I've never been to Benghazi, nor have I stepped foot in a safe house (official or not), so perhaps I'm unqualified to make an observation about the prevailing opinion that the U.S. government could have done a LOT more to safeguard its personnel in Libya.
On the one hand, of course — yes, always — you can put more bodies on the ground. You can add contract security personnel. You can increase the American footprint, both the parts you can see and the parts you can't. Yes, OPSEC and CI — that's operational security and counter-intelligence — can always be enhanced.
But here is what I can't get my mind around. The CIA is deploying virtually every one of its officers with field experience. Its Global Response staff, sort of a pool of unaligned case officers, doesn't have anyone to spare. They're in Iraq, monitoring Iran. They're in Turkey, monitoring Syria. They're in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Afghanistan — and in lots of places that I can guess at but won't say. The State Department's staff of RSOs — Regional Security Officers and DS agents (Diplomatic Security) — is also taxed.
Congress (and the White House) are not in the mood to spend hundreds of millions on additional contract security officers, who, in general, can get in the way of tradecraft as much as they can safeguard it. (Quite a few CIA officers are "dipped" as civilian contract security officers, in fact.) In Libya, the CIA officers and support personnel there are responsible for tracking weapons, tracking dissidents, intercepting communications (government, jihadist, and otherwise), preparing reports, working with locals to develop human intelligence — and, of course, keeping their cover. It may be policy to have secure safe-houses, but following the rule book might be constricting to the point of absurdity. There is no real rule book for situations like these.
The CIA has to trust its chief of station to make the right call. The Agency and the State Department have to work together to make sure that the ambassador is both secure in his person and accessible. They have to be able to move assets around to incorporate the latest intelligence on the threat. A CIA analyst who is familiar with the region says that Ambassador Stevens, while concerned about his personal security, did not want to turn his embassy and consulates into exemplars of American imperialism. He wanted to be accessible. Sometimes, accessibility and counter-intelligence are mutually exclusive. Sometimes they aren't.
Bad things happen in the field. To label them "failures" of intelligence seems to assume that the U.S. government has a lot more resources and a lot more control of the world than they really do.
We may find out that someone in Washington denied our folks in Libya's request for more security, but we may also find out that the State Department's assessment of security was based on a correct assessment of the information it had at the time. None of this provides any comfort for the families of those who died, and it shouldn't. But to simply assume, because things go wrong, that the CIA should have (and could have) done a better job protecting its assets, or that the State Department fell down on the job, is to assume a whole lot of things that we, sitting on our comfortable couches in Washington (er... Los Angeles) simply cannot know at this point.
By all means, let's ask questions and see what reasonably could have been done to better protect our men and women overseas. But rushing to judgment politicizes and compresses what absolutely needs to be an apolitical and judicious process.
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- How to be the most productive person in your office — and still get home by 5:30 p.m.
- What is driving the increasingly weird behavior of the polar jet stream?
- 43 TV shows to watch in 2014
- How our botched understanding of 'science' ruins everything
- Christians have no moral rationale for spanking their children
- 6 things the happiest families all have in common
- Should you hope to die at 75? Absolutely not.
- The science of sex: 4 harsh truths about dating and mating
- 13 Urban Outfitters controversies
- Why America should team up with Bashar al-Assad's regime
Subscribe to the Week