Poking Our Eyes Out in Libya

The NYT reports that–as already happened in Lebanon and Iran in the last year or so–the attack on the Consulate in Benghazi seriously set back CIA’s intelligence gathering efforts in Libya.

“It’s a catastrophic intelligence loss,” said one American official who has served in Libya and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the F.B.I. is still investigating the attack. “We got our eyes poked out.”

Curiously, the article doesn’t mention anything about my current obsession about the attack, the reports that attackers took away documents from the embassy listing those cooperating with our intelligence (as well as describing oil negotiations). If the attackers walked away with a CIA location’s files, of course the CIA’s HUMINT network and SIGINT efforts would be compromised; the attackers would have a road map of what the CIA was doing!

Instead, the article uses the number of spooks evacuated from Benghazi as an indication of how much intelligence work was going on.

Among the more than two dozen American personnel evacuated from the city after the assault on the American mission and a nearby annex were about a dozen C.I.A. operatives and contractors, who played a crucial role in conducting surveillance and collecting information on an array of armed militant groups in and around the city.

Remember, when rescuers showed up at a safe house after the attack, they expected 10 people; they weren’t prepared for the 37 they found, which made the ambush on the safe house more difficult to fight.

But he had a transport problem. Having been told to expect 10 Americans and having found 37, Obeidi did not have enough vehicles to break out, despite having one heavy anti-aircraft gun mounted on a pickup truck.

“I was being bombarded by calls from all over the country by Libyan government officials who wanted me to hurry and get them out,” he said. “But I told them that we were in such difficult circumstances and that I needed more men and more cars.”

Eventually dozens more vehicles were dispatched from pro-government militia brigades and, with the sun rising, the convoy headed back to the airport where an aircraft flew a first group of U.S. personnel out to the Libyan capital.

Though I’m wondering whether at least some of the 37 were DIA, since right after this happened, DOD announced it would hire contractors–including Blackwater–to train DIA personnel deploying overseas.

In any case, the number of people evacuated must have led to the discovery that many the people working at the Consulate were working off the books, because in addition to the Libyan Special Forces partnering with us to protect the Consulate, the number was also a surprise to Libya’s Deputy Prime Minister.

Though the agency has been cooperating with the new post-Qaddafi Libyan intelligence service, the size of the C.I.A.’s presence in Benghazi apparently surprised some Libyan leaders. The deputy prime minister, Mustafa Abushagour, was quoted in The Wall Street Journal last week saying that he learned about some of the delicate American operations in Benghazi only after the attack on the mission, in large part because a surprisingly large number of Americans showed up at the Benghazi airport to be evacuated.

“We have no problem with intelligence sharing or gathering, but our sovereignty is also key,” said Mr. Abushagour.

Ah sovereignty. That pesky issue keeps biting us in the ass with our so-called allies.

All of this is not to ignore the really big news from Libya over the weekend: the large protests against militias in the city, which the Administration is hailing as proof of the democratic instincts of the Libans. Though I suspect we’ll learn this was more about Libyan counter-offensive (possibly with US assistance) than just spontaneous protests (that is, as the original attack used cover of a protest, I suspect this counter-offensive did too).

But the subtext of this NYT story seems to be that we had a bunch of CIA guys working in two undefended locations-purportedly “safe houses” that the attackers knew enough about to deploy mortars to attack them. And that leaving the spooks like sitting ducks rather unsurprisingly led to the attackers compromising all their intelligence-gathering going on in Benghazi.

Marcy has been blogging full time since 2007. She’s known for her live-blogging of the Scooter Libby trial, her discovery of the number of times Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was waterboarded, and generally for her weedy analysis of document dumps.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including the Guardian, Salon, and the Progressive, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse and dog in Grand Rapids, MI.

18 replies
  1. please says:

    I must say I’m becoming uncomfortable with some of the conclusions you are arriving at vis-a-vis Libya. I’m not sure what your familiarity with the country was before the war broke out but it especially crucial to understand what going on there now.

    The large protests that have largely gone unreported (much like the protests during the war) are, I believe, not against nebulous ‘militias’ or pangs for democracy, but are specifically addressed towards the regime.

    I suspect two things are going to happen in the future. This type of push back is going to increase and two, we might see US presence on the ground that might be under reported as well.

