My colleague Josh Rogin has a more complete and straightforward writeup of this report, an independent look at the State Department's handling of the Sept. 11 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans, over at The Cable, but I want to highlight a few elements of it in the meantime.
In short, it demolishes some of the more outlandish storylines on the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. "special mission" in Benghazi (officially, it wasn't a consulate), from the notion that the Obama administration delayed its response for some strange reason to the idea that anyone gave orders not to come to the mission's aid.
"The Board members believe every possible effort was made to rescue and recover Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith," it reads, before going on to detail in gripping bureaucratese the heroic efforts of the mission's security officers to save their boss -- going back into the smoke-filled complex multiple times, at great personal risk, to try to find him and bring him to safety.
What about the story, reported by Fox News, that the "CIA chain of command" ordered the rescue squad from the agency's Benghazi annex to "stand down"? Nope: "The departure of the Annex team was not delayed by orders from superiors," the report found.
Nor did officials in Washington dawdle on the night of the attack, though they come in for plenty of criticism for lapses in security planning beforehand. "The interagency response was timely and appropriate," the report concludes," noting that there "simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference. ... The Board found no evidence of any undue delays in decision making or denial of support from Washington or military combatant commanders."
That said, the report is focused by design on the State Department. At least in the unclassifed version released Tuesday evening, it doesn't have much to say about the intelligence community's failures or the White House's role in the response to the attack. It doesn't name names, or make clear at what level certain key decisions were made. But it makes a pretty strong case that the conspiracy theorists got this one badly wrong.
As a side note, the report also confirms Foreign Policy's story on the Benghazi mission's concerns about "troubling" surveillance of the compound by a local police officer:
At approximately 0645 local that morning, a BML contract guard saw an unknown individual in a Libyan Supreme Security Council (SSC) police uniform apparently taking photos of the compound villas with a cell phone from the second floor of a building under construction across the street to the north of the SMC. The individual was reportedly stopped by BML [the British contractor's] guards, denied any wrongdoing, and departed in a police car with two others. This was reported to ARSOs [regional security officers] 1 and 2. Later that morning they inspected the area where the individual was seen standing and informed the Annex of the incident. There had not been any related threat reporting. The local February 17 militia headquarters was informed of the incident and reportedly complained to the local SSC on the Special Mission’s behalf. The Ambassador reviewed a Special Mission-drafted complaint to local authorities on the surveillance incident; however, it was not submitted due to the typically early closure of Libyan government offices. Later on September 11, the Ambassador was informed by his Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Tripoli of the breach of the Embassy Cairo compound that had occurred that day and briefly discussed the news with ARSO 3. The TDY RSO [regional security officer on temporary assignment] was also informed of the Cairo compound breach by his Regional Security Officer counterpart in Tripoli and shared the information with colleagues at the Annex.
Iran's Mehr News on Sunday published the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs' "six-point plan" to supposedly solve the crisis in Syria.
The plan goes much further than Iran has publicly in the past, though it resembles Kofi Annan's much-maligned plan from the spring. It also doesn't mention one key point: What happens to Bashar al-Assad?
Here's where it gets more interesting. Apparently, Syrian vice president Farouk al-Sharaa has given an interview to Lebanon's al-Akhbar newspaper, which has generally taken a neutral line or one sympathetic to Assad. “We must be in the position of defending Syria’s existence. We are not in a battle for the survival of an individual or a regime," Sharaa reportedly said. Now which individual could he be talking about?
Sharaa, oft mooted as a transitional figure, has been the subject of an impressive number of rumors on Syrian opposition websites over the last year or so -- sometimes these have him defecting from the regime, sometimes he and his family members are killed, and so on.
But apparently he's still alive, and now seems to be positioning himself as some kind of transitional leader, or at least as a broker between the regime and the rebels.
“The opposition with its different factions, civilian, armed, or ones with external ties, cannot claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian People, just as the current rule with its ideological army and its confrontation parties lead by the Baath, cannot achieve change without new partners,” al-Akhbar quotes him as saying.
He continues: “The solution has to be Syrian, but through a historic settlement, which would include the main regional countries, and the member of UN Security Council. This settlement must include stopping all shapes of violence, and the creation of a national unity government with wide powers." The full interview will be posted Monday, the paper says.
Maybe it's just a coincidence that these two stories both came out today. The al-Akhbar interview could be a fake. And it's important to remember that the Iranian Foreign Ministry doesn't always speak for the supreme leader. But it sure does look like Iran isn't ready to make a last stand with Bashar, eh?
NBC News is reporting that Susan Rice has asked President Obama to withdraw her name for consideration as his next secretary of state. The network's Tracy Connor writes:
“If nominated, I am now convinced that the confirmation process would be lengthy, disruptive and costly – to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities,” Rice wrote in a letter to President Obama, saying she’s saddened by the partisan politics surrounding her prospects.
