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Drawing Security Lessons From Benghazi Mission Attack


The disclosure White House emails is the latest twist in the controversy of how the Obama administration handled the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi last September. Much of the debate here in Washington is over what happened afterwards and the roles of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama.

But beyond the politics, there are important lessons to be learned about what happened before and during the attack which killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Lessons about preparation, use of intelligence, interagency communication and the chain of command.

Joining us now by phone from Woodbridge, in Virginia, is retired Marine Corps Col. Gary Anderson, who also served in various positions for the State Department. And good to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

GARY ANDERSON: Good to be here, Neal.

CONAN: Weren't we supposed to get this thing right after 9/11, particularly the interagency communication part?

ANDERSON: We were sure supposed to. Somewhere along the line things, sort of, broke down and it's obviously disturbing that we haven't come as far as we thought in that time.

CONAN: As you looked at what happened before the attack in Benghazi, what do you think are the important lessons to be taken away there?

ANDERSON: You know, I think that right now it's hard to tell what the lessons are because there's no clear chain of accountability or decision making. The first question you ask yourself is who is in charge of this thing? You had a mission - a State Department mission on the ground.

Theoretically everyone in that mission, including that special operations team that supposedly could've reacted to this thing was working for the head of mission, which in this case was a deputy chief of mission since the ambassador was the individual involved. And it's unclear to me even at this point if he had the authority to launch that special operations team or whether someone outside that chain of command and Department of Defense or Southern Command, or pardon me, in Special Operations Command, you know, overruled that. And it's never become obvious to me what that chain of command was. And it seemed to me that would be one of the first questions the congressional people are asking - doing the inquiries should've been asking.

CONAN: So in other words, had the ambassador, the head of mission, been alive, he would've been in control? But once he was dead, there was nobody in control.

ANDERSON: Well, that's one issue, but the second issue is whether or not that special operations team was under the mission's control. If it wasn't, that decision was made in Washington. And then in that case, all right, who made that decision and why did they make that decision, and where did that come from based - above at the desk on Washington and so forth. And those questions have never been answered or is, as far as I can tell, in the current congressional testimony, haven't even been asked. They seem to be dancing around who's to blame rather than to try to figure out exactly what happened. That really is - that's disturbing if we're going to try to do lessons learned on this thing.

CONAN: The other agency that was involved and, speaking of dancing around, is the Central Intelligence Agency.

ANDERSON: Well, the Central Intelligence Agency was and, you know, theoretically they also were under the control of the mission. But that's - again, and that's why the senior agency thing becomes so muddled, were they or were they not, and also that special operations team, I don't think, was a working for the CIA. I think they were, you know, DOD asset that obviously was operating in support of the mission there on the ground. So who was in-charge remains a question. Obviously, the deputy from his testimony didn't think he had the power to do that, nor was the special operations commander on the ground able to take independent action apparently without going back to D.C.

CONAN: And...

ANDERSON: So that really raises some questions that we really ought to get to before the next one of these things pops up.

CONAN: There was also confusion. Ordinarily there would have been military aircraft - Air Force planes on call on behalf of the - to support operations, if the mission called, but they were too far away.

ANDERSON: Well, I mean, again, as I understand it, they were attempting to normalize this thing, and they didn't perceive, apparently, that there was enough of a threat to have an overhead cover. Now, that's the best I can determine from what I can read in the after-action, the things that are in the open source at any rate.

So who, you know, if there was intelligence that there was a threat, perhaps there would have been, but it's not clear to me if there was that type of intelligence, it was ever conveyed to the people who are flying the airplanes.

CONAN: And there's a belief that these aircraft can be summoned at a moment's notice. That's not actually true. They have to be sent from somewhere. There has to be refueling planes if they're going to get back home.

