spies, national security, espionage, counterterrorism, u.s. foreign policy, intelligence operations, CIA, special forces, counterterrorism, terrorism

Thursday, October 11, 2012

The Benghazi Debacle: FUBAR

On the very first night of my arrival in Vietnam to take over a secret intelligence operation, I was invited with my team to attend a cocktail party at the American consulate in Da Nang, an old French colonial port city on the central coast. I was so new, I was memorizing my cover story even as we drove to the consulate.

I was going to be running a “unilateral” espionage operation, which is to say, I not only wouldn't work with my South Vietnamese counterparts, who were heavily infiltrated by the communists, I was to consider them potential enemy agents, too.

A South Vietnamese colonel approached me during the party and asked what I did.  Using my fresh-from-language school Vietnamese, I told him that I was Army civilian working with a civilian refugee assistance program.

“Oh,”  he said with a smirk, “you’re a spook.” 

I froze. Later on, driving back to our safe house (in a Jeep painted black with diplomatic license tags, no less), I nervously told my teammates about the encounter with the colonel.

“Oh, that’s nothing”, one said, chuckling. “The Green Berets captured a Vietcong terrorist map six months ago. It had a big X on our house.”

“What happened?” I asked. “Nothing,” they said in unison, smiling with war-weariness. “Obviously we haven't moved.

"It’s just Fubar."

Fubar -- the timeless G.I. acronym for “Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition” -- indeed.  Either the Army didn’t care, or it had better things to do--like protecting troops on the firing line, not some wimpy intell types out of harm's way, relatively speaking.

I’m sure my mother would’ve been very pissed off to learn that the Army knew about my safe house being targeted by the Viet Cong and did nothing about it. Especially if I’d been blown to bits. She might've called her congressman.

The point is that in such a chaotic situation, whether in Vietnam or Benghazi last month,  the Army--or in the present instance, the State Department and CIA--hastily assembles their priorities, and sometimes they don't work out very well.  Mistakes happen. When such mistakes are hauled into the glare of Washington publicity, they take on a very harsh cast.

There’s no doubt now that the State Department and the CIA knew about the terrorist threats to the Benghazi installations and performed miserably. The situation was compounded when Susan Rice, the Obama administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, put out a story that the attacks were the result of a spontaneous uprising provoked by an anti-Islam video.

Critics immediately pounced on this alleged white-wash of events. But in my mind, it’s entirely possible that Ms. Rice was misled by the State Department, the White House, the CIA, or all of them.

In any event, the administration’s problems were compounded by its shifting explanations of what happened in Benghazi and why.

Republicans fell all over themselves in their rush to exploit the tragedy for partisan advantage – a sorry spectacle in a season full of them.

Their star witness was Army Lieut. Col. Andrew Wood, the former head of the U.S. military mission in Libya, who testified that the State Department had rejected his request for more security.  I have no doubt he told the truth.

Heart rending--yes. Shocking? Not really, especially when some of the loudest critics of the tragic events in Benghazi where among those who had voted to cut the State Department’s budget again and again.

The fact is, as important as diplomatic security is, it’s also very, very expensive. Sometimes it requires building a whole new embassy -- a daunting project even in far better budget circumstances.

So our diplomats and spies make do.  And, not to make excuses, but the security officers, intelligence agents and analysts working out of U.S. diplomatic outposts in places like Libya have their hands full trying to find out what the enemy is doing.

In the chaos of post-Gadhafi Libya, moreover, do critics really think that the State Department and the CIA should have been sitting on their hands until they got spanking brand-new facilities built for them?

I don’t profess to know what these critics are thinking, but I am convinced that if more of them had actually served in the military or State Department (not to mention witnessed a bullet fired in anger), they’d be less glib (not to mention less reckless) in their fulminations about the Benghazi disaster. 

Fact is, the security lapses revealed in the Benghazi attacks are not unique – or new.

Here’s what the GAO reported four years ago:

"Following the 1998 embassy bombings [in Kenya and Tanzania], the Department of State determined that more than 85 percent of diplomatic facilities did not meet security standards and were vulnerable to terrorist attacks.”

Actually, the State Department knew well in advance that the Nairobi embassy was vulnerable to a terrorist attack, because the American ambassador there, Prudence Bushnell, had repeatedly warned that its curbside location made it a tempting target--to no avail.

“A new embassy would have cost around $75 million and taken four years to build,” according to a CNN report on Foggy Bottom’s response to Bushnell’s warnings. “According to the government’s system of ranking countries by degree of danger, the Nairobi embassy was considered a low threat level and therefore other embassies took higher priority.”

Boom. Sorry.

Despite current appearances, the State Department did get more serious about embassy security after the 1998 embassy bombings, the GAO reported.

“State's Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations (OBO) has undertaken a program to replace or upgrade the security of these facilities,” the GAO said in 2008.

“As of 2007, OBO had constructed more than 50 new embassies and moved nearly 15,000 staff to safer facilities.

"However, most remaining facilities will not be replaced in the near term. To address these facilities, OBO has obligated about $140 million per year for its Compound Security Upgrade Program.”

Good for them. Too late for Benghazi.