“That trade-off is simply not worth it to our country...Therefore, I respectfully request that you no longer consider my candidacy at this time,” she wrote in the letter obtained by NBC News. [...]
“The position of secretary of state should never be politicized,” she wrote, adding, “I’m saddened that we have reached this point, even before you have decided whom to nominate. We cannot afford such an irresponsible distraction from the most pressing issues facing the American people.”
FP has obtained a PDF of the full letter, which you can read here. Rice's withdrawal would seem to clear the field for Sen. John Kerry, who is widely thought to be high on President Obama's now slightly shorter shortlist for Foggy Bottom. Coming along with Bloomberg's story today claiming the former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel is likely to be nominated for the Pentagon, it looks like the president's second-term national security team is taking shape. Now we just need to figure out if Tom Donilon will remain the national security advisor, and who will fill David Petraeus's shoes at the CIA.
How does he do it? According to the Washington Post's Bob Woodward, Fox chairman Roger Ailes tried to get David Petraeus to run for president, via an intermediary. And somebody recorded it:
[I]n spring 2011, Ailes asked a Fox News analyst headed to Afghanistan to pass on his thoughts to Petraeus, who was then the commander of U.S. and coalition forces there. Petraeus, Ailes advised, should turn down an expected offer from President Obama to become CIA director and accept nothing less than the chairmanship of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the top military post. If Obama did not offer the Joint Chiefs post, Petraeus should resign from the military and run for president, Ailes suggested.
The Fox News chairman’s message was delivered to Petraeus by Kathleen T. McFarland, a Fox News national security analyst and former national security and Pentagon aide in three Republican administrations. She did so at the end of a 90-minute, unfiltered conversation with Petraeus that touched on the general’s future, his relationship with the media and his political aspirations — or lack thereof. The Washington Post has obtained a digital recording from the meeting, which took place in Petraeus’s office in Kabul.
For some reason, this bombshell story ran in the Style section. Why? More importantly, who leaked this story to Woodward? McFarland, after telling Petraeus, "I’m only reporting this back to Roger. And that’s our deal"? Someone looking to discredit Ailes? Petraeus, trying to make clear once and for all that he had no political aspirations? Somebody else who was in the room? Or did Woodward get wind of the outlines of the encounter, present it to Petraeus, and then encourage the former CIA director to set the record straight? Whatever the case, one thing is clear: Woodward has done it again.
Benghazi conspiracy theorists were hoping that David Petraeus, now that he's been unshackled by stepping down as director of the CIA, would finally drop a bombshell in congressional hearings today and expose the Obama administration's massive coverup the Sept. 11 attack that killed four Americans, including Amb. Chris Stevens. Finally, he would reveal how the White House and Susan Rice concocted a false story connecting that assault to protests over an anti-Islam YouTube video when they knew all along that al Qaeda was behind the ambassador's death. And he would tell us at last how his affair with Paula Broadwell was used to blackmail him into silence.
Er, not so much.
Turns out that the CIA had, in fact, drafted talking points for an interagency review that more or less reflected what Rice said on all those Sunday talk shows. The AP reports:
Lawmakers said he did not discuss that scandal except to express regret about the circumstances of his departure and say that Benghazi had nothing to do with his decision to resign.
Petraeus testified that the CIA draft written in response to the raid referred to militant groups Ansar al-Shariah and al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb but those names were replaced with the word "extremist" in the final draft, according to a congressional staffer. The staffer said Petraeus testified that he allowed other agencies to alter the talking points as they saw fit without asking for final review, to get them out quickly. [...]
Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., said Petraeus explained that the CIA's draft points were sent to other intelligence agencies and to some federal agencies for review. Udall said Petraeus told them the final document was put in front of all the senior agency leaders, including Petraeus, and everyone signed off on it.
"The assessment that was publicly shared in unclassified talking points went through a process of editing," Udall said. "The extremist description was put in because in an unclassified document you want to be careful who you identify as being involved."
So that's it, folks. I must admit that I find the mindless fixation on what Susan Rice said on Sept. 16 baffling. There are real questions about how the Obama administration took its eye off the ball in Libya, among them: Why did it entrust its consulate's external security to an Islamist militia with uncertain loyalties? Why didn't it beef up internal security when folks on the ground asked for it? Who made the decision to reject those request? Charlene Lamb? Patrick Kennedy? Or somebody higher up? Did the CIA and the State Department miscommunicate? Why did Petraeus change his story? Did the intelligence community miss brewing signs of danger? What were all those spooky types really doing at that annex?
More broadly: Does Congress want the United States to stay engaged in Libya? At what level? Does the State Department have all the resources it needs to keep its people safe? What level of risk do Americans want their diplomats to assume? And how comfortable are we with consulates in danger zones that seem to be mere fronts for the more covert stuff?
