you say' or 'Walls have ears' posters, showing Hitler, Goering or Goebbels under the table or with ear trumpets to the wall in the next room. There's another one showing a senior army officer - with his army cap on - in bed with a blonde, the caption was: 'She's not as dumb as she looks', with Hitler under the bed.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Thanks for the comments. Alan: In this day and age most people don't remember those lessons from not really that long ago. But things are different today, sometimes unfortunately.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

This hub was slightly edited for new information today, May 14, 2014, for those who have already read it. Thanks.


phdast7 profile image

phdast7 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

Kathleen - This is a masterful examination and explanation of the tragedy in Benghazi and the purpose and limitations of the State Department. Excellent use of reliable sources and very credible analysis on your part. This is the best of serious journalism and political history combined. Thank you. Sharing. Theresa


suzettenaples profile image

suzettenaples 2 years ago from Taos, NM

This is really an excellent analysis of the Benghazi situation. We will probably never know the whole story but your suppositions are good ones and you support them well. When working with the government I have found we are not always privy to the specific details we want. I have learned just to accept that although I don't agree with it.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Thank you phdast7 and suzettenaples. I'm not proposing that we don't always ask, investigate, and hold our government's collective feet to the fire. That is a citizen's part of the equation, as I'm sure you'd agree. But there are more pieces of the puzzle than most people realize, and we rarely see the whole picture.


Pollyannalana profile image

Pollyannalana 2 years ago from US

You should be the president's new press secretary; I can't believe you, especially being from a military family and probably more knowledge than you let on.

Obama never leaves anyone behind he is reminding us so he can trade 5 Muslim military leaders for a deserter who apparently has turned Muslim and caused many of our American soldiers to die trying to save him. I have never heard ex military spill such stupid idiotic spew. What excuse are you and others like you going to have when these these five start blowing up America. You know it is going to happen...the question is when and people like you are why this president feels he can become a dictator and no one can say a word because he is half black!


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Pollyannalana: I did the research and this hub is the result. You are certainly entitled to your opinion.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 2 years ago from Olympia, WA

The amount of diplomatic information the American public does not know could fill a semi-truck, and that's as it should be. We do not need to know it all...hell, most of us would be terrified if we did know it. But someone has to stand watch for our enemies, and if that means not sharing all information with the American public, then so be it. Nicely done here, Kathleen.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Thanks billybuc. This is the troubling part of the way our form of government works. How much do we really want to trust those who make the decisions we're never going to know about when so often in the past those are the very ones we learned later we shouldn't have trusted? And even when we learn enough to think we shouldn't have trusted them, how much of the whole story to we really know? Could keep you up nights!


Nellieanna profile image

Nellieanna 2 years ago from TEXAS

The conclusion is so completely true: ". . . Sound like a precarious business? It certainly is. . . . " Frightenly so from any perspective one might apply to it.

Very well done article, Kathleen.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Nellieanna: Thank you for taking the time to read through this hub and to comment.


IndependentMind profile image

IndependentMind 2 years ago

This is a great article. Well written and well informed. I learned much from it.

Sadly, if the current state of affairs in Washington were not complete obstructionism by the GOP, and their first priority being to destroy the president at all costs; this incessant "investigation" about Benghazi would never have taken place at all.

The public certainly does not need to know every detail of every second of the day activities of the military, or the State Dept. We see how the news pundits take one bit of information and twist it in every direction with "what ifs" and every conceivable "what if" outcome.

Too much information could destroy any foreign diplomacy with all that 'speculative' crap. This is not investigative reporting, it is making up the best (or worst) scenarios that sells sensationalism.

It is time to move on, away from the distractions of Benghazi and start looking at what politicians are doing to our economy, the middle class, and their true motives for protecting the rights of the wealthy, wall street, corporations, etc..


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

IM: Thanks for your thoughtful comments. You've added to this hub and I appreciate it.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 2 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

This hub has recently received updated edits - August 2014.


Paul Kuehn profile image

Paul Kuehn 23 months ago from Udorn City, Thailand

Having lived in Thailand since 2007, I did not pay much attention to the tragedy in Benghazi. Therefore, this article is very useful and enlightening to me. When I was younger, I also had a security clearance and worked close with the State Department in foreign countries. I can identify completely with what you say. Voted up as interesting and useful and sharing with Hubpages followers.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 23 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Paul: Living abroad really changes your view of the planet. Visiting other countries is not the same as living outside the US. I appreciate your comments.


tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 23 months ago from New York

I think the government should consider you for a press secretary position. So well written even the uninitiated can understand. Putting your personal experiences further makes it relatable.

Having had family and friends in the military I have often been told, "if you only knew". It is certainly better that we don't.

Voted up, useful, awesome, and interesting.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 23 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Oh, till! From your mouth to God's ears! Sat for a two-hour interview for such a position once. They decided to hire someone in DC not the Congressman's district. Close as I ever got. Thanks for the encouragement. And thanks for the point you made.


Glenn Stok profile image

Glenn Stok 16 months ago from Long Island, NY

Americans definitely have a need to know, as long as the information does not jeopardize national security when made public. It's the only way we can vote for public officials intelligently. If we have a Secretary of State who fails to protect Americans in foreign embassies or anywhere else, or seems to me hiding information that applies to the "need to know" then that public official should not be placed to public office. The only way to handle that properly is to know who we are voting for. And this is the reason for "need to know."

Your hub was very informative on this subject.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 15 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

"Still no one is asking why General Ham's recsue team was told to stand down, not once but twice, and then relieved of his command when he later ignored the stand down order. " These statements have been documented as false.

Glenn: Reagan got 400 Marines killed in a similar situation. Diplomacy is a complicated hand to play. Thanks for your comments. They always add to the discussion.


