October 19th, 2012
12:53 AM ET

Time to lay off the Benghazi issue

By Michael O'Hanlon, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at Brookings (where he was a colleague of Rice’s for several years), teaches at Princeton and Columbia and Johns Hopkins and is a member of the CIA External Advisory Board. The views expressed are his own.

Ambassador Susan Rice has been roundly criticized of late for her comments made on five Sunday morning talk shows the weekend after the Benghazi tragedy in which four Americans lost their lives to a terrorist attack. Because Rice stated her belief that the violence was the result of a mass demonstration gone bad, rather than the planned extremist attacks we now know them to be, some have even gone so far as to demand her resignation from her current cabinet position as United States ambassador to the United Nations.

This is way off the mark and extremely unfair to a dedicated official who has served the country tirelessly and remarkably over her four years in the Obama administration. Rice did not choose all her words perfectly that weekend, even based on what was known at the time, it is true. There should have been a bit more nuance and more acknowledgement of the uncertainty in some of them. But there is no basis for concluding that she sought to mislead, and no reason to think that harm came to the country's interests because of her comments. While there are issues worth debating in regards to Benghazi, to Libya, and to the state of the Arab awakenings more generally, the unkind focus on Rice badly misses the mark.

To begin, Rice’s initial hypothesis was widely shared and reasonably construed. There was strong circumstantial evidence at first to believe the attacks were largely a result of mob reactions to the terrible homemade video entitled The Innocence of Muslims, made by an amateur filmmaker in California. Similar incidents had caused similar outbursts in the broader Muslim world before. Be it the furor over the Danish cartoons of Mohammed several years ago, the mass demonstrations in Afghanistan when Korans were accidentally burned and the bodies of Taliban insurgents mistreated by U.S. troops in the war effort there, or the demonstration in Cairo on the very same September 11 date as the tragedy in Benghazi, there was a track record of such perceived slights against Islam leading to mass unrest and even violence in Muslim countries.

Clinton: Benghazi my responsibility

In the business of intelligence, and diplomacy, much information is circumstantial and many theories are initially conjectural. That is an unavoidable reality of the business. Given what was initially known about what happened in Benghazi, this hypothesis was far from unwarranted.

Second, for these reasons, many in the U.S. intelligence community who were tracking this event came to exactly those same hypotheses themselves in the opening days after the Benghazi tragedy. Indeed, their assessments provided the main basis for Rice's comments. I know that because I was in contact with a number of intelligence officials on September 12 and talked to some about it. To be sure, they generally also recognized that the initial information was incomplete and potentially unreliable. But it took several days for their assessments to be revised based on clearer data.  In a distant city in a chaotic country where we have minimal presence and relatively few allies, that is unsurprising. Some would call it an intelligence failure, but we use that term far too loosely in this country. The world is not completely transparent to any of us, and nor will it ever be.

As such, Rice’s only mistake was not to caveat her initial conclusions adequately each and every time she voiced them. Taking her statements collectively, I did not detect any major problem in this regard, but individual pieces of several statements could have been phrased slightly more precisely, it is true.

That brings us to the final point, going beyond Rice to the Obama administration more generally. Benghazi was indeed a terrible tragedy, and in principle perhaps preventable.  Secretary of State Clinton has nobly accepted responsibility as the nation’s top diplomat for not responding to requests for additional security there adequately. But such mistakes will inevitably sometimes happen in a dangerous world where Americans in and out of uniform serve bravely and with full awareness of the dangers before them. We must not turn them into political tempests. To go to a zero-defect and zero-mistake mentality where we only place diplomats within huge fortified compounds, or only deploy them to the field when accompanied by large contingents of armed guards, is against the credo that most of those diplomats themselves espouse.  And it would not serve American interests.

We do not criticize a general each and every time he makes a tactical decision that tragically and perhaps preventably leads to the loss of some of his troops.  We must not do so with our appointed officials, or our top civilian leaders in this country either.

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Topics: Arab Spring • Libya • Terrorism • United Nations • United States

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soundoff (263 Responses)
  1. Rangermiguel

    I'm not a security or foreign policy expert, just a retired Army grunt, and as soon as I heard, from CNN no less, that the folks who murdered the Ambassador and the others had attacked two separate buildings simultaneously using indirect fire weapons (if I'm not mistaken it was reported that mortars had been used) I knew it wasn't a "spontaneous attack." Using mortars when assaulting a building can't be done spontaneously.

    October 19, 2012 at 8:52 pm | Reply
  2. MuckFohammad

    The ambassador is dead. Big bird lives. ONE AND DONE.

    October 20, 2012 at 12:26 am | Reply
  3. Robert

    Time to move on to what? Romney's dog? Romney's highschool days?

    October 20, 2012 at 3:47 am | Reply
    • TrueLiberal

      I am sure that Romney's success in everything he is done so far in his life must prove he is unfit to be President to those who have not worked hard enough to become a success in their own life. Me, I like smart and successful people who put others before themselves. Not anything Obama has ever done. Romney doesn't have to hide his school records, avoid voting for anything, or refuse to take a stand on any position important to actual Americans.

      October 21, 2012 at 12:52 pm | Reply
  4. Brad

    What a silly, partisan, piece of pap. Your story seems more geared toward "covering" for the administration than anything that could reasonably be called journalism.

    Rice's did not choose her words perfectly? That's both unfair to Rice and either intentionally disengenuous or reflects complete ignorance of politcal communication by the author.

    I would think Fareed has been there long enough to understand any administration official, who conducts an interview on national media, is provided with a set of approved talking points. Their job is to stick to the talking points, period. On this subject, I would expect those talking points were discussed at the very highest levels (including the POTUS).

    There are two appropriate questions. The first is, Did Rice stick to the talking points? I think she did. My evidence is the POTUS himself used almost identical language both before and after her appearances – and her statements were never walked back in any way (it's possible I missed the reporting of her walking back her statements).

    The second appropriate question is was the information true? Here the answer is no. Maybe the administration, and Rice, thought they were true at the time – which is dubious but remotely possible. At best, it shows an administration incapable of absorbing important information that was fully available to them. At worst, it reflects an administration with no regard for the truth. Who created a spin they thought would work better for their election than the truth they were hiding. If the real story is the latter, shame on Zakaria for helping shield the administration from the criticism they deserve.

    October 20, 2012 at 6:57 am | Reply
  5. Rick20112

    Mr. O'Hanlan -

    You have been associated with the government, the intelligence community and the military for many years. With the knowledge you have gained through that association, your failure to recognize a coverup and the desire of this administration to obfuscate the facts in this incident and to minimize the effects of this attack are very hard to understand.

    This is not good political or intel analysis. It is political pablum.

    October 20, 2012 at 11:06 am | Reply
  6. Ken

    I remember operatives from the right wing payed off the Iranians to hold the hostages past the election. so there is some
    pause to say that operatives were at work in the killing of ambassador Stevens.

    October 20, 2012 at 1:14 pm | Reply
  7. Keith

    The very fact our Ambassador was killed makes it a terrorist attack whether it was called such one second after it happened our 5 years. I don't give a rats ass about labels. Just find out who is responsible and torch them.

    October 20, 2012 at 1:59 pm | Reply
  8. TrueLiberal

    I think this article is an attempt to keep that from happening ... .

    October 21, 2012 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  9. contrast in obama.... 2008 v 2012

    In 2008, obama ran on healing, bringing together, unfiying...

    in 2012, he has divided american along every conceivable demograhic.

    rich v poor
    women v men
    young v old
    muslims v "intolerance"
    black v white
    legals v illegals
    black harvard professor v white("racist") boston cop
    trayvon("looks like he could be my son") v white justice
    obamacare v throw grandma off the cliff
    bogus alternative energy v rich bad oil companies
    ground zero mosque v "intolerance"
    I killed bin laden v "republicans love war"

    in short, obama has DELIBERATELY chosen to divide americans along every line imaginable....he has chosen to make people agnry at one another....

    you tell me, how is that "presidential"? How is that a unifier? a bridge builder? The TRUTH is, he has completely LIED about what he said he was going to be when he duped everyone in 2008.

    Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.

    October 21, 2012 at 3:27 pm | Reply
  10. PapiJuan

    Disgusting article!

    The WH and Susan Rice should not have ever said ANYTHING other than "We are investigating this matter" It's not clear! BUT they decided to "Mislead" America!! Trying to gain a political avantage by bringing up a video!!!!! HOW DISGUSTING OF THE U.S.A. President to bring up the video two weeks post the terrorist attacks!! OK, don't say it was a terrorist attack the day after, BUT don't say it was a VIDEO or a spontaneous mob reaction either!!!! WHY MISLEAD with either story!!!!

    October 22, 2012 at 12:30 pm | Reply
  11. PapiJuan

    I was born and raised in Mexico! I can't imagine any Mexican or latino voting for Obama! He doesn't follow our "values" I know many Mexican's who can't speak a lick of English and they are all voting Republican this year!!!! I don't know where the statistics of Latino's overwhelmingly voting Democrat come from!

    October 22, 2012 at 12:33 pm | Reply
  12. reader10

    The government is run like the union.Nobody gets fired.

    October 22, 2012 at 4:43 pm | Reply
  13. Kevin

    Can you imagine if this happened under the Bush Administration? The liberal media would be calling for his and Condi's head. Note: CNN and the other liberal media don't even cover this story at all because it would make Obama and Dem's look bad..pure and simple.

    October 24, 2012 at 8:00 pm | Reply
  14. darthtbone

    It is NOT time to lay off this issue. As facts trickle out we know that the US warned of this attack, that it was terrorists, we had drones flying overhead, streaming video, we had people calling for help, an airbase an hour away. No help was sent, our men were left to die while the so-called commander in chief got a good night's sleep before going on Letterman. Then afterward, our command in chief lied about what really happened so as not to risk his chances at re-election. Obama lied for two weeks trying to cover up the attack and blame it on a silly video. In more intelligent times, people would be outraged and protesting this pathetic little man president.

    October 26, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Reply
  15. Jenett Purvis

    Really you expect people to just sweep this under a rug because your outfit doesn't have the nerve to cover this! As soon as Obama offers public sympathy and informations on the truth! Then and only then should anyone even think about letting this go! All he needs to do is tell the people ( you know the ones he says he is just like!) the truth! He does owe us this much. What is so hard about him just saying hey I made a huge mistake and I am sorry! Why can't he do that! We all know people mess up, but ignoring it does nothing! If you do NOT want this to be political, then you yourself need to leave other politics out of it!

    October 28, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Reply
  16. Rachni

    No, it's not time to lay off the Benghazi issue. Who gave the orders to stand down? Who came up with this fairy tale story? Why were US forces left to die without any help? The mortars were the biggest threat, they had laser points on them and air support minutes away, why was the request to take them out denied? This is by far the biggest cover up by a President in American history, Watergate pales in comparison to this. Woodward sees the story here, why don't you?

    October 31, 2012 at 12:13 am | Reply
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