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Ahead of tonight's debate between Obama and Romney, the Republican effort to make the attack in Benghazi an act of criminal negligence on the part of the administration has heated up. Leading the charge have been Republican congressmen Darrell Issa of California and Jason Chaffetz of Utah from the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who released a letter they sent to Ms. Clinton on Tuesday charging that "Washington" denied extra security requested by people working with the US government in Libya.
"Multiple US Federal government officials have confirmed to the Committee that, prior to the Sept. 11 attack, the US mission made repeated requests for increased security in Benghazi," the pair wrote. "The mission in Libya, however, was denied these resources by official Washington."
This is a stunning charge, and no evidence for it is given. I find it very, very hard to believe that the State Department would have denied repeated requests for extra security in Benghazi, a city where security incidents involving foreigners have been on the rise in the past year. Since the Al Qaeda attacks on three US embassies in Africa in 1998, diplomatic protection has been a top priority and US embassies have been turned into fortresses. While incompetence is always possible, the way Mr. Issa and Mr. Chaffetz have framed their letter it sounds as if the State Department told its people in the field to jump in a lake when they said they feared for their lives.
Some of what they write to bolster their case that the events in Benghazi could have been headed off seems rather strained. For instance they write:
"Ambassador Stevens was in the habit of taking early morning runs around Tripoli along with members of his security detail. According to sources, sometime in June 2012, a posting on a pro-Gaddafi Facebook page trumpeted these runs and directed a threat against Ambassador Stevens along with a stock photo of him. It is reported that after stopping these morning runs for about a week, the Ambassador resumed them."
Stevens was probably killed by an Islamist group empowered by the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi. And he was killed in Benghazi, a very long way indeed from Tripoli. Was it imprudent of him to resume running after pausing to assess the threat posed by a Facebook posting? It's hard to say. Is the implication from the congressmen that the experienced Arabic speaker, whose strength as a diplomat was building local relationships, should have stayed confined to embassy grounds because threats (which are always made) were made? Perhaps.
As I said, it's very hard to believe a diplomatic mission's urgent requests for tighter security were ignored up the chain of command. But if evidence is provided for their assertions, that could prove damaging indeed. Another Fox News story out this morning seeks to bolster this case. The network says it obtained letters that "show the State Department refused to get involved when the company tasked with protecting the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, raised security concerns."
The only quotes used from the letters in the Fox story are from one dating to July 10. Fox quotes the letter, written by State Department contracting officer Jan Visintainer as saying "The government is not required to mediate any disagreements between the two parties of the Blue Mountain Libya partnership" and that up until that point the "contract performance is satisfactory." Blue Mountain is a security contractor to the State Department in Libya with a Libyan and UK branch. According to unnamed people that Fox spoke to, the Libyan side of the partnership was worried that security was seriously inadequate. If the State Department was brushing off security concerns, that is both tragic and scandalous. But nothing quoted from the letters amounts to proving that in the Fox story. Perhaps more will be forthcoming.
Whatever new revelations are brought forth, political hay will be made, and the punditocracy will thunder down the TV about the greatest scandal of all time, before they move on to the next thing after the election, no matter who wins.
All this will continue to obscure the meaningful debate over how best to do diplomatic outreach in dangerous corners of the world, how to balance security and access, and what if any risks are acceptable.