Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Benghazi and the clueless NYT Editorial Board

David D. Kirkpatrick, the Cairo Bureau Chief for the New York Times, has penned an extensive piece on the Benghazi attack of September 11, 2012. It is chock-full of information, analysis, and--unfortunately--unjustifiable conclusions. Still, it is well worth reading, if only to broaden one's depth of knowledge on the specifics of the attack and some of the players involved. But the wrong-headed conclusions arrived at by Mr. Kirkpatrick should not go unchallenged. Why? Because they are--in turn--being used to make even more ridiculous conclusions, like these from the New York Times Editorial Board (my boldface):
The report by David Kirkpatrick, The Times’s Cairo bureau chief, and his team turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or another international terrorist group had any role in the assault, as Republicans have insisted without proof for more than a year. The report concluded that the attack was led by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s air power and other support during the uprising against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and that it was fueled, in large part, by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam. 
In a rational world, that would settle the dispute over Benghazi, which has further poisoned the poisonous political discourse in Washington and kept Republicans and Democrats from working cooperatively on myriad challenges, including how best to help Libyans stabilize their country and build a democracy. But Republicans long ago abandoned common sense and good judgment in pursuit of conspiracy-mongering and an obsessive effort to discredit President Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who may run for president in 2016.
The Editorial Board then goes on to say the following (my boldface):
Mr. Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee who has called Benghazi a “preplanned, organized terrorist event,” said his panel’s findings that Al Qaeda was involved was based on an examination of 4,000 classified cables. If Mr. Rogers has evidence of a direct Al Qaeda role, he should make it public. Otherwise, The Times’s investigation, including extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack, stands as the authoritative narrative.

While the report debunks Republican allegations, it also illuminates the difficulties in understanding fast-moving events in the Middle East and in parsing groups that one moment may be allied with the West and in another, turn adversarial. Americans are often careless with the term “Al Qaeda,” which strictly speaking means the core extremist group, founded by Osama bin Laden, that is based in Pakistan and bent on global jihad.

Republicans, Democrats and others often conflate purely local extremist groups, or regional affiliates, with Al Qaeda’s international network. That prevents understanding the motivations of each group, making each seem like a direct, immediate threat to the United States and thus confusing decision-making.
There's a lot going on here, a number of catastrophic logic failures or outright stupidity on the part of the Board, so let's take it all one step at a time. This is from Kirkpatrick's piece:
Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.
Obