Damage inside the burnt US consulate building in Benghazi. Libya said it has made arrests and opened a probe into the attack. Photograph: Gianluigi Guercia/AFP/Getty Images
September 20, 2012
In a familiar pattern, White House claims about what motivated the killing of the US ambassador in Libya are now contradicted
Almost immediately after President Obama announced the killing of Osama bin Laden, top government officials, including then-CIA Director Leon Panetta and top terrorism adviser John Brennan, made numerous false statements about what took place. That included the claim that Bin Laden was killed after he engaged in a "firefight", that he used his wife as a human shield to protect himself, and that he was living in luxury in a $1m mansion.
None of those claims, central to the story the White House told the world, turned out to be true. Bin Laden was unarmed and nobody in the house where Bin Laden was found ever fired a single shot (a courier in an adjacent guest house was the only one to shoot, at the very beginning of the operation). Bin Laden never used his wife or anyone else as a shield. And the house was dilapidated, showed little sign of luxury, and was worth one-quarter of what it was claimed. Numerous other claims made by the administration about the raid remain unanswered because of its steadfast insistence on secrecy and non-disclosure (except when it concerns Hollywood filmmakers).
Would it have mattered had the White House been truthful about the Bin Laden raid from the start? It would have undoubtedly made no difference for many people, who simply craved Osama bin Laden's death without regard to how it was done. But it certainly would have made a difference for at least some people around the world in terms of how they perceived of these actions and whether they approved which is presumably why the White House was so eager to insist on these falsehoods and to ensure that the world's perception was shaped by them. (Please spare me the "fog of war" excuse: when the so-called "fog of war" causes the US government to make inaccurate claims that undermine its interests, rather than bolster them as always happens then that excuse will be plausible.)
There's obviously an enormous difference between killing someone in a firefight and shooting him in cold blood while he's unarmed. The morning after the Bin Laden killing was announced, I wrote that although I'd have preferred he be captured and tried, "if he in fact used force to resist capture, then the US military was entitled to use force against him, the way American police routinely do against suspects who use violence to resist capture." At least one legal scholar has changed his mind about the legality of the killing, in the wake of evidence that Bin Laden was killed while lying on the ground, unarmed and severely wounded.
But no matter. The White House's initial statements about what happened, false though they turned out to be, forever shaped perceptions of that event. Many people are unwilling to change their minds even in the wake of new evidence, while many others hear only of the initial claims made when news coverage is at its peak and never become aware of subsequent corrections. Combine that with the generalized "Look Forward, Not Backward" mentality popularized by President Obama as embodied by John Kerry's "shut up and move on" decree to those asking questions about what really happened in the Bin Laden raid and those initial White House falsehoods did the trick.
We now see exactly the same pattern emerging with the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the killing of the US ambassador. For a full week now, administration officials have categorically insisted that the prime, if not only, cause of the attack was spontaneous anger over the anti-Muhammad film, The Innocence of Muslims.
Last week, White House spokesman Jay Carney insisted that "these protests, were in reaction to a video that had spread to the region." On Friday, he claimed:
"'This is a fairly volatile situation, and it is in response not to US policy, not to, obviously, the administration, not to the American people. It is in response to a video a film that we have judged to be reprehensive and disgusting. That in no way justifies any violent reaction to it. But this is not a case of protests directed at the United States, writ large, or at US policy. This is in response to a video that is offensive and to Muslims.'"
On Sunday, UN ambassador Susan Rice, when asked about the impetus for the attack, said that "this began as, it was a spontaneous not a premeditated response to what had transpired in Cairo," and added: "In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated." In other interviews, she insisted that the Benghazi violence was a "spontaneous" reaction to the film.
Predictably, and by design, most media accounts from the day after the Benghazi attack repeated the White House line as though it were fact, just as they did for the Bin Laden killing. Said NPR on 12 September: "The US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans were killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi by protesters angry over a film that ridiculed Islam's Prophet Muhammad." The Daily Beast reported that the ambassador "died in a rocket attack on the embassy amid violent protests over a US-produced film deemed insulting to Islam." To date, numerous people believe as though there were no dispute about it that Muslims attacked the consulate and killed the US ambassador "because they were angry about a film".
As it turns out, this claim is almost certainly false. And now, a week later, even the US government is acknowledging that, as McClatchy reports this morning [my emphasis]:
"The Obama administration acknowledged for the first time Wednesday that last week's assault on the US consulate compound in Benghazi that left the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans dead was a 'terrorist attack' apparently launched by local Islamic militants and foreigners linked to al-Qaida's leadership or regional allies.
"'I would say they were killed in the course of a terrorist attack,' said Matthew Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, told the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.
"It was the first time that a senior administration official had said the attack was not the result of a demonstration over an anti-Islam video that has been cited as the spark for protests in dozens of countries over the past week .'The picture that is emerging is one where a number of different individuals were involved,' Olsen said." [My emphasis]
Worse, it isn't as though there had been no evidence of more accurate information before Wednesday. To the contrary, most evidence from the start strongly suggested that the White House's claims that this attack was motivated by anger over a film were false. From McClatchy:
"The head of Libya's interim government, key US lawmakers and experts contend that the attack appeared long-planned, complex and well-coordinated, matching descriptions given to McClatchy last week by the consulate's landlord and a wounded security guard, who denied there was a protest at the time and said the attackers carried the banner of Ansar al-Shariah, an Islamist militia."
Indeed, Libya's president has spent the week publicly announcing that there is "no doubt" the attack was planned well in advance and had nothing to do with the video.
CBS News reported Thursday morning that there was no anti-video protest at all at the consulate. Witnesses insist, said CBS, "that there was never an anti-American protest outside of the consulate. Instead, they say, it came under planned attack." That, noted the network, "is in direct contradiction to the administration's account of the incident." The report concluded: "What's clear is that the public won't get a detailed account of what happened until after the election."
The Obama White House's interest in spreading this falsehood is multi-fold and obvious:
For one, the claim that this attack was just about anger over an anti-Muhammad video completely absolves the US government of any responsibility or even role in provoking the anti-American rage driving it. After all, if the violence that erupted in that region is driven only by anger over some independent film about Muhammad, then no rational person would blame the US government for it, and there could be no suggestion that its actions in the region things like this, and this, and this, and this had any role to play.
The White House capitalized on the strong desire to believe this falsehood: it's deeply satisfying to point over there at those Muslims and scorn their primitive religious violence, while ignoring the massive amounts of violence to which one's own country continuously subjects them. It's much more fun and self-affirming to scoff: "can you believe those Muslims are so primitive that they killed our ambassador over a film?" than it is to acknowledge: "our country and its allies have continually bombed, killed, invaded, and occupied their countries and supported their tyrants."
It is always more enjoyable to scorn the acts of the Other Side than it is to acknowledge the bad acts of one's own. That's the self-loving mindset that enables the New York Times to write an entire editorial today purporting to analyze Muslim rage without once mentioning the numerous acts of American violence aimed at them (much of which the Times editorial page supports). Falsely claiming that the Benghazi attacks were about this film perfectly flattered those jingoistic prejudices.
Then, there are the implications for the intervention in Libya, which Obama's defenders relentlessly tout as one of his great victories. But the fact that the Benghazi attack was likely premeditated and carried out by anti-American factions vindicates many of the criticisms of that intervention. Critics of the war in Libya warned that the US was siding with (and arming and empowering) violent extremists, including al-Qaida elements, that would eventually cause the US to claim it had to return to Libya to fight against them just as its funding and arming of Saddam in Iraq and the mujahideen in Afghanistan subsequently justified new wars against those one-time allies.
War critics also argued that the intervention would bring massive instability and suffering to the people of Libya; today, the Washington Post reports that just as the "president of Afghanistan" is really the mayor of Kabul and the "Iraqi government" long exercised sovereignty only in Baghdad's Green Zone the central Libyan government exercises little authority outside of Tripoli. And intervention critics also warned that dropping bombs in a country and killing civilians, no matter how noble the intent supposedly is, would produce blowback in the form of those who would then want to attack the US.
When the White House succeeded in falsely blaming the consulate attacks on anger over this video, all of those facts were obscured. The truth, now that it is emerging, underscores how unstable, lawless and dangerous Libya has become far from the grand success story war proponents like to tell. As McClatchy noted in Thursday's report:
"Libya remains plagued by armed groups nearly a year after the US-backed ouster of the late dictator Muammar Gaddafi. Yet the facility was primarily defended by local guards who may have been complicit
"Since the fall of Gaddafi last year, Libya's security has been dependent on a group of armed militias, including Ansar al-Shariah, that represent a wide variety of political strains and interests and remain heavily armed with weapons looted from Gaddafi storehouses. Interior Ministry forces and the Supreme Security Committee have been accused of complicity in recent attacks by Islamic fundamentalists on mosques and shrines affiliated with the moderate Sufi strain of Islam."
Then, there are the garden-variety political harms to the White House from the truth about these attacks. If the killing of the ambassador were premeditated and unrelated to the film, then it vests credibility in the criticism that the consulate should have been much better-protected, particularly on 9/11. And in general, the last thing a president running for re-election wants is an appearance that he is unable to protect America's diplomats from a terrorist group his supporters love to claim that he has heroically vanquished.
The falsehood told by the White House this was just a spontaneous attack prompted by this video that we could not have anticipated and had nothing to do with fixed all of those problems. Critical attention was thus directed to Muslims (what kind of people kill an ambassador over a film?) and away from the White House and its policies.
The independent journalist IF Stone famously noted that the number one rule of good journalism, even of good citizenship, is to remember that "all governments lie." Yet, no matter how many times we see this axiom proven true, over and over, there is still a tendency, a desire, to believe that the US government's claims are truthful and reliable.
The Obama administration's claims about the Benghazi attack are but the latest in a long line of falsehoods it has spouted on crucial issues, all in order to serve its interests and advance its agenda. Perhaps it is time to subject those claims to intense skepticism and to demand evidence before believing they are true.
A former British army captain involved in co-ordinating drone attacks, James Jeffrey, has an outstanding op-ed in the Guardian explaining why drones are so odious and dangerous. I recommend it highly.
Relating to the free speech debate that has emerged over the last week, I have a question for those who insist that advocating or inciting violence is not and should not be included within the protections of free speech: should this statement have led to an arrest? Relatedly: many people believe it was illegal for Obama to fight a war in Libya after Congress voted against the war's authorization, and many (including Obama) believe it would be illegal for the president to bomb Iran without congressional approval. Should advocacy of those acts of illegal violence be illegal and lead to arrest?
The schedule of speaking events I'll be doing in late September and October has been slightly changed. All events are open to the public and event information is here.