A new report by the Senate Intelligence Committee should help clear the political smoke and focus public attention on what really contributed to the deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The State Department, the Pentagon and the intelligence community share blame for what the committee describes as a "preventable" attack in 2012 that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. The findings should be used as a blueprint for how to better protect frontline personnel at America's most dangerous outposts.
The bipartisan report breaks no major new ground, though it paints the most troublesome picture so far of the lack of urgency by the State Department to bolster security in Benghazi. That failure to be aggressive continued even as the hotbed of Islamist militarism was threatening to undo the political inroads the United States was making in Libya in the wake of the NATO-supported overthrow of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi. The report describes a breakdown in communication between intelligence agencies and the military, which made the U.S. compound more vulnerable to attack. And it suggests that U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who twice refused the offer of a U.S. protection team in the weeks before the assault, was overconfident and naive in relying on local militias for security.
The report is the second, exhaustive examination that countered charges by Republicans that the White House doctored details of the assault to cover up links between the attackers and a growing al-Qaida movement. The report recounts a fluid and chaotic scene as attackers from a multitude of groups converged on the compound. It calls the assault an "opportunistic" rather than a coordinated one. And while the Obama administration was vague and conflicting about some details, its early "talking points" on the attack "painted a mostly accurate picture" of what the intelligence committee knew. That assessment should turn public attention toward the lessons that really matter.
The State Department should quickly implement the recommendations aimed at better assessing threat levels at high-risk posts. The intelligence community needs to make better use of social media — which did not happen here — to catch red flags of looming violence. And state, military and intelligence officials need to more routinely share information. The chaos of the attack was in many ways enabled by the chaos within the American bureaucracy that missed so many warning signs.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton accepted responsibility for the attack and the loss of life, and she will have to answer more questions if she runs for president in 2016 about how and why the United States maintained a presence in Benghazi as the security situation worsened. Diplomats accept danger with the job. But the deteriorating conditions in Benghazi, the uptick in anti-American fervor, the lack of an adequately staffed and equipped diplomatic security contingent, and overt warnings by Libyans all raise questions about the judgment of the secretary of state and the president.