By: Clare Lopez
Accuracy in Media
As we now know, within about 15 minutes after the start of the attack on the U.S. Special Mission Compound (SMC) in Benghazi on 11 September 2012, top U.S. civilian and uniformed officials were informed that it was a terrorist attack. The information was clear, unambiguous, and remained consistent over the chaotic hours that followed. It did not change. If anything, the exceptionally accurate final mortar strike on the CIA Annex that took the lives of former Navy SEALs Glenn Doherty and Ty Woods, and gravely injured others, provided conclusive evidence of a carefully pre-planned attack. There is simply no room for equivocation on this: it was a well-organized, military-style assault by terrorists armed with assault rifles, RPGs, and eventually a mortar.
Mike Morell, then-head of the CIA’s Counterterrorism Center (CTC), had the task of helping to prepare talking points for then-U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, who was slated to appear on five Sunday morning talk shows a few days later. Morell was personally responsible for “cutting some 50 percent of the text,” including all “references to Al Qaeda” and the many earlier terror attacks against U.S. and other Western targets in Benghazi. When the Senate Intelligence Committee finally succeeded in prying loose the emails that had flowed back and forth to the CIA, State Department and the White House during the talking points editing process, it was clear that Morell not only had misrepresented his own role, but also had been less than forthcoming about the close oversight role played by the White House in ensuring that all references to al-Qa’eda terrorism would be scrubbed. Morell also made sure to scrub from the talking points the honest assessment that “We cannot rule out that individuals had previously surveilled the U.S. facilities, also contributing to the efficacy of the attacks.”
With the President in a close re-election race and touting the obviously inaccurate meme that al-Qa’eda was on the run and close to defeat, it wouldn’t have helped to admit that Islamic terrorists, after what was likely weeks of planning and rehearsal, had just overrun a U.S. diplomatic post in North Africa and killed four Americans. Better to obfuscate until the election was safely behind them. Besides, “What difference does it make?” that the most senior officials of the U.S. government deliberately subverted the intelligence process as long as it helped ensure the President’s re-election?
Nearly as troubling as Morell’s misleading congressional testimony was the overwhelming silence from senior Defense Department officials, who also knew full well that Susan Rice’s talk-show narrative was false—and yet remained silent. Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers (MI) indicated on 27 February 2014 that Morell likely will be called back to clarify his testimony.
There is no doubt that top officials at the Defense Department knew almost immediately that the Benghazi attack was a terrorist attack—and given the stream of reporting about al-Qa’eda’s increasingly aggressive behavior during the months leading up to the 11 September 2012 final attack, also should have had few doubts about who was responsible. According to closed door classified testimony on 26 June 2013 before the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, AFRICOM commander Gen. Carter Ham (who happened to be in the Pentagon that night) immediately told Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) Gen. Martin Dempsey about the attack, saying that it was unambiguously a terrorist attack. The two of them—Panetta, and Dempsey—then departed from the Pentagon together for a previously-scheduled meeting with President Obama at the White House.
Even as these Defense officials were briefing the President on what was happening in Benghazi, telling him that the U.S. Ambassador to Tripoli, Christopher Stevens, was missing, the same information about the attack was reaching the Pentagon and key combatant commands, all of which were told the same thing: it was a terrorist attack. Later that night, Greg Hicks, the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) in Tripoli, spoke by phone with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other top State Department advisors, telling them that he feared Ambassador Stevens might be in the clutches of terrorists at a Benghazi hospital and that he was concerned about the possibility of a terrorist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli as well. He soon learned from the Libyan prime minister that Stevens was dead, and relayed that information to the State Department at around 9 p.m. Washington time. But there was still nothing about a video. Nothing at all.
Then came the 10 p.m. phone call from the President to Secretary of State Clinton—the person that almost no one (except Andrew McCarthy here) mentions. This was the 10 p.m. phone call that White House spokesman Jay Carney reluctantly mentioned on 20 February 2013 in response to questions from the press corps. According to CNS News, the President called Clinton “to get an update on the situation.” It was right afterward that Clinton released a statement linking the attacks to “inflammatory material posted on the Internet,” a reference to “The Innocence of Muslims” YouTube film trailer. As it turned out, that deliberately duplicitous initial reference to a video that had nothing to do with the attack on the Benghazi SMC presaged a full two weeks of false statements from President Obama, Secretary Clinton, White House spokesman Jay Carney, and others about the film clip.
Neither Morell, nor any other top Obama administration official, has any excuse for not knowing the attack was a terrorist attack, or for thinking somehow that a demonstration or protests had preceded it. According to FOX News journalist Catherine Herridge, a report from the CIA’s own senior officer on the ground in Tripoli, Libya confirmed in a 15 September 2012 email that the attack was “not/not an escalation of protests,” but rather a coordinated terror attack. That email was received by Morell, CIA Director David Petraeus, and other senior CIA officials a full day before Susan Rice was sent out to broadcast false information to the American people on the 16 September Sunday talk shows.
But Morell still wasn’t coming clean on everything. In November 2012, Morell was once again before the House Intelligence Committee, along with Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, and CTC Chief Matt Olsen. When asked who had been responsible for the talking points, Clapper said that he had no idea, while Morell remained silent. In another meeting that took place in late 2012, Morell again seemed to have trouble telling the truth. He and Rice met with Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-NH), John McCain (R-AZ), and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Under questioning from the senators about the talking-points editing process, Morell tried to blame the FBI for cutting the reference to al-Qa’eda terrorism; he said the FBI didn’t want to compromise an ongoing criminal investigation. When Graham called the FBI and told them what Morell had said, “they went ballistic,” Graham said in an interview with Fox News. Confronted with this, Morell changed his statement and admitted that he, and the CIA, had been responsible after all.
Confusion in the early hours, and even early days, following a chaotic situation such as that which confronted U.S. leadership on 11 September 2012 would be understandable. But it is the certain knowledge that our most senior civilian, intelligence, and military officers deliberately and repeatedly lied, including before Congress, about what they knew at the time to be a terrorist attack on our mission by al-Qa’eda jihadis that so corrodes Americans’ trust in their leadership. This is particularly damaging because there is the appearance of a coordinated cover-up staged to ensure the re-election of a President who’d staked his campaign on the repeated assertion that al-Qa’eda had been “decimated,” or was on “the path to defeat.”
In July 2013, Mike Morell joined the consulting firm of Beacon Global Strategies LLC, which had been founded not long beforehand by four others with close ties to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: Michael Allen, Jeremy Bash, Philippe Reines, and Andrew Shapiro (who was the Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs from 2009-2013, with responsibility for security relationships with U.S. Middle East partners).
Clare M. Lopez is a Senior Fellow with the Center for Security Policy and also the Clarion Project and London Center for Policy Research. She is also a member of the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi.