Benghazi Political Fail

OK, first, watch this please. Or at least a minute or two of it. It’s footage, without any audio, that shows what things look like from military drones:

Now, once you are comfortable that you understand what things look like through those cameras, let’s talk about the recent political claims that the Obama administration abandoned Navy SEALs to die in Benghazi.

There’s a ton of reports on this, with much hyperventilating, but a pretty good summation of the huffing and puffing over it can be found in this angry article by Kevin Danielsen. The headline, “CIA was told, twice, to stand down” is ambiguous and thus misleading, but since Danielsen probably didn’t write that headline we can’t fault him for that.

What we can fault him and others with is getting overheated about things they pretty obviously don’t understand.

Dean’s World commenters have asked me why I haven’t written on this “Obama abandoned Navy SEALs to die in Benghazi” story. Having spent hours reading and talking about the whole thing the last couple of days, I’ve come to the conclusion that my initial instincts were correct: most of this story is driven by an urge to attack the President a few weeks before the election, although there’s also some understandable anger from people who just don’t understand how things like the CIA and the military work.

Let’s sort out a few salient facts from my perspective:

There is a near constant drumbeat from those who hate President Obama that what happened here is that some Navy SEALs were abandoned. No, sorry, that is not what happened. Not one single Navy SEAL was present during those events so far as I can determine from any story I’ve read, not even stuff from Fox News.

Two CIA spies, spooks on a spook mission, had set up temporary headquarters in an unused annex of an embassy building. They were civilians, not Soldiers. They were CIA spooks, not members of a combat unit.

Now as it happens, both of those civilian spies who worked for the Central Intelligence Agency were retired Navy SEALs. The operative word there being “retired,” as in, “former.” They were no more members of the military than I am. This is more than a tiny detail. It’s hugely important: they were not Soldiers. They were Spies. Let’s get that straight, because it matters.

These Spies, who were on a Spy mission, had been given temporary, ad hoc use of some spare offices in an annex to the US embassy in Benghazi, where they sat around gathering their spy intel and planning their spy mission. Suddenly, the embassy building they happened to be in was under attack.

Now, bravely enough, being former military and all, these Spies chose, on their own accord, to get involved in a firefight. I don’t fault them for it, much; as former SEALs, all their instincts would be to jump in and protect people. This makes them heroes, but it also makes them lousy spies, because that’s not what spies are hired to do. They were not doing their jobs. In fact they almost certainly violated their terms of employment and in most circumstances had they voluntarily jumped into a firefight without authorization, they’d be drummed out of the CIA and maybe (probably not but possibly) brought up on criminal charges for going outside anything Spies are authorized to do.

I would guess that in more than 99% of all cases, a spy who jumps into a military combat situation without authorization is being horrendously irresponsible. CIA policy on such matters is probably a very bright line in the sand: “you don’t get involved in that shit, that is not your job, no we don’t care how you feel about it, you’re a fucking spy you’re not a fucking soldier, period.” Indeed, a CIA spy jumping into a US military firefight would in most circumstances be at high risk of fucking up the military operation. In this case, that’s not true, but in almost all other real world scenarios, it would be incredibly irresponsible for a Spy to get into military battle zone and start shooting.

Let me be clear I do not fault these two spies (who I will repeat were SPIES NOT SOLDIERS GODDAMMIT) for doing what they did. But what they did would have been entirely outside the scope of CIA operations. CIA policy, when they called in to ask for help, would almost certainly have been to say “You’re not Soldiers. Don’t get involved, get the fuck out of there, right now.”

They chose to disobey their CIA superiors’ orders. Acting as a Monday Morning Quarterback, it may seem obvious to YOU that CIA superiors should have “just known” to go against every CIA operating procedure and tell them to get involved in a firefight. But you need to stop and think: there’s a reason CIA operates independently of the military. Their job is espionage, period. They may occasionally get involved in joint operations with the military, but when they do, that’s a carefully planned and coordinated operation, and even then, CIA operatives are almost certainly repeatedly told “your job isn’t to fight, your job is to spy, they fight not you.”

CIA operatives working in places like Libya are also almost certainly told, repeatedly, “you’re going into dangerous territory and while if you get in trouble we will do our best to get you out of there–but odds are very good you’re going to find yourself on your own, and you just may not come back. Are you clear on that? Because it’s part of this job.”

In fact, I’m only guessing, but I’m pretty certain that CIA field agents probably get killed more often, on average, than Soldiers do. Spy work like this is really fucking dangerous, and Spies are often in a situation where they have no backup.

So. Here we have two Spies who out of the blue call CIA headquarters and say “We’re under fire! Order a military strike, please!” and CIA superiors saying, “Uhm, that’s not what we do, Spook. Get the fuck out of there.”

CIA does not have the authority to call up military high command and order air strikes. They just don’t. Any such request on a non-planned operation (and this was anything but planned) would likely take many hours, possibly even days, to get set up.

Although we don’t have recordings, when the dust settles on this thing I’d be willing to bet, with high confidence, if recordings to surface of those CIA operatives asking for help, the responses they got probably sounded a lot like this: “Look we’re calling the military, BUT YOU ARE NOT MILITARY, GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE, THIS IS NOT YOUR JOB, GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE, GET THE FUCK OUT OF THERE, LEAVE, GET OUT, YOU ARE A SPY NOT A SOLDIER, STAND DOWN AND GET OUT.”

Because in more than 99% of cases, that would be the correct order to give to a Spy in that situation.

And I’m going to keep repeating this: that’s what they were. Spies. Not Soldiers. Not SEALs. Spies. The fact that they were ex-SEALs being no more relevant than if they’d been former donut shop clerks. They weren’t military, or part of the military chain of command, and the military does not go around ordering drone strikes and Delta Force deployments because a Spy calls them up and asks them to.

So. Two Spies go completely outside their authority and completely outside their mission parameters, and die heroes doing it, under unusual circumstances where they cannot be faulted and indeed should be lauded. But this would never justify telling CIA “from now on, you get to call up General Smith and tell him to dispatch Delta Force, and General Smith will just do that by your leave.” It doesn’t work that way, and it frankly shouldn’t work that way.

Should security have been better handled in Benghazi? Arguably so. But we won’t get a clear look at what should be changed by screaming that drones could “clearly see” what was going on (please see the footage again at the top of this article for an idea of how “clearly” you can see anything through those things) and that it’s “clear” that CIA supervisors should be able to call up the military and at the snap of their fingers dispatch military forces. Shit doesn’t work that way.

Unless and until someone shows me something more than I’ve seen so far, I’m standing my ground that most of this is political hyperventilating. Unless I’m shown something which indicates that somehow people at the White House (not CIA headquarters, not military command units a few hundred miles away, THE WHITE HOUSE) was sitting around watching clear drone footage, listened to screams for help, and sat on their asses doing nothing, I’m going to call most of the huffing and puffing on this a poorly thought out, overemotional, and in at least a few cases is just partisan blathering.

Show me where I’m wrong. Without emotional huffing and puffing or mindreading games please. Just give me whatever FACTS I have missed. If I’ve missed any that are relevant.