DzyMsLizzy profile image

DzyMsLizzy 14 months ago from Oakley, CA

Everyone wants to blame the then-Secretary of State, and seems to forget the inconvenient fact that the Republican Congressional majority slashed funding for the embassy security.

If blame is to be placed, it is there, and not on one or two individuals.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 14 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Dzy: Thanks for your comment. I wrote this hub a while ago, but with the issue arising again I thought it was time to recycle. Plus I came upon some new information about the resources being spent on the ninth investigation.


vocalcoach profile image

vocalcoach 14 months ago from Nashville Tn.

I had no knowledge of this until I read your very informative hub. I'm so glad you've shared this with us. Thanks so much!


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 14 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

vocalcoach: You just confirmed what I've come to believe. Most people have mourned this tragedy and moved on. Thanks for your comment.


peoplepower73 profile image

peoplepower73 13 months ago from Placentia California

The Benghazi investigations have been ongoing for 17 months and have cost the taxpayers 4.7 million in revenue. This latest investigation with Hillary testifying proved nothing new. I believe the purpose of Benghazi and the attempted repealing of Obama Care over 50 times is the methodology that republicans use to keep those issues in the limelight, so that Americans are not given the chance to forget and move-on. They know full well they are not going to get the votes, but it keeps the issues in the spotlight. They don't care how much it costs taxpayers, it is the propaganda that is important to them.

Holding our government hostage while not paying our bills, unless they get their way on certain issues is another ploy they use. They know they are not going to win, but they won't let the people forget that we have a national debt. The problem is there is a national debt and the the budget deficit. The budget deficit is what the government owes for last year's spending and they have to raise the debt ceiling to pay those bills. The national debt is what each president inherits from his predecessor, but they mix the two to confuse the public. In my opinion, I think Hillary was able to showcase her presidential mettle and she made the republicans look like arrogant, aggressive fools.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 13 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

On Ronald Reagan's watch more than 300 Marines died in Beirut due to the intentional foreign policy actions taken by the administration. And to this day, he is beloved. I wish someone had pointed that out yesterday.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 13 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

It's been a few weeks now since the 11-hour interrogation of Secretary Clinton. The only accusation that is getting any traction is that she lied by telling her daughter it was an act of terrorism while telling the public it was a demonstration against a video. As she explained, two things can be true at once. She told her daughter in a private email her gut feeling. She told the public what she could confirm at the time.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 10 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

For the record, 220 marines, 18 sailors, and three soldiers died in the 1983 bombing of their hotel in Beirut during the Reagan administration.


Au fait profile image

Au fait 3 months ago from North Texas

It seems to me the huge cuts in money for security played a big part too. It would seem the GOP's goal of destroying this president by preventing him any success of any kind at all comes ahead of our country and our citizens. You didn't touch on that here, but it definitely played a big part. Perhaps the biggest part of all.

The GOP is so determined to force this president to fail that they don't care who of their constituents they must kill to accomplish it. Nothing about our country is safe so long as they harbor and feed this attitude amongst themselves.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 3 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

Thank you for saying it for me. I didn't want to blow my cover of objectivity. A new president hasn't had a "honeymoon" ( a period of time early on when he can accomplish something) since Bush the first. The GOP never gave Clinton (the first!) one and Obama was cursed before he was even sworn in.

Nobody who only wants their taxes low can say with a straight face that they've been concerned about our security at home or abroad. It takes money and they control the budget.


peoplepower73 profile image

peoplepower73 3 months ago from Placentia California

Wow Kathleen! Everything you wanted to know about Benghazi but were afraid to ask. I worked for several defense contractors in the 60's and 70's. I held a secret clearance with crypto access. I worked with the National Security Agency on several black box projects. You are absolutely right. You only are given information, if you have the need to know. I worked as a contractor at Strategic Command Headquarters in Omaha. I wore a badge that showed I was cleared for Corridor C. If I even looked like I was going to walk down another corridor, the Air Police would have come over and questioned me. It drives me crazy when the media uses breaking news to broadcast some alleged secret event. If it is secret, the public should not know about it. You know that the terrorist watch CNN.

The Hillary Clinton investigations are nothing more than a Witch Hunt like McCarthy pulled off about Communist. It's interesting to note, that in a court of law, you are innocent until proven guilty. But in Hillary's case, she is presumed guilty until proven innocent, which may be never.

Trump is already planting the seed that if Hillary wins the election, it means it is rigged. The republicans want to hang that albatross around her neck as well. They are very good at selling it to their base by using Fox News as their megaphone.


mio cid profile image

mio cid 3 months ago from Uruguay

Let's analyze the situation.Hillary has been taking a hit about Benghazi for years now,yet she has said nothing about it.Since we know the CIA was involved as well as a top ranking government official in the person of the Ambassador,it is safe to say that whatever was going on there was so important to the security of the United States that Hillary, President Obama and the rest of the US government would rather take the heat than put the whole country in danger.


Kathleen Cochran profile image

Kathleen Cochran 3 months ago from Atlanta, Georgia Author

peoplepower73 and mio cid: Thanks for adding to this discussion. I appreciate your thoughts.


Jean Bakula profile image

Jean Bakula 2 weeks ago from New Jersey

Kathleen,

Thank you for such a well written/researched answer to the many questions left unanswered about Benghazi, and sadly used as a witch hunt against Hillary Clinton. I learned so much here. I understand there needs to be transparency in government, but agree that "Need to Know" is important, because our population would panic if too much was told. People need to be protected in their jobs, and in the civilian world, people have to be protected from panicking in the streets. I knew Hillary and Obama had to protect certain people, and am sure they did the best they could. Great hub.

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