Barack Obama, Full cabinet
President Barack Obama with full cabinet, September 10, 2009. Photo credit: Chuck Kennedy / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The debate over who was responsible for the attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, rages on. But the partisan noise appears to be obscuring a much more interesting possibility. Not to mention more troubling.

The continued finger-pointing between the GOP and the Obama Administration over “what really happened in Benghazi” may be obscuring a much more disturbing narrative — a story in neither party’s interest.

WhoWhatWhy’s discussion of that new possibility comes below, but first, here’s the background:

On September 11, 2012, a heavily armed group of more than 100 gunmen destroyed the US consulate compound and a nearby CIA facility in the Eastern Libyan city; ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died. The attack has been characterized as “the most significant attack on United States property … since Sept. 11, 2001.”

Shortly after the incident, Susan Rice, then Obama’s UN ambassador, claimed publicly that the uprising was spontaneous—a reaction to an anti-Islam YouTube video that had just aired. She, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others soon came under severe attack for purportedly making a false claim to deflect attention from administration security failures, and the blogosphere has continued to resound with the issue ever since.

The GOP—along with its allies at Fox News and elsewhere—insistently drummed allegations that the Obama Administration was responsible for the tragedy. The charges have ranged from a failure to address Al Qaeda’s purported presence in Benghazi to not properly controlling weaponry in the hands of local militias.

These critics also decry what they say is a long-running cover-up.  According to one count, nearly 80 percent of House Republicans now say they want a Watergate-style inquiry convened. Liberals have charged the Republicans with being recklessly partisan and exhibiting “lunacy.”

Recently, the controversy’s simmer went back to boil when The New York Times published an investigative report on Benghazi. Some of its conclusions vindicated the Obama Administration. It concluded that there was no Al Qaeda role, and that indeed the inflammatory video may have played some role. However, while finding that the crowd attack was partially spontaneous, the paper’s reporter suggested that some intelligence lapses might have contributed. Specifically, he laid out superficial evidence that a local, non-Al Qaeda militia leader played some possible role as an inciter and sympathizer with the attack — and that the man should have already been drawing scrutiny from American spies. In other words, a kind of draw, with neither the GOP nor the Obama administration fully vindicated.

When the Times piece came out, the GOP and its echo chamber, including Donald Trump, raced to accuse the paper of covering up the role of Al Qaeda in the attacks. By most accounts, though, that critique is dependent on perpetuating a still-popular though overly simplified notion of Al Qaeda as a unified, globe-girdling command, ignoring the local origins of so much Islamist activity. The perpetuation of the “Al Qaeda threat” has worked well because it continues as an easy sell for those stoking the fear machine.

On a scorecard comparing the traditional news outlets, the Times would, not surprisingly, score higher on the credibility and integrity meter with the Benghazi story than, say Fox News. But that’s not saying a lot. Because very few establishment news entities of any stripe are willing to look deeper at the true causes of convulsive events, to wade into the shadowy world of larger interests duking it out through surrogates and deception.

Sometimes, to be sure, such events as the Benghazi “uprising” are as they appear: spontaneous acts of anger and passion. But often enough, there is more to the story.

That appears to be the case here. Delve deep into the particulars and you will uncover clues that, when carefully juxtaposed, suggest a more coherent design.

Here are some of those pieces:

-The date of the assault: anniversary of the September 11, 2001, attacks

-The evidence of advance planning and preparation

-The timing, content, provenance, and beneficiaries of the inciting video

-The nature of the uprising itself and its similarity to other supposedly spontaneous or locally-ignited debacles with international implications and hints of a guiding hand.

Cui Bono?

Let’s start with the last point.

At least 12 hours before the attack, guards at the US compound had noticed evidence that the complex was under some kind of surveillance. They’d seen a man taking cell phone photos from the second floor of an unfinished building across the street, and when they approached, the man fled in a police car with others—all of whom were wearing the uniform of a quasi-official militia. So if the crowd was whipped up over the video, and spontaneous, then the crowd was phase two of a far less spontaneous, and carefully planned, operation.

If those so obviously “staking out” the building chose to wear uniforms of a Libyan-government-connected militia and to “escape” in a police car, most likely they were neither government nor police.

All investigators know to ask: Cui Bono? It’s Latin, which loosely translates as “who benefits?”  Who benefited from the destruction of the consulate and the deaths of the Americans, and the subsequent US-prompted heat placed on the militias by deeply embarrassed Libyan authorities? Not the militias. Not the Libyan government or the local police. And certainly not the Obama administration.

The net effect of the attack—and the outsized attention devoted to it at the time and over the course of the 16 months since it unfolded—was to revive concerns about global Islamic fundamentalism.

In the long stretches of quiet, public sentiment tends to move toward cutting aggressive foreign military action and the tremendous costs, as well as the domestic equivalent, in the form of the post-9/11 government and highly profitable private enterprises all grouped under “homeland security.” When Obama has tried at various points to rein in military operations and to promote diplomatic initiatives over armed intervention, especially in his second term, he has faced staunch opposition, including in Congress, where those benefiting most from war and discord spend heavily to influence members.

It was no surprise, really, that the Benghazi attack was quickly followed by claims that the Obama administration is not doing enough to protect American lives and property. And the result almost certainly has not been further restraint in spending or implementation of security measures. Indeed, with the emphasis on Benghazi as “the most significant attack on United States property … since Sept. 11, 2001,”  the US compound attack became the far bookend on a period of actual substantive safety and calm for Americans, lasting eleven years since the Twin Towers came under attack.

The GOP and its allies have, remarkably, even sought to create some kind of equivalency between Benghazi and 9/11 — but on the Democrats’ watch, instead of George W. Bush’s. However, given that four people died in Benghazi, compared to nearly three thousand deaths from 9/11, the alacrity with which the Republicans, their partners at Fox and the like have pummeled Obama tells you something about their cynicism.

Practically, though, the Benghazi attack sends the message that the US must continue to be aggressive abroad, and that it expects the same from “friendly” regimes in the Middle East.

And no friendly regime was watching developments more closely than the one right next door — in Egypt.

For Answers, Look Next Door

For decades, dictators ruled Egypt with the full support of European powers and the US government. With the Arab Spring uprising — which was viewed with consternation by US authorities — the country finally embraced democracy. But it brought new perils, as Egyptian voters elected Islamists.

On June 30, 2012, Mohamed Morsi of the Islamic Brotherhood was sworn in as president of Egypt. He won 51.73 percent of the vote in that country’s first free election, becoming its first civilian president.

The Brotherhood, however, did not last long. A year later, the army overthrew Morsi.

At the time, US authorities predictably issued restrained condemnations of the army and its overtly anti-democratic action. In the ensuing months, however, the criticism became more and more muted as the mandarins of American foreign policy argued that military dictators were preferable to elected Islamists.

While the Egyptian military could be expected to serve the interests of the wealthy and of transnational corporations, as it had in the past, its supporters abroad cited humanitarian concerns as justification.

Among these concerns was the instability and intolerance that Islamist control heralded, particularly in the form of retribution against Egypt’s religious minorities. Most notably, these included the affluent Coptic Christian community, traditionally protected by the Egyptian government just as minorities in Syria have been protected by President Assad. Assad himself is a member of a minority Muslim sect, the Alawites.

With this background, consider the role of that briefly infamous viral video in the Benghazi attack. The video was a strikingly crude production characterized by the secrecy of the sponsors and the seeming intention to antagonize Muslims—and perhaps direct the antagonism against Christians.

The video, with its Egyptian roots, appeared barely two months after Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood took power. It was publicized heavily by Egyptian television stations closely allied with the country’s military — stations whose audience includes Libyans, and specifically  much of the population of Benghazi. We learned that the odd figures behind it were … Coptic Christians.

The details of the production of this amateurish film remain hazy; no serious investigation has yet established who was ultimately behind it. But the multiple deceptions involved in tricking the actors and others who worked on the film, the subsequent overdubbing of dialogue highly offensive to Muslims, the criminal past of the Coptic Egyptian purportedly responsible for the film, all these cry out for further investigation. They also send up flares that we’re looking at a classic, multilayered disinformation operation orchestrated by someone with lots of skin in the game.

That it appeared on television channels closely associated with the Egyptian military just as the anniversary of 9/11 rolled around, and that it allegedly became the match that set off the Benghazi mini-conflagration cannot be ignored.

When Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton and others were noting the role of the video in the tragedy, they may well have been right. But we heard no more from the administration on who they believed was responsible for the video or the timing of its release.

Given the strong Egyptian connection, it’s hard to imagine that no one put two and two together and wondered if the attack on the American mission, with its apparent advance planning and sophisticated deception, were not the work of some disciplined entity with substantial interests and resources.

So far, the evidence pointing to Egypt is purely circumstantial. But the net effect, and the message, is clear: North Africa is a tinderbox, and we’d be well to leave the Egyptian military alone while it pursues its brutal and bloody campaign to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood. (The latest of a constant series of moves to quash the Islamists was the announcement by the Egyptian minister of education that the government had taken over more than 150 Brotherhood-run schools.)

Hence, our question: Were Egyptian intelligence services responsible for the inciting video, for stirring up the crowd, and essentially stage managing the attack on their “friend’s” consulate, with the goal of firming US support for their “get tough” policy? The net effect, more than a year later, has certainly been favorable to the military government. The dictatorship is firmly ensconced in power, and the US government has made little effort to get the military to withdraw to its barracks which would allow for democracy, however messy, to prevail in Egypt.

For the US military-industrial complex that has profited mightily from Egyptian military purchases, much of which is subsidized by US taxpayers, the benefits of a continued justification are apparent. Although the US has periodically announced modest and highly temporary freezes on military assistance to Egypt to symbolically protest aggression, these moves do nothing to seriously restrain aid that has typically run up to $1.5 billion dollars a year. And Secretary of Defense Hagel and Secretary of State Kerry have been supportive of the military regime; Kerry has been public in his praise of purportedly democratic moves by the generals in charge.

Whipping up unwitting crowds is nothing new. It’s been done in Iran, Chile, and in other places—including, as WhoWhatWhy has reported, a covert French role in the initiatory incident for the Libyan “Arab Spring” itself in 2011. It is a classic trick of the covert operations trade. It would not have been hard to light the match that turned into the Benghazi conflagration. Many of the veterans in “friendly” foreign intelligence services were trained by masters of public opinion manipulation from the West, spiritual heirs of familiar old intriguers such as David Atlee Phillips and E. Howard Hunt.

If our hunch on Benghazi is correct—and despite the indications, it is only a hunch—this pattern might mirror what happened with 9/11. In that situation, an attack bearing evidentiary signs of Saudi sponsorship paradoxically resulted not in investigations but in a strengthening of the US relationship with the dictatorial Saudi royal family. (For more on that, see this, this, and this.) In the case of 9/11, the US government has consistently blocked disclosure of relevant documents, apparently on the grounds of undefined “national security” interests. Is the Obama administration in the same self-imposed “bind” regarding Benghazi?

And here we see another convergence. Besides the Egyptians, another power that made sure everyone heard about that inflammatory video was Egypt’s traditional ally, Saudi Arabia. In a confidential memo from Clinton family confidant Sid Blumenthal to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, later obtained by a hacker and released, a “sensitive” source cites information from the French intelligence services which

“indicates that the funding (for the Benghazi attack) originated with wealthy Sunni Islamists in Saudi Arabia.”

Our Media, Unhelpful As Always

Did you hear any of this in the conventional media? Doubtful. From the Times to Fox News, we’ve seen little more than perpetuation of the Democratic-versus-Republican slugfest. This makes easy-to-follow coverage, but it obscures deeper patterns of behavior benefiting institutions and individuals that transcend party.

Fox and the GOP, however, ought to be singled out for the extent of their cynicism, whipping up their typically uninformed and perpetually choleric base. By hammering away relentlessly at the Obama administration for its purported “failures” and alleged “cover-up” of Benghazi, and by not looking at the likelihood of what really happened, they have only heaped manure on any original cover-up.

As always, the only hope for getting to the bottom of things is to turn to non-traditional “muckrakers” and whistleblowers.

WhoWhatWhy plans to continue doing this kind of groundbreaking original reporting. You can count on us. Can we count on you? What we do is only possible with your support.

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  • Russ Baker

    Russ Baker is Editor-in-Chief of WhoWhatWhy. He is an award-winning investigative journalist who specializes in exploring power dynamics behind major events.

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