About That FBI Investigation of the Benghazi Attack…

The NYT’s Eric Schmitt reports that JSOC is preparing target packages for those who attacked the Benghazi consulate.

The American military’s top-secret Joint Special Operations Command is preparing detailed information that could be used to kill or capture some of the militants suspected in the attack last month in Libya that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, senior military and counterterrorism officials said on Tuesday.


It remained unclear precisely how many of the “target packages” are being prepared — perhaps a dozen or more — but military and counterterrorism officials said that the Libyan authorities had identified several suspected assailants based on witness accounts, video and other photographs from the scene.

“They are putting together information on where these individuals live, who their family members and their associates are, and their entire pattern of life,” said one American official who has been briefed on the target planning now under way.

American intelligence-gathering assets — spies, satellite imagery, electronic-eavesdropping devices, among others — are finite, so counterterrorism authorities preparing the “target packages” must prioritize which militants in Benghazi — or elsewhere if they have fled the area since the attack — need to be monitored on a nearly hour-by-hour, if not minute-by-minute, basis.

To help with this effort since the attacks, the Pentagon has increased the frequency of surveillance drones that fly over eastern Libya, collecting electronic intercepts, imagery and other information that could help planners compile their target lists. American intelligence agencies have assigned additional analysts to concentrate on the suspects. [my emphasis]

Schmitt doesn’t breathe a word about this in yesterday’s article, but four days before he wrote that JSOC article, he contributed to this article describing the FBI’s difficulties investigating the attack.

Sixteen days after the death of four Americans in an attack on a United States diplomatic mission here, fears about the near-total lack of security have kept F.B.I. agents from visiting the scene of the killings and forced them to try to piece together the complicated crime from Tripoli, more than 400 miles away.


The Libyan government has advised the F.B.I. that it cannot ensure the safety of the American investigators in Benghazi. So agents have been conducting interviews from afar, relying on local Libyan authorities to help identify and arrange meetings with witnesses to the attack and working closely with the Libyans to gauge the veracity of any of those accounts.

“There’s a chance we never make it in there,” said a senior law enforcement official.

Also hampering the investigation is fear among Libyan witnesses about revealing their identities or accounts in front of Libyan guards protecting the American investigators, because the potential witnesses fear that other Libyans might reveal their participation and draw retribution from the attackers.


Assigning culpability also complicates the American response. For now, the administration awaits the F.B.I. investigation and updated intelligence reports. President Obama has said the United States will bring to justice those responsible for the attacks. But there is little appetite in the White House to launch drone strikes or a Special Operations raid, like the one that killed Osama bin Laden, in yet another Muslim country. [my emphasis]

So I take it in the interim four days–particularly with Mitt’s team seeking to turn this into their Jimmy Carter plan–things have changed? We’ve gone from awaiting the results of an investigation to preparing target packages without that investigation? We’ve gone from having no stomach for launching drone strikes or JSOC raids to preparing targeting packages for such responses?

Now, I’m not saying that had they waited for the FBI to go to a gutted consulate in Benghazi they’d get any meaningful evidence (though I do recall the USS Cole investigative team, among others, struggled through similar concerns and dangers as exist in Libya).

But I am saying that the reporting on this story has not noted the interim step–where both political pressure (the Jimmy Carter plan) and the availability of other options led the Administration to give up on an FBI investigation and proceed directly to the targeting step.

And note the kinds of intelligence: FBI was never developing its own leads; it was relying on Libyan partners (that happens a lot in international FBI investigations, for legal as well as cultural reasons). The FBI’s efforts to interview witnesses was challenged by the intelligence vulnerabilities that made the consulate a target: the assumption that hostile militia members are surveilling the US Embassy in Tripoli, and an understanding among Libyans that America’s Libyan guards may be part of that surveillance. (The story says nothing about the fact that attackers took diplomatic records away from the Benghazi consulate that exposed the identities of people working closely with Americans; potential witnesses may have reason to fear their cooperation with the US has already been compromised.)

And so now, rather than have the FBI investigate directly (to say nothing of collecting forensic evidence from the consulate, which would have been nearly impossible given how quickly the consulate was looted), we’re relying on some spies (this, in spite of reports the CIA has pulled out of Benghazi too), but largely intercepts, imagery, and “other information” collected via drones and electronic surveillance. Sure, all that builds off the same Libyan cooperation in identifying suspects the FBI was using, and assuming that’s more reliable than the Libyan guards everyone seems to suspect have divided loyalties, that’s a great start.

There are a number of circumstances (the election being a big one) that make this shift to relying on drones understandable. I’m not faulting the Administration for doing so.

But what it shows is both an increasingly common impulse in American counterterrrorism, to shift quickly to the tools that are easy. And all that’s built on the inherent problems with a belief that our new method of intervention can rely primarily on local partners who not only don’t have reason to be loyal to us, but also may not bring security to the country.

8 replies
  1. Jim White says:

    Interviews and intelligence gathering from afar, developing hit lists anyway. Gosh, I’ve heard this one before. Benghazi is the new FATA.

    And that has worked out so well for us…

  2. P J Evans says:

    It will make all the little GOP trolls on news sites very happy. They’re pushing the ‘no security/FBI in Benghazi, therefore the president is incompetent’ lines really hard.

  3. bmaz says:

    Not to mention the classic issue of local partners that may simply be feeding info that strengthens them and weakens their internal enemies.

  4. der says:

    Well our Serious Leaders do have $40mil facial recognition software that tells them – “Some Libyan guys” – were behind this “terrorist” attack, so ipso facto we can confidently target some guys in Libya. Btw, Romney’s folks say Jack Bauer would have taken care of this in 24 hours, seriously.
    Jeebus, drink.

  5. bell says:

    it’s tough trying to rule the world thru every god forsaken country on the planet..i doubt that usa foreign policy will change anytime soon, as getting caught up in the minuet e is a much more predictable response not to mention the desire to score local political points during the perpetual election cycle..

  6. Gimme Shelter says:

    I’m not faulting the Administration for doing so.

    really? i think it is disgusting and immoral and a crime against humanity to just start lobbing missiles at people without a shred of proof or a trial or you know, evidence.

    anyways, i read that first nyt story about the fbi trying to investigate from 3,000 miles away and thought “yeah good luck with that” and then last night saw the second article (which i did not read as i knew it would be carrying water for the usg and your summary proves me right) and thought “the usg is gonna hold up the nyt with the schmitt propaganda piece and shake it at the libyans / consulate attackers and shout “give yourselves up we know you’re in there come out with your hands up or you’re all gonna get it”” and lo and behold that’s pretty much what is going on now.

    and then there was the other nyt article yesterday about the expanding “sphere of influence” of usa Africom and all i could think was “here we go again / some more with the guns and bullets and massacres and killing and murdering and more amerikkkan terroristic war crimes.

    and at the end of the day “why do they hate us”.

  7. Gimme Shelter says:

    Sensitive documents left behind at American mission in Libya

    More than three weeks after attacks in this city killed the US ambassador to Libya and three other Americans, sensitive documents remained only loosely secured in the remains of the US mission here on Wednesday, offering visitors easy access to delicate details about American operations in Libya.

    Documents detailing weapons collection efforts, emergency evacuation protocols, the full internal itinerary of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’s trip and the personnel records of Libyans who were contracted to secure the mission were among the items scattered across the floors of the looted compound when a Washington Post reporter and a translator visited Wednesday.


    so by all means just start droning the ever living sh*t out of somebody / anybody in order to cover up lack of foresight / security precautions / ineptitude

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