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CIA's Benghazi Role
Intelligence agents answer to Langley, not the State Department.
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The various accounts of the Sept. 11 Benghazi incident in which four Americans died demonstrate that there is a profound misunderstanding of what the Central Intelligence Agency does and how it interacts with the State Department overseas. The U.S. ambassador in any country is the personal representative of the president of the United States, and he is nominally in charge of all the American officials posted to the country. But the key word is “nominally.” The Chief of Station is the senior CIA representative, and he directs the activities of the intelligence personnel. His direct line of command is to the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia—not to the State Department—and that is the relationship that provides him with his authority. Normally, the ambassador has little desire to learn what the CIA is doing because he has no real need to know about the details of operations and is only interested in oversight relating to situations that might cause serious damage to Washington’s relationship with the local authorities. Apart from that, the CIA operates independently and only shares partial information on what it is doing if the ambassador seems interested and there is a good reason to do so.

To cite one example from my own experience, the agency had a hidden microphone in the office of a top Italian Communist official in the 1970s, which enabled Washington to know exactly what the Partito Communista Italiano was planning. The information obtained was shared through an unsourced “eyes only” memo to the ambassador, who assumed the source was a CIA agent present at the Communist meeting and asked how accurate the person’s recollection was. The Chief of Station answered that the information was completely reliable but there was no one else in the room—avoiding having to say that it was a highly sensitive technical intrusion and letting the ambassador work out the meaning of the reply.

Benghazi has been described as a U.S. consulate, but it was not. It was an information office that had no diplomatic status. There was a small staff of actual State Department information officers plus local translators. The much larger CIA base was located in a separate building a mile away. It was protected by a not completely reliable local militia. Base management would have no say in the movement of the ambassador and would not be party to his plans, nor would it clear its own operations with the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli. In Benghazi, the CIA’s operating directive would have been focused on two objectives: monitoring the local al-Qaeda affiliate group, Ansar al-Sharia, and tracking down weapons liberated from Colonel Gaddafi’s arsenal. Staff consisted of CIA paramilitaries who were working in cooperation with the local militia. The ambassador would not be privy to operational details and would only know in general what the agency was up to. When the ambassador’s party was attacked, the paramilitaries at the CIA base came to the rescue before being driven back into their own compound, where two officers were subsequently killed in a mortar attack.

Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.

(Republished from The American Conservative by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: CIA, Libya 
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  1. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    The POTUS directs the Ambassadors, but who directs the CIA?

  2. Gerard says:

    This was an international operation to arm the Syrian “freedom fighters”. Stevens had just finished meeting Turkish officials. The guys killed were working for the CIA in arming and training the Syrian jihadis. News today is the Syrian jihadis have manpads and are taking down Syrian aircraft. I think I’ll take the train, thank you very much.

  3. cameyer says:

    I’ve been saying since the first week that the CIA was the lead agency in Benghazi, and therefore, would have been in charge of security. Thank you for clarifying the relationship. I have not seen any commentary like this, and very few people know that the CIA operatives in the Annex deployed to the ‘consulate’ but were too late. The Republicans are idiots. THIS and related issues are the most important for the administration to clarify and they are letting it off the hook by focusing on when Susan Rice first used the word “terrorist”.

    One question: would there have been a security arrangement between Stevens and the CIA locally? I’d think this would bear on what agendy approved the rather shoddy security arrangements.

  4. It is beyond me why this is a big deal. Uncle Sam joined with the Brits and Frogs to remove the Libyan gov’t. Disorder followed and is continuing. Who is responsible for causing the breakdown in security? All I can say is that President Eisen hower had the wisdom to resist the tripartite aggression against Egypt in 1956. Obama decided, with the old imperial powers, to overthrow the gov’t of Libya. You reap what you sow.

  5. Danny says: • Website

    As Citogal mentioned, sure, the Executive is represented by State Department ambassadors, but isn’t the CIA a paramilitary/espionage force for the President as well?

    At any rate, seems to me the Ambassador title was just Stevens’ cover for the real objective: the funneling of weapons to the U.S. proxy army made up of “rebels” (read: mercenaries) in Libya and Syria.

    Business as usual for the Agency, working hand-in-glove with diplomatic, “humanitarian” cover from D.C. bureaucrats.

  6. Thank you Phil – – we need more of this level of analysis but as usual most of the mainstream media is focused on the politics.

