As Benghazi probe fizzles, recall when GOP ignored security

This image of a wounded Marine being rescued became a symbol of the 1983 bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut.

This image of the rescue of a wounded Marine became a symbol of the 1983 bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut, where 241 Marines died.

The latest House Benghazi committee, which Republicans hoped would sink Hillary Clinton’s presidential hopes, released its final report early—because there was nothing in it worth saving for an election eve scandal.

Rep. Trey Gowdy and his fellow Republicans stretched out the probe (the eighth such committee to investigate the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans) to two years and spent $7 million to try to dig up new dirt on former Secretary of State Clinton. They failed.

Most of the media, which had been the committee’s biggest ally in publishing scary headlines and tidbits (only to have to walk them back when the facts didn’t reach the level of the rhetoric) pretty much put the final GOP report in perspective. “House Republicans capped a partisan, two-year investigation of the Benghazi terror attacks Tuesday with a report that faults the Obama administration for security lapses that led to the deaths of four Americans but contains no revelations likely to further damage Hillary Clinton,” from a CNN story, was typical of the yawns with which most media reacted to what the GOP hoped would be a blockbuster. Reaction to the partisan report fell along party lines, with Democrats calling it a nothingburger and Republicans and right-wing media blasting Clinton anew. White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called it an “in-kind contribution” to the Republican National Committee.

The teeny, tiny bit of information that Gowdy and his fellow committee members hoped to hang around the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee’s neck was the charge “that intelligence was available suggesting an attack was possible and she and a top aide, Patrick Kennedy, should have realized the risks posed to the Benghazi mission by extremist groups.” (As an aside, let’s remember that previous House committees delving into Benghazi-gate specifically found “no intelligence failure” before the attack.)

At last fall’s 11-hour marathon of a hearing, Clinton testified that there was “no actionable intelligence” for her to act on before the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya. Clinton herself commissioned an independent Accountability Review Board and implemented its recommendations.

But let’s take a step back. “Intelligence was available,” but Clinton didn’t act on it. Do Republicans really want to go there? Not if you look at the history of the times Republican administrations have ignored intelligence warnings.

The biggest intelligence failure on a GOP watch, of course, was the infamous presidential daily briefing delivered to President George W. Bush on Aug. 6, 2001, with the title, “Bin Laden determined to strike in US.” That was 36 days before Sept. 11.

The 9/11 attack and the intelligence failure that preceded it were in a class of their own. But it wasn’t the only terrorist attack against a U.S. target in which intelligence had been ignored.

How about the attack on a U.S. Marine compound in Beirut, Lebanon, on Oct. 23, 1983? More than 300 people were killed, including 241 U.S. servicemen, mostly Marines. A truck carrying explosives drove into Marine barracks; a second truck followed and hit a building housing French troops. The explosives in the two vehicles were later estimated to be the equivalent of 21,000 pounds of dynamite. Fifty-eight French servicemen also died, and more than 25 Lebanese civilians were killed. It was the biggest single-day death toll for U.S. Marines since World War II in the Battle of Iwo Jima.

The trucks were driven by members of Islamic Jihad with ties to Iran, a group that eventually evolved into Hezbollah.

The U.S. and French troops were there as part of an international peacekeeping force. At the time, Lebanon was in the midst of a civil war. Israel invaded Lebanon, trying to create a buffer zone between Israel and the fighting forces within Lebanon, which included Syrian and Palestine Liberation Organization forces. U.S. forces, backing Israel, launched a missile attack on Sept. 19 that hit and killed innocent bystanders, creating ill will among the Muslim population. The attack on the Marines was payback.

Who was president at the time? St. Ronnie Reagan. The New Yorker called this attack on Marines “Ronald Reagan’s Benghazi.”

But unlike today’s Congress, congressmen did not talk of impeaching Ronald Reagan, who was then President, nor were any subpoenas sent to cabinet members. This was true even though then, as now, the opposition party controlled the majority in the House. Tip O’Neill, the Democratic Speaker of the House, was no pushover. He, like today’s opposition leaders in the House, demanded an investigation—but a real one, and only one. Instead of playing it for political points, a House committee undertook a serious investigation into what went wrong at the barracks in Beirut. Two months later, it issued a report finding “very serious errors in judgment” by officers on the ground, as well as responsibility up through the military chain of command, and called for better security measures against terrorism in U.S. government installations throughout the world.

In other words, Congress actually undertook a useful investigation and made helpful recommendations. The report’s findings, by the way, were bipartisan.

Reagan and his advisers were able to quickly change the subject and invade Grenada two days after the truck bomb hit the Marine barracks. But there was more to come in Lebanon. As the New Yorker story put it:

The story in Beirut wasn’t over. In September of 1984, for the third time in eighteen months, jihadists bombed a U.S. government outpost in Beirut yet again. President Reagan acknowledged that the new security precautions that had been advocated by Congress hadn’t yet been implemented at the U.S. embassy annex that had been hit. The problem, the President admitted, was that the repairs hadn’t quite been completed on time. As he put it, “Anyone who’s ever had their kitchen done over knows that it never gets done as soon as you wish it would.” Imagine how Congressman [Darrell] Issa and Fox News would react to a similar explanation from President Obama today.

Peacekeepers at War: Beirut 1983—The Marine Commander Tells His Story, was written by retired Col. Timothy J. Geraghty, who commanded the multinational peacekeeping troops in Beirut in 1983 and who was criticized in the official report on the bombing. In his book, he states that there is evidence that on Sept. 26, the National Security Administration intercepted a message from Iranian intelligence directing the Iranian ambassador to Lebanon to “take spectacular action against the American Marines.” This account by Geraghty is from Proceedings Magazine at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Unknown to us at the time, the National Security Agency had made a diplomatic communications intercept on 26 September (the same date as the cease-fire ending the September War) in which the Iranian Intelligence Service provided explicit instructions to the Iranian ambassador in Damascus (a known terrorist) to attack the Marines at Beirut International Airport. The suicide attackers struck us 28 days later, with word of the intercept stuck in the intelligence pipeline until days after the attack.

Sounds pretty specific, doesn’t it? The NSA didn’t even deliver the intercepted message to the Marine unit in Lebanon until Oct. 26, three days after the attack. And the Reagan administration was never held accountable for this egregious intelligence failure.

The 2012 attack that killed Stevens wasn’t the first time a U.S. ambassador has been assassinated in the line of duty. A total of seven U.S. ambassadors have been killed under both Republican and Democratic presidents.

The sister of Chris Stevens made a special point of speaking out after the final House GOP report was released, saying that she didn’t blame Clinton or former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta for the Benghazi attack. If anything, she said, Congress had under-budgeted for State Department security.

Hillary Clinton was not responsible for Chris Stevens’ death—the terrorists who attacked the consulate were. (Donald Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, tweeted that she had “murdered” Stevens and got called out on CNN for doing so.) By the same token, Ronald Reagan was not responsible for the death of 241 U.S. Marines in Lebanon. Nor were Presidents Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, or Jimmy Carter responsible for the deaths of the ambassadors they appointed, nor was Bill Clinton responsible for the bombing of U.S. embassies when he was president. And the Bush administration certainly blew it when it comes to not paying enough attention to a daily briefing warning about an attack from Osama bin Laden, but the blame for 9/11 goes to al-Qaida.

The best security measures in the world won’t prevent every terrorist attack, whether it’s at a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, a nightclub in Paris, or an airport in Istanbul. The lessons to be studied are how to increase security around the world and how to better gather and use intelligence while still living in that world. And sorry, Republicans in Congress, but all of that doesn’t come for free.

Originally posted on Daily Kos on July 3, 2016.

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