ANDERSON: Oh, yeah. I mean, the - if in fact, there was a threat overhead, they would have had some kind of mission package set up. But obviously they didn't anticipate that threat. I think they thought up until this thing went down, that they actually were going back to a normal State Department mission mode. You don't have, you know, aircraft, you know, combat aircraft flying overhead at, you know, any normal embassy. And I think that that, obvious that added to confusion, but it's not clear to me whether or not air support would have or could have helped.

There is obviously a question that they might not have been able to get something there eventually, to make some kind of shallow force. But I think that the real issue may have been if we had some assets in Tripoli, that could have gotten to Benghazi to at least try to mitigate the situation that we need to find out how that didn't happened and try to correct it the next time.

CONAN: And when you're saying those assets that were in Tripoli that might have gotten to Benghazi, you're talking about that unit of four special operations troops.

ANDERSON: Yeah. I mean, the - theoretically, now this is, again, I - what I understand from that congressional testimony, that they were told to stand down. The question is, who had the authority to stand them down, and what was the rationale? If there was a reasonable rationale that they think that they might have been, you know, ambushed at the airport, it might have been a bait and trap ambush, that's fine. I mean that's a reasonable decision. But nobody has articulated that, nor has anybody pinned down the guy that actually made that decision, or if there was somebody up the line that was actually passing that decision down. And that's the true (unintelligible) that's the unknown that's truly disturbing in this thing.

CONAN: There's also the question of how much protection was there ahead of time in Benghazi, and it was a decision that they wanted to keep a small footprint. And this was apparently the interest of the - this would have been expressed by the Libyan - what there was of a Libyan government.

ANDERSON: That's a policy decision, and that's fine, based on perhaps what they knew of the intelligence at the time. But the question still remains: Was there some kind of intelligence that said that, you know, either A) they shouldn't have been there, in which case either the ambassador made a decision that he was - he needed to be there anyway and that he'd accept the risk; or that they just didn't know that there was a threat? And again, that's really cloudy at this point in time. And I think those are the kinds of questions that you would expect a reasonable congressional inquiry to be asking, and I haven't heard those questions asked. I'm seeing a lot of, you know, what appears to me to be political, you know, jockeying, rather than a real serious attempt to try to find out what's wrong and then take the action to fix it.

CONAN: Have you read the report that was put out by Ambassador Pickering and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs Mullen?

ANDERSON: I've read the excerpts of it, and again, it didn't connect the dots in my mind.

CONAN: There's another question that a lot of people ask, and we've had Ambassador Pickering on and he's answered it. But let me ask it to you. Why is it that those missions, in very dangerous places, were not protected by U.S. Marines?

ANDERSON: Well, first of all, it's not normal for a consulate for protection of the Marines to extend that far down, unless you're sending in - that there's a known crisis, you're sending in a fleet assistance, a counterterrorist team, what the Marines called a FAST Team. But in this case, if they're in a normal consulate, even in Iraq, where I was, and Afghanistan last year, we didn't have Marine protection at the consulate. So we had it, you know, at the embassy. They're generally there to protect the inner sanctum of the embassy. They're not there to provide exterior support outside the embassy and so forth. That's usually a host nation responsibility.

So I think the issue is not so much why weren't there Marines there. The question is, you know, should we have been in that particular posture in that particular place? And I, again, I don't have the answers to that...

CONAN: And when you say...

ANDERSON: ...but I think somebody ought try to find out.

CONAN: And when you say protect the inner sanctum, their job is to protect secrets rather than necessarily personnel.

ANDERSON: Yeah. The embassy guards, it's kind of a, you know, a misperception. In any embassy they essentially protect the chancellery in the embassy and the ambassador's residence itself, and particularly to, you know, you get them into a safe place if there is an attack or to - and if that fails, to destroy the classified material and so forth.

They're not responsible for the overall external or internal security of the embassy compound per se. They can augment that and they have if necessary, but there is a diplomatic security mission that does that sort of thing, and then - obviously which didn't happen on this case. You're hoping that you've got a competent external protection from the host nation, which is responsible for the safety of the entire compound.

