No time for cowboys: U.S. preparation for reprisals against Libyan targets

News report

WASHINGTON — The United States is laying the groundwork for operations to kill or capture militants implicated in the deadly attack on a diplomatic mission in Libya, senior military and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday, as the weak Libyan government appears unable to arrest or even question fighters involved in the assault.

The top-secret Joint Special Operations Command is compiling so-called target packages of detailed information about the suspects, the officials said. Working with the Pentagon and the C.I.A., the command is preparing the dossiers as the first step in anticipation of possible orders from President Obama to take action against those determined to have played a role in the attack on a diplomatic mission in the eastern city of Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three colleagues three weeks ago.

–Eric Schmitt and David D. Kirkpatrick, “U.S. Is Tracking Killers in Attack on Libya Mission,” New York Times, October 2, 2012 (October 3, 2012 print edition).

Several facts have now become clear regarding the attacks on the U.S. consulate and other buildings in Benghazi on September 11-12, which resulted in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.  They include:

1.  The Ambassador, and the consulate in Benghazi, were woefully unprotected in terms of security.  The State Department had refused numerous requests for more robust security arrangements in view of the changing risk environment in eastern Libya.

2.  The CIA and/or other U.S. government agencies were conducting a major “black” or secret  operation in Benghazi, without the knowledge of ranking Libyan officials.

3.   The lack of any warning of the imminence or possibility of the attacks on September 11-12 against the consulate, and a second compound at some remove from the consulate (often referred to as a “safe house”), constituted an enormous intelligence failure on the part of the Obama administration.

4.  The failure of the “black ops” group to anticipate the attacks reveals a stunning lack of effectiveness of intelligence operatives whose precise task was to track activities among anti-American and extremist groups.

5.  As one official told the New York Times, the attacks in Benghazi and the withdrawal of the U.S. intelligence operatives meant that the U.S. had had its “eyes poked out”  in Libya, or at least in eastern Libya.

Among the more than two dozen American personnel evacuated from the city after the assault on the American mission and a nearby annex were about a dozen C.I.A. operatives and contractors, who played a crucial role in conducting surveillance and collecting information on an array of armed militant groups in and around the city.

“It’s a catastrophic intelligence loss,” said one American official who has served in Libya and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the F.B.I. is still investigating the attack. “We got our eyes poked out.”

The C.I.A.’s surveillance targets in Benghazi and eastern Libya include Ansar al-Sharia, a militia that some have blamed for the attack, as well as suspected members of Al Qaeda’s affiliate in North Africa, known as Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

–Eric Schmitt, Helene Cooper and Michael S. Schmidt, “Deadly Attack in Libya Was Major Blow to C.I.A. Efforts,” New York Times, September 23, 2012.

6.  Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, provided misleading information about who was responsible for the attack on the consulate, in a series of constantly-changing stories over a period of weeks.  In particular, these officials pushed a narrative that the attacks were the result of demonstrations in front of the consulate that were a reaction to the movie trailer for “The Innocence of Muslims,” which gave rise to demonstrations throughout a number of Muslim countries, when the known facts strongly suggested this was not the case.

7.  Obama administration officials have apparently leaked information regarding the preparation of target options or “packages”, to be executed against those responsible for the attacks in Benghazi, if President Obama gives the go-ahead. 

8.  The last two points continue a pattern in which leaks by government officials seek to portray President Obama as a “macho” president who is extremely tough on national defense and national security.

Two extremely dangerous factors seem to be converging that could lead the president to undertake disastrous actions against targets in Libya.

The first is the dominance within Obama’s national security councils of CIA and military advocates of using force against targets in other countries without regard for their sovereignty, including a special attachment to drone stikes and special operations attacks conducted outside the framework of international law.

International law establishes with great clarity that the conduct of ireprisals within the territory of another state is a violation of bedrock principles of international law prohibiting the use of force (e.g., Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter), and are not permissible under international law as lawful exercises of the right to self-defense under Article 51 of the Charter.

The second factor is the presidential election to be held on November 6, and the ongoing campaign including the first debate between  Barack Obama and Mitt Romney to be held tonight, October 3, 2012.  Romney has criticized Obama sharply for some of the failures mentioned in the points above.

Obama’s argument throughout the campaign has been that he has effectively reduced the threat of Al Queda and terrorists against the United States.  The Libyan failures do not fit well within this narrative.

Washington’s misleading statements about what happened in Benghazi suggest, to this observer at least, that the CIA and other intelligence agencies have been very keen to distract attention from what the black operations group was doing in Libya, without the permission of the Libyan government.  The administration’s objectives in making these misleading statements seem to have been to avoid discussion of this sensitive issue, and to keep the whole Libyan mess out of the presidential campaign.

This tactic of issuing misleading statements has now backfired.

The great risk at the moment is that President Obama, in order to shift the conversation away from his administration’s failures in Libya, will resort to the direct use of force against those believed to be responsible for the death of Ambassador Stevens and the other Americans in Benghazi, without the consent and cooperation of the Libyan authorities.

The electoral logic is powerful, but the risk is that such actions could inflict enourmous damage on U.S. foreign policy and public attitudes toward the United States not only in Libya, but also throughout the Middle East and in other Muslim countries.

The United States should not react to the attacks in Benghazi like a tribe which demands immediate blood vengeance for the killing of one of its members. Rather, it should act as a great democracy and example to the world, dedicated to the rule of law, and proceed to identify those responsible for the attacks, and then over time seek to bring them to justice through cooperation with the governments of the countries in which they may be found. This is the example which will have a real and lasting impact in the Middle East, and beyond.

The cowboys who have grown accustomed to conducting drone attacks in other countries without regard for international law, or for the reactions of the peoples and governments in the territories where they direct their strikes, should be sent back to the corral.

They should not be allowed to call the shots on this one.  Nor should the Obama campaign operation be allowed to undermine U.S. foreign policy in the region for the sake of electoral politics.

Above all, if President Obama is wearing a cowboy hat, he should take it off.

The Trenchant Observer