An assertion in the Senate report on Benghazi, which seems to indicate that Ambassador Chris Stevens turned down a military offer of security protection by special forces, has had some media commentators arguing that the debacle in Benghazi was basically his own fault.
Gregory Hicks, who was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli in during the period in question – and who has testified on multiple occasions before Congress – sought to correct this impression in the Wall Street Journal yesterday.
What appears indisputable is that on two occasions in July and August 2012, General Carter Ham, commander of Africa Command (AFRICOM), asked Stevens directly if he wanted a special forces security team for Benghazi, which Ham could provide operating under military command. The offer was made because of Stevens’s concerns that the DOD-provided team he had was set to leave, when its term expired in August 2012. Security forces available for the U.S. Mission compound in Benghazi would drop to near zero with the departure of that team.
And Stevens did say no, when faced with this question from Ham. But he wasn’t saying no to an opportunity to have a big enough security force. He was saying no to an offer he didn’t have the authority to accept.
The State Department’s policy was to let the existing, DOD-provided security team go, and seek security support from the Libyans. Stevens had been arguing against that policy – Hicks gives chapter and verse on that – but he was losing.
Significantly, the DOD-provided team whose term was almost up at the time worked for State (meaning it reported to Stevens), and had diplomatic immunity for anything it might have to do to ensure security for the U.S. mission in country. If Stevens accepted a special forces team from Ham, it would be a on a different basis.
Two factors made the offer from Ham a non-starter for Stevens. One, it wasn’t in his power to override State policy. His uncommunicative “no’s” to General Ham were a way of complying with State policy, without airing the internal debate between him and his superiors.
Two, the issue of diplomatic immunity mattered. The U.S. had no status of forces agreement with Libya, the standard instrument by which the purview of U.S. military security forces is established between America and a foreign country where our forces operate. If a special forces team was there as part of the U.S. diplomatic mission, it had immunity; if it was there under DOD command, its status was unnegotiated: existing in a sort of twilight zone in which its actions – which could well include killing Libyans – would make our soldiers vulnerable to arrest and prosecution, and create major problems for Stevens and the U.S. government.
Hicks indicates that he testified to these considerations before the Senate committee:
I was interviewed by the Select Committee and its staff, who were professional and thorough. I explained this sequence of events. For some reason, my explanation did not make it into the Senate report.
In the WSJ piece, he gives a full, blow-by-blow accounting of the sequence of events he refers to. I have no trouble believing his account, which accords with everything I know about chains of command, procedure, and interagency dealings. Ambassador Stevens wasn’t in a position to simply accept a special forces team from General Ham on his own recognizance.
As to why Hicks’s explanation didn’t affect the narrative in the Senate report, it is interesting to note that the theme of Stevens saying no to military support emerged nearly a year ago, from unnamed sources in Washington. In March 2013, McClatchy ran a piece on it by Nancy Youssef, entitled “Ambassador Stevens twice said no to military offers of more security, U.S. officials say.”
Youssef gives a pretty fair representation of what appear to be the issues in this “sequence of events.” But the report’s tone is prejudicial; it starts with the out-of-context assertion that Stevens rejected the military offers, and can be summarized with a conclusion Youssef herself suggests:
“The embassy was told through back channels to not make direct requests for security,” an official familiar with the case, who agreed to discuss the case only anonymously because of the sensitivity of the subject, told McClatchy.
Still, the offer from Ham provided Stevens with a chance to plead for more assistance, an opportunity he apparently did not seize.
(Note: in December, AIM pointed out bias and internal inconsistencies in other writings by Youssef on Benghazi. Certainly, the thematic tone of her article from last year accords with the tone from Katty Kay on MSNBC.)
Hicks’s summary makes it clear that Stevens in fact took every opportunity to plead for more assistance, and that the overtures from Ham were not the opportunities Youssef suggests (and that, clearly, Stevens didn’t need to have such opportunities “provided” to him).
Yet the misleading theme that was quietly birthed in Youssef’s article 10 months ago – as an unproven possibility, from unnamed government sources – ended up becoming a statement of fact in what seems, otherwise, to be a mostly laudable Senate report. Interesting.