It was hard to watch today's House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearings without wincing. We winced when the regional security officer for Libya, Eric Nordstrom, told of his intense frustrations with the State Department's bureaucracy, which apparently did not agree with his assessment of the security situation for diplomats in Benghazi. And we winced when the top State official for diplomatic security, Charlene Lamb, admitted that there was a resource gap; she did the best with the resources she had. I winced when the same Republicans who voted to restrict funding for the State Department complained that the Obama administration should have done more with less.
The death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans has become a political flashpoint for two reasons.
One of them is silly. Did the Obama administration deliberately try to spin the post-attack intelligence to suggest that there was no terrorist connection because if they conceded as much, they would be conceding that Obama's pulsed up SOF and drone campaign against al Qaeda hadn't really worked? Believe that, and I've got a Bureau of Labor Statistics encryption key to sell you. If the administration were to deliberately ignore what the intelligence community was telling them, this fact would have leaked, because leaking is the way the IC keeps policy-makers from misrepresenting their product to the public. And remember, the administration openly refined its story as the the facts were gathered, something you don't do if you're trying to cover something up. Three, the administration has shifted resources to North Africa from other areas in recent months precisely to deal with the growing threat from al Qaeda in the Maghreb. The intelligence community is no longer seen as an honest broker in these disputes either, a consequence of the way all administrations (including Obama's) have manipulated the privilege of secrecy.
Two, the disjuncture between the White House, which definitely is attuned to politics, and the State Department, which is protective of its people and its decisions, exposes a failure in government, one that resonates with Americans who think that government doesn't work. It also reflects a gnawing deficiency in U.S. counter-intelligence practice. It does seem like people who should have been part of security reviews, like Lt. Col. Andy Wood, the head of a State special security support team in Libya, were not. Of course, the dead-hand fact of life is that even in peacetime, terrorist incidents will happen, as they did under many previous administrations, and the State Department has to make hard choices about where to allocate resources. Everyone in a tense environment will want more than they need; you would and I would, too. Sometimes, bureaucracies will ratify individual assessments like these, and other times they won't.