  7. been saying as much since day one. you want to attack the President (and/or CIA) for the policy decisions/operations surrounding Libya and the Middle East; fair game. to go after President via Susan Rice because she didn’t “need to know” – or it was determined the American people/media didn’t “need to know” – all of the information about Benghazi is nothing short of childish. Susan Rice may or may not be the best pick for SecState; but the fact that sitting U.S. Senators continue to play this card as evidence, is disturbing.

  8. Great analysis. Of course the GOP/FOX news jihad against The Obama administration is not based on the particulars but in the overarching fact that the administration failed to keep their ambassador alive in a dangerous setting. That is a failure in anyones book.

    The GOP is doing it’s political job, bashing the opposition.

  9. Theophilus says: • Website

    This is very helpful and informative. Thank you for clearing these matters up.

  10. Thomas Meehan is spot on. And I think the American public should be provided the news that the US government is busily engaged in, or at least keen on, funneling arms to the jihadist rebels who aim to take down Mr. Assad. Of course, it’s complicated and mind-boggling and you can’t tell the players without a scorecard; but that’s why we’re an Empire in decline, enthralled with mass scrimmages and the mid-western Big 10 invasions of MD and NJ, instead of the crisply-turned 6-4-3 twin-killings.

    Mr. Obama (and Susan Rice) simply don’t trust their fellow Americans with this high-stakes information, but on second thought, given the quality of the rascals lining up to vote during the gales of November, who can blame them?

  11. It’s a screw-up but it’s not Susan Rice’s screw-up. What Susan Rice is accused of falls into the domestic political arena and has no bearing on her competency or integrity. I find her republican accusers deplorable, divisive, clearly partisan and the accusations meaningless. The question remains, will Director Petraeous and secretary Clinton have the courage to step up and take responsibility?

  12. Anonymous • Disclaimer says:

    Citogal asks “The POTUS directs the Ambassadors, but who directs the CIA?”

    Answer: at the time of the Benghazi incident, it was the technologically illiterate pants-down darling of the neocons, “King David” Petraeus.

  13. @Carl Lowland, I agree with you; but I think it is safe to assume that it is unlikely for anyone to take responsibility for an intelligence operation gone bad. Petraeous may be a good soldier and fall on his spear; but I don’t see where the Sec of State will issue a mea culpa for a CIA SNAFU. at some point the President may offer a more detailed assessment; but again, given the nature of the operation/CIA facility in Benghazi; such information would be superficial and general at best. I think McCain is particularly duplicitous; as he has always been a cheerleader for intervention in the Mid East; and now he is trying to make political hay out of an incident that is a direct result ot America’s presence in Libya. the real world is not a Tom Clancy novel.

  14. Clint says:

    This is about a cover up of gun running to Syria under The Obama Administration.

  15. Federale says: • Website

    Not quite, the CIA Station Chief can be sent home by the Ambassador, and several have been. While there is a need to know, the CIA openly shares info with DOS. And the Regional Security Officer is responsible for any CIA overt station security.

  16. Let’s look beyond domestic political disinfo —
    it further inflames the Mutual Assured Delusion
    within the 2 warring hemispheres of the demented Mind of Empire.

    The more important issues involve strategy, tradecraft,
    and the accelerating security diaspora to non-state actors:

    Every State Dept. office in an “unsettled security zone”
    functions as defacto bait — so any nearby CIA facility
    should be responsible for implementing a “Honeypot” strategy.

    If this was done well (unlikely, given the deaths at the CIA
    annex), then the domestic ruckus may usefully distract
    attention as the Honeypot strategy wraps up its prey.

    But more likely, no such advance planning was done —
    nor even a “hotline” for critical information sharing.

    (State Dept. Info-Mgmt Officers should not feel a need
    to share — with their online-gaming partners
    sensitive info detailing why they will probably die tonight.)

    The “non-performance” of site sanitization within 6 weeks —
    even after Petraeus’ visit
    seems better ascribed to Incompetence than to an Intentional
    Honeypot strategy.

    In the worst case, the Benghazi incident was a successful
    “reverse Honeypot” operation, conducted against the CIA.
    That is, it may have been a diversionary attack that revealed
    the location of a (previously secret) CIA annex,
    which was subsequently attacked.

    Overall, this seems to be an egregious failure of
    (what ought to be) standard tradecraft.
    It brings to mind the Dec. 2009 debacle at FOB Chapman.

    (Or perhaps — as with our international “Fast and Furious”
    Structured Investment Vehicles that dwarfed
    our homeland version of this risk-shifting carry trade —
    there may be deeper successes that we do not “need to know”.)

    Incompetence or Intention?
    And if Intentional, to whose benefit? Cui bono?

    “War is the great auditor of Institutions”,
    but only if Auditors can penetrate secrecy barriers
    within those Institutions.

    Our disintegrating Empire’s security architecture promotes
    Insularity rather than Accountability at all secret levels.

  17. Anonymous • Disclaimer says: • Website

    As stated, The US does not have an embassy, a consulate or a diplomatic mission in Benghazi. There are none listed on this State Department list of all the US embassies and consulates in the world.

    On September 12, 2012, SecState Clinton made two statements. She never used the word “consulate.”To describe the place that was attacked in Benghazi she used instead the words ‘U.S. diplomatic post, compound, our buildings and our office.’

    There is (and was) no US consulate in Benghazi. No consul. No consular officials. No commercial officers. No diplomats of any kind. No consulate. It was a CIA operation with two dozen agents which the US has euphemistically called a “mission.” Gives it a religious flavor. Chris Stevens was in this dangerous, volatile city in eastern Libya to coordinate CIA arms shipments to Turkey. His last official act in Benghazi was a dinner meeting with the Turkish ambassador.

    Stevens was also probably using his past knowledge of Libyan militias — he managed them for the US from Benghazi in 2011 — to coordinate drone strikes in eastern Libya. There were several reported (by CNN) against an al Qaeda training camp in the Derna area in June.

    The real story here is the Benghazi-Turkey arms & people connection and drone strikes that motivated Ambassador Stevens to be in Benghazi rather than in Tripoli where he was needed for necessary diplomatic functions.

    Eastern Libya is over-run with al Qaeda units. The militant targeted by a drone attack in June was Abdulbasit Azuz, a long-time associate of al-Zawahiri. Azuz was dispatched by al-Zawahiri to Libya from Pakistan’s tribal areas in the spring of 2011 to create a foothold for al Qaeda in Libya, according to CNN. This same unit conducted a bomb attack on the Benghazi “mission” in June. So much for “demonstrations.”

    Obama has told many lies (but what’s new). His fake cover story that Stevens was in Benghazi “to review plans to establish a new cultural center and modernize a hospital,” as if Benghazi is a bed or roses and not a hotbed of militant extremism, is a larger whopper than the “video” lie, really.

    So what was Stevens? State or CIA? Or both?

  18. Winston says:

    “This was an international operation to arm the Syrian ‘freedom fighters’”

    That would be my bet. The attack was a hit and there was no response out of fear of a “Blackhawk Down” style ambush and a desire to minimize casualties to reduce news coverage.

    Someone even mentioned in another forum that knowledge of this may have been why Obama displayed such a strange “don’t care” attitude during the first debate – he thought he was a goner politically. Of course, in the end, if the republicans actually knew of this, they wouldn’t want to reveal it because most of their constituency would actually cheer any effort to arm the rebels and would be revealing classified info that the republicans have often criticized others for doing.

  19. Chuck says:

    Mr. Giraldi is absolutely correct. I am a retired CIA officer with many tours overseas. He has provided a detailed, accurate account of how things work overseas. There was no conspiracy here involving the CIA. As Mr. Giraldi points out, the CIA operation in Benghazi operated independently from anything State Department was doing, period. The CIA officer in charge may not have even been aware of the visit of the ambassador. And, no, the Agency WAS NOT responsible for anybody’s security in Benghazi except their own. That is the job of the Regional Security Officer, a State official with the Diplomatic Security Service. Of course, when the CIA people there learned of the attack on the State office they responded, as they should have. I have no idea what the exact mission of the CIA people in Benghazi was, who attacked the State office, or why. The CIA has its own mission completely apart from anything State is doing. Who does the CIA answer to? Easy. POTUS, through the DNI. End of story.

  20. Chuck says:

    To Federale
    No, the RSO is not reponsible for the security of CIA installations unless they are in a State Department facility (that is to say, an embassy or consulate). The CIA base in Benghazi was a CIA safehouse and not a U.S. diplomatic facility. RSO had no role in providing security to it. Correct on the ambassador sending the COS home; the ambo has the final say on all USG activities in country, except in a delcared war zone where the theater commander controls U.S. troops. Plenty of CIA chiefs have asked to be sent home rather than work with an ambassador who does not understand the role of the CIA. We are too busy to put up with amateurs. Most ambos are solid professionals, though, and a pleasure to work with.

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