Unfortunately, you go to the hearing room with the Congress you have, not necessarily the Congress you want.
President Obama came out with guns blazing at today's news conference, his first since re-election, pushing back hard against Republican senators' disparaging remarks about U.N. ambassador Susan Rice, Washington's odds-on favorite to get the nod as America's next secretary of state.
The president may indeed be genuinely outraged that one of his reportedly closest advisors is taking heat for the Sept. 11 snafu in Benghazi -- a situation Rice had nothing to do with. He repeated the administration's claim that when Rice took to the airwaves on Sept. 16 to explain the events in Libya, she was merely working with what the intelligence community had given her. And as far as we know, that's precisely what happened. (Benghazi isn't really the reason senators are objecting to Rice anyway, but that's for another post.)
But it's not hard to see the politics behind why Obama chose to confront the senators, mainly John McCain and Lindsey Graham, both of whom immediately fired back on the Senate floor. Neither man is especially beloved in the Republican caucus, and they may well be out of step with what Minority Leader Mitch McConnell wants to do. Moderates like Bob Corker, the presumed new ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, have played their cards close to the chest. If the White House can isolate McCain and Graham, then it shouldn't be too hard to come up with the 60 votes needed for cloture and an up-or-down vote (should Rice in fact be nominated). If and when Rice's name comes down next January, Democrats will be working with a 55-45 majority, so finding five Republican defectors ought to be easy.
Interestingly, some of the political types seem to have perked up during this little spat. Bill Burton, who co-ran Obama's SuperPAC, tweeted earlier today, "McCain's illogical & vicious attacks on Susan Rice seem politically idiotic coming off a GOP whoopin' from women voters across the country." Political guru David Axelrod added later, "POTUS strongly & appropriately smacks down McCain and Graham for their shameless, dishonest attacks on Susan Rice, a great public servant." (Rice's spokesperson at the U.S.-U.N. office, Erin Pelton, retweeted that one.)
One doesn't want to make too much of a few tweets, but it sure looks to me like the Obama people are double-dog daring Republicans to try to block -- or otherwise trip up -- the nomination of an African-American woman to a cabinet post following an election when the GOP got clobbered among women and minority voters. A lot of Republicans are taking a hard look at the demographic cliff right now, and they don't like what they see. Would they really want to risk a Sonya Sotomayor redux?
Just when I thought the Petraeus story couldn't get any weirder, along comes a story in the Wall Street Journal reporting that an FBI official allegedly sent shirtless pictures of himself to Jill Kelley, the Tampa woman who has emerged as a key player in this increasingly bizarre drama:
The FBI agent who started the case was a friend of Jill Kelley, the Tampa woman who received harassing, anonymous emails that led to the probe, according to officials. Ms. Kelley, a volunteer who organizes social events for military personnel in the Tampa area, complained in May about the emails to a friend who is an FBI agent. That agent referred it to a cyber crimes unit, which opened an investigation.
However, supervisors soon became concerned that the initial agent might have grown obsessed with the matter, and prohibited him from any role in the investigation, according to the officials.
The FBI officials found that he had sent shirtless pictures of himself to Ms. Kelley, according to the people familiar with the probe.
That same agent, after being barred from the case, contacted a member of Congress, Washington Republican David Reichert, because he was concerned senior FBI officials were going to sweep the matter under the rug, the officials said. That information was relayed to top congressional officials, who notified FBI headquarters in Washington.
By that point, FBI agents had determined the harassing emails had been sent by Paula Broadwell, who had written a biography of Mr. Petraeus's military command.
So that's strange. But here's what is truly weird: The emails in question don't seem to be a big deal. Wired's Kim Zetter says they "reportedly told Kelley to 'back off' and 'stay away' from the unnamed man." According to the Journal:
The accusatory emails, according to officials, were sent anonymously to an account shared by Ms. Kelley and her husband. Ms. Broadwell allegedly used a variety of email addresses to send the harassing messages to Ms. Kelley, officials said.
One asked if Ms. Kelley's husband was aware of her actions, according to officials. In another, the anonymous writer claimed to have watched Ms. Kelley touching "him'' provocatively underneath a table, the officials said.
A Daily Beast story cites a source "who was until recently at the highest levels of the intelligence community" characterizing the emails as “More like, ‘Who do you think you are? … You parade around the base … You need to take it down a notch.'"
Either way, that doesn't sound like the kind of thing that merits an FBI investigation, bureau officials' insistence notwithstanding.
One more thing: The New York Daily News spoke with Broadwell's father, Paul Krantz, who told the paper: “This is about something else entirely, and the truth will come out."
“There is a lot more that is going to come out,” said Krantz, claiming he was not allowed to elaborate. “You wait and see. There’s a lot more here than meets the eye."
I suspect we'll know more soon -- and I wonder if what we learn will reflect well on the FBI.
UPDATE: NBC News has a possible explantion for why the FBI was concerned:
“Menacing” anonymous emails that launched the FBI investigation which ultimately brought down CIA Director David Petraeus contained references to the “comings and goings” of high-level U.S. military officials, raising concerns that someone had improperly gained access to sensitive and classified information, a source close to the recipient tells NBC News.
So here is a bizarre twist in the David Petraeus resignation saga.
Paula Broadwell, the biographer revealed as the woman having a secret affair with the now-former CIA director, gave a talk at the University of Denver on Oct. 26 in which she appeared to reveal sensitive, maybe even classified, information about the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
The most interesting revelation is her claim that the CIA was holding several Libyan militia members prisoner, which may have prompted the attack. (Though she also sought to explain the Obama administration's initial view that the attack was linked to the YouTube video Innocence of Muslims, an anti-Islam polemic that sparked riots across the Muslim world.)
[UPDATE: The CIA has denied holding prisoners at the annex, according to the DailyBeast's Eli Lake. The Washington Post's Greg Miller adds in a tweet, "CIA adamant that Broadwell claims about agency holding prisoners at Benghazi are not true."]
Broadwell also said flatly that forces at the CIA annex had requested backup from a special Delta Force group she called the CINC's in extremis force. It was not clear whether she was basing her comments on an Oct. 26 Fox News report by Jennifer Griffin, or whether her information came from elsewhere. (Griffin refers to it as "Commanders [sic] in Extremis Force," but does not mention Delta Force. The report does, however, cite "a source on the ground at the time of the attack" saying that "the team inside the CIA annex had captured three Libyan attackers and was forced to hand them over to the Libyans. U.S. officials do not know what happened to those three attackers and whether they were released by the Libyan forces.")
A CIA spokeswoman disputed the Fox News account at the time, saying, "no one at any level in the CIA told anybody not to help those in need; claims to the contrary are simply inaccurate." The agency later released a timeline of that evening's events that cast doubt on Griffin's story; the Pentagon also released its own timeline.
In any case, Broadwell's remarks, which were first reported by Arutz Sheva, are very interesting in light of this week's big news, as well as the Wall Street Journal's revelation that the FBI found that Broadwell was in possession of classified documents (though she was never charged with any crime).
Her comments came in response to a questioner who asked her to comment on Petraeus's handling of the events in Libya. I've transcribed them in full here:
Well, just to create some context for those in the room. As you know, the ambassaador in Benghazi was killed along with a couple of security agents who happened to be CIA security, paramilitary forces. That just came out today in Fox News.
But the challenge has been the fog of war. And the greater challenge is that it's political hunting season, and so this whole thing has been turned into a very political sort of arena, if you will.
But the facts that came out today were that the ground forces there at the CIA annex, which is different from the consulate, were requesting reinforcements.
They were requesting the, what's called the CINC's in extremis force -- a group of Delta Force operators, our very, most talented guys we have in the military. They could have come and reinforced the consulate and the CIA annex that were under attack.
Now, I don't know if a lot of you heard this, but the CIA annex had actually, um, had taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner and they think that the attack on the consulate was an effort to try to get these prisoners back. So that's still being vetted.
The challenging thing for General Petraeus is that in his new position, he's not allowed to communicate with the press. So he's known all of this -- they had correspondence with the CIA station chief in, in Libya. Within 24 hours they kind of knew what was happening.
But if you remember at the time -- the Muslim video, the Mohamed video that came out, the demonstrations that were going on in Cairo -- there were demonstrations in 22 other countries around the world. Tens of thousands of people. And our government was very concerned that this was going to become a nightmare for us.
So you can understand if you put yourself in his shoes or Secretary Clinton's shoes or the president's shoes that we thought it was tied somehow to the demonstrations in Cairo. And it's true that we have signal intelligence that shows the, um, the militia members in Libya were watching the demonstration in Cairo and it did sort of galvanize their effort. Um, so we'll find out the facts soon enough.
As a former intel officer it's frustrating to me because it reveals our sources and methods. I don't think the public necessarily needs to know all of that. It is a tragedy that we lost an ambassador and two other government officials. Um, and something -- there was a failure in the system because there was additional security requested. But it's frustrating to see the sort of political aspect of what's going on with this whole investigation.
Um, so the most recent news that came out was a Fox News report by Jennifer Griffin. I got it on a distribution list I'm on, and it has some pretty insightful stuff in it, if you want to look for it."
In her prepared remarks, Broadwell, who attended the university's Josef Korbel School of International Studies, spoke at length of her career ambitions. "My longterm goal had always been to become national security advisor," she said.
That's probably not going to happen now.
You can watch the video below. The relevant portion begins at minute 35:
Passport, FP’s flagship blog, brings you news and hidden angles on the biggest stories of the day, as well as insights and under-the-radar gems from around the world.