CONAN: We're talking with retired Marine Colonel Gary Anderson about lessons learned from before and during the attack in Benghazi. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And any number of recommendations were made by the Pickering Mullen report. As you look at those, are they going to address the kinds of interagency communications problems that you're worried about?

ANDERSON: You know, that's a good question. I think that the - until we figure out exactly what that chain of commander issue was, and if they addressed that in that report, it escaped me, but how that, you know, how that internal communication between the DOD assets, the CIA assets, the State Department assets worked - before you really answer those questions, I don't think you can make really coherent recommendations.

Yeah, you can, you know, you can - once again try to get better fusion of information than apparently we had in this case, and that's really closing the barn door after the horses are gone. But I don't understand how we can fix the problem unless we know really where the problem truly lies.

CONAN: And in terms of addressing the problem, though, as you said, you worked in places like Herat, you also worked in Baghdad and various other interesting places. Should there be a formula? Should it be decided on a case by case basis?

ANDERSON: Well, I think amazingly enough, and I've been in Iraq and Afghanistan working with the State Department, and diplomatic security there has been - in my view pretty good. Sometimes as a field operator I have problems. I thought that they had a tendency to err on the side of caution. But obviously in this case they, you know, the caution was warranted. But I've never had any doubt in my mind that they had in Iraq and Afghanistan - that they had coherent plans because they were essentially high-risk posts where you're essentially giving people hazardous duty pay and everything else.

I think - in Libya, unfortunately I think we were in a process of transitioning to a more business as usual mode and that the level of security obviously wasn't, you know, wasn't in place at that point in time.

CONAN: Well, I mean I'm asking, should there be a set rule in every situation? The State Department is in charge, and if the CIA there, they have to report to the State Department and DOD...

ANDERSON: Oh yeah. Absolutely. I think there is no two ways about it. I think you've got to have unity of command. And the - if the ambassador has the assets and the guy on the ground, the military guy on the ground says we can do the mission or we can at least attempt the mission with a reasonable degree of risk, the ambassador will able to make that call. That's what he gets paid for. You know, if that option was not availabl, the ambassador is designated chief of mission, then we've got a problem. So yes, the answer to your question is yes. There should be one guy on the ground in that country.

CONAN: And then there is the question post-attack, where there was apparently some conflict between the FBI trying to investigate things and the CIA.

ANDERSON: Well, again, that's, you know, I guess right back to the 9/11 thing. I mean, this is what were supposed to have solved. This was clearly an operation. This was clearly an operation that was overseas, which is usually in the CIA's jurisdiction.

The FBI does criminal investigations better than anybody. But again, at some point in time, if you've got a stovepipe there, where the two agencies aren't talking to each other, either in Washington or on the ground you've got a real problem. And there's not an excuse for it, 13, well, 12 years now after 9/11. You know, this is - supposedly should not be rocket science but somehow it becomes that.

CONAN: And to solve it, is this executive order or is this something Congress has to get involved with?

ANDERSON: Well, this is where, you know, the interagency problem gets to be really challenging because, you know, if you look at the Constitution, every head of agency, you know, if the guy on the ground goes all the way up to his head of agency, they only report to the president. So obviously it's got to be something that the executive authority does, and he has got to delegate that authority if he is not willing to sit there and handle every crisis that comes down the pike. He has got to delegate it to somebody on the ground who can say do this thing. I don't care, you know, I don't want you talking to your agency back home. You're working for me, do it. And...

CONAN: Gary Anderson?

ANDERSON: ...if that's not happening, then we've - I think we're going to have a continuing problem.

CONAN: Gary Anderson, thanks as always for your time.

ANDERSON: Good talking to you, Neal.

CONAN: Retired Colonel Gary Anderson. Tomorrow, Victor Davis Hanson and General Bernard Trainor on the war in Korea. Join us for that. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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