Questions about Benghazi

They should be directed at the making of the anti-Muslim film, not at Susan Rice

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The Benghazi affair is not yet resolved, but some of the main questions about it are seriously misplaced.

What happened was that, in the context of attacks on American installations across the Muslim world, from Morocco to Malaysia, prompted by the appearance of a scurrilous anti-Muslim film made in the United States, a deadly attack took place Sept. 11 in Benghazi, Libya, on two American offices, resulting in the deaths of the American ambassador and three of his colleagues.

At least three areas of controversy have arisen.

The first is that the ambassador had asked for more security for Americans in Libya. He didn't get more, for the familiar reason of a shortage of money on the part of the Department of State. (This is a normal Washington response, familiar to me from service in Beirut and Mogadishu.) Whatever blame for the four deaths accrues from that shortfall can be passed to Congress, or the State Department or the ambassador himself for not screaming louder.

Attributing blame is in any case largely pointless. Any Foreign Service officer with half a brain knows that he or she does the job -- which involves getting around the country and meeting with a wide range of sometimes dubious characters -- in the face of some measure of danger. If he doesn't like it, he always has the option of requesting a transfer to a more salubrious environment.

A second area of controversy has been that no U.S. security forces were close enough or prepared enough to ride to the rescue of the embattled ambassador and his team. Such a rescue could have fortuitously occurred, but these incidents blow up quickly. The chances of the cavalry riding over the crest of the hill in time were very small.

A third area of controversy has been that U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan E. Rice on Sunday morning talk shows provided an account of what occurred in Benghazi -- based on the intelligence she had been provided -- that later information indicated may have been wrong. To this day, nobody -- with the possible exception of those who carried out the attack -- knows for a fact what actually happened. Ms. Rice relayed to television viewers the information she had been given -- that's all.

Efforts since then to hang Ms. Rice are entirely politically motivated, intended to block President Barack Obama from naming her as secretary of state, should he wish to do so. She ought to be nominated for that post, or not nominated, on the basis of her merits, not on the basis of whether what she said about Benghazi held up as more information became available. Mr. Obama shouldn't make his choice based on the very confused picture of what happened in Benghazi.

The horrible truth is that in Libya no one has been arrested, not to mention brought to justice for the killing of the four Americans on that fiery night. That is because, despite the U.S.-supported success in getting rid of longtime dictator Moammar Gadhafi in favor of hopefully a more democratic form of government, there is still no functioning system of law and order in Libya. The most recent outrage in that category was the drive-by assassination last week in Benghazi of Libyan security chief Faraj Mohammed al-Drissi.

A significant loose end remains in the Benghazi affair: Who actually financed the film that either started or served as the excuse for the violence across the Muslim world that occurred Sept. 11, including in Benghazi. The 14-minute video, called "The Innocence of Muslims," was crude and very offensive to Muslims. It employed actors and was dubbed into Arabic, so clearly it cost something to make.

The alleged filmmaker was Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian Copt living near Los Angeles who used many aliases, had done time for bank fraud and had an outstanding restitution order against him for $794,700. Since the September events, he has been sentenced to another year in prison and four years of supervised release for probation violations, in effect putting him out of sight for one and perhaps five years.

What still has not emerged is who paid for the film, since the ne'er-do-well Mr. Nakoula probably did not pay for it himself. The film's release on YouTube resulted in an estimated 50 deaths, regardless of the degree to which it is held responsible for the deaths of the Americans in Benghazi.

Freedom-of-speech protections dictate that Mr. Nakoula probably cannot be prosecuted for making the film, if he did. But Americans still have the right to know who was behind the film, given the tragic deaths that ensued from its release, not to mention the damage and cost to American installations across the Muslim world that resulted from it.

It is perhaps venturing too far into speculation to wonder if the controversy surrounding Ms. Rice's words on television and whether they should disqualify her as secretary of state is serving to distract Americans from pressing the questions of who made and paid for the film. At the same time, given the damage it has caused and the role that protests against it appear to have played in serving as cover for the killing of the Americans in Benghazi, Americans have every right to see the investigation into the genesis of the film pursued by law enforcement authorities, with the results revealed to the public. This is a loose end that must not remain loose.


Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1976).


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