    I found one of your titles about Libya in the last week interesting: “…desert warriors”. I don’t know if that was a quote from one of the accounts on what happened, but I do know that the Tuaregs in Libya have not had their final say about the current situation and the installed regime.

  2. Frank33 says:

    We have another massive Fail by the Intelligence Authorities. As with all their other failures, the incompetent neo-cons will be promoted and we will get another coverup. With all the trillions of dollars and a five million member secret army, we get an US Ambassador abandoned by his bodyguards. We have Classified material stolen by an Al Qaeda look alike appendage. Time and time again the outsourced mercenaries have been a disaster, which is what the neo-cons want.

    US Ambassadors were previously protected by Marines, who are not cowards. The outsourced security guys ran away and should be considered responsible for Steven’s death. What is the cost for one of these Blackwater or Dyncorp security cowards? They ran away because they are worthless. But outsourcing “espionage”, is the new policy, and Blackwater is training US spies. This is all corruption. Also, the Assassinations, and torture is outsourced. Plausible deniability for all.

  3. Jeff Kaye says:

    “Though the agency has been cooperating with the new post-Qaddafi Libyan intelligence service, the size of the C.I.A.’s presence in Benghazi apparently surprised some Libyan leaders…. delicate American operations in Benghazi ….”

    Bingo.

  4. OrionATL says:

    just what might the cia/dia personnel have been doing in libya/benghazi?

    well, according to your nytimes source:

    “…American intelligence operatives also assisted State Department contractors and Libyan officials in tracking shoulder-fired missiles taken from the former arsenals of the former Libyan Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces; they aided in efforts to secure Libya’s chemical weapons stockpiles; and they helped train Libya’s new intelligence service, officials said…”

    these seem like reasonable activities as well as activities u.s. allies in the “free libya” campaign might not have had the personnel or motive to undertake.

    i’m not sure the implied analogy to pakistan holds.

  5. emptywheel says:

    @OrionATL: Since that passage says we were working w/Libyan security on that project, it doesn’t seem to be the intelligence they were objecting to.

    There is intelligence sharing, and then there is the stuff we’re not sharing. That’s going to be true, regardless. The big intelligence we weren’t sharing in Pakistan was us tracking their nukes, something even more important in the grand scheme of things than tracking shoulder launched missiles. Our problem seems to lie in trying to find reasonable relationships with countries that aren’t client states. Not surprisingly, as we prefer to just work with client-states.

  6. OrionATL says:

    @emptywheel:

    yes, the nukes are more important.

    the two nations aren’t in the same “situation”. while we westerners seem to like to occassionally refer to pakistan as “chaotic”, “unstable”, day-to-day government process there is reasonably stable.

    libya, on the other hand, seems truly, and not at all surprisingly, to be in a state of chaos resulting from the very recent destruction of the qaddaffi government.

    if the american intelligence octopus (i cannot bring myself to type “community”) is operating in libya to track looted weapons and chemical weapons, that seems to me to be a reasonable activity under the circumstances.

    not all cia/dia are paramilitary. i would be very interested in knowing the analysts vs paramilitary breakout of american intelligence personnel in libya.

    it would not surprise me to learn that the attack on the consulate was, first and foremost, an attempt to do precisely what your title alludes to – poke out american intelligence eyes in libya, or western libya. ambassador stevens may have been targeted because he was considered, rightly or wrongly, as the american leader of such activity in libya, in addition to his standard ambassadorial duties.

  7. Arbusto says:

    So subcontractors, who learned their trade craft from our Army, Navy and Marines are going to train our Army, Navy and Marines. Why does that sound so stupid? Wouldn’t make more sense to go on bended knee to professional intel agencies like MI6 or the Mossad for training.

    Go’ta wonder if our spy agency policies can change with the times. Seems to me every time one of our safe(?) houses, consulates or embassies are overrun (too often) critical intel is taken. Can’t they figure it’s important enough to 1) not keep on hand, or 2) be instantaneously destroyed. I’d also suggest they take down the road signs pointing to safe houses.

  8. OrionATL says:

    @OrionATL:

    i didn’t tag it, and now i can’t find it again, but i read a reference this a.m. to ambassador stevens as having been “fatally wounded”.

    embassy management official sean smith apparently was shot.

    just how did stevens die?

    were he and smith specifically targeted and effectively executed, with stevens left to formally die later of smoke inhalation?

    these two deaths are different from those of the other two americans who died from a mortar explosion.

  9. Frank33 says:

    Apparently some CNN employees forgot that CNN only pretends to be journalism. But these reporters did discover the left-behind Diary of Stevens. Instead of giving the Diary to the Secret Government these reporters amazingly read the Diary. That is what journalists do, discover things. They discovered the State Dept. public affairs shills are lying about Libya.

    And even more delicious, there is a tasty flame war between Michael Hastings and Hillary’s personal spokesliar, Philippe Reines. Reines told Hastings to “Fuck off” because he is an “unmitigated asshole”. That is so undiplomatic. But Hastings did start it by calling Reines answers “bullshit”.

    Reines took Hastings off his e-mail “friends” list, and put him into the Junk Mail bin.

    I can hardly wait for Vickie Nuland to join the fun.

  10. please says:

    Furthermore, I’ll admit the way I came into the news on the attack on the villas in Benghazi I got the impression that this was an isolated incident that had some passing link with the supposed proliferation of the video.

    Not only was the video completely irrelevant, it was used to re-frame the incident. This wasn’t a recently made video that had suddenly gotten traction.

    More reading into what has been going on in Libya reveals that on the ground things have been far more chaotic and in a local context, this could be viewed as an accent on a series of attacks and bombings on officials and buildings in the past few months.

    Attention has to be paid to what is going on locally in Libya not just what has come up that directly and visibly affects US personnel. We should be hearing more, not less, about the warships and marines sent to Libya. Although I doubt as the noise around the elections the crescendos.

  11. OrionATL says:

    @Frank33:

    i don’t know anything about michael hastings except that his reasoning is sloppy, if not sly:

    “…The blockbuster news contradicted the line the State Department and the administration had been pushing since the horrible tragedy took place almost two weeks ago: that there was no intelligence of a coming attack. In fact, the Ambassador himself was aware of a persistent high level threat against him…”

    that stevens knew he was under high threat is not surprising. i could have told you he was, and i know nothing about libyan politics.

    that stevens knew he was exposed is not remotely the same as his having known that an attack was planned on the consulate the evening he died. hastings implies that the one implies the other.

    as for the “missing security” complaint, a contingent of american soldiers is the last thing the state department would have wanted to have in benghazi. it would almost certainly have crippled intelligence gathering and might have provoked an attack.

    there may well have been mistakes of judgment which the ambassador or other embassy or state security personnel made that led to stevens’ and smith’s deaths – that’s the way things go with human decision making in such dicey circumstances.

  12. Brindle says:

    Spencer Ackerman has excellent sources, though I’m not a fan of his politics–too much of a GWOT cheerleader:

    http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2012/09/libya-cia/

    –“President Obama told the truth when he said there would be no U.S. ground troops in Libya after last year’s war to oust dictator Moammar Gadhafi. He just left out a lot of context — like how eastern Libya, the site of the deadly September 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, would become a major staging ground for American contractors and intelligence operatives as they try to take the measure of the local Islamist militants.

    The future of that effort is now in question after an attack that killed four Americans, including a U.S. ambassador and two former Navy SEALs. The assault has led Americans to vacate Benghazi for their safety, even though various militant groups continue their operations. It’s a disaster for U.S. intelligence efforts in the region, especially since the attack has made brutally clear how real the jihadi threat in eastern Libya remains.”

  13. OrionATL says:

    @OrionATL:

    found it:

    “…(CNN) — Three days after he was killed, CNN found a journal belonging to late U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens. The journal was found on the floor of the largely unsecured consulate compound where he was fatally wounded…”

    from

    http://edition.cnn.com/2012/09/22/world/africa/libya-ambassador-journal/index.html

    is “fatally wounded” just sloppy writing, or does the cnn reporter know for a fact that stevens was wounded?

  14. ryan says:

    Please,

    Do you have any links? I’d be interested in pursuing more of the local news you’re talking about if it’s available in English (or possibly another language, but I don’t read any Arabic or Berber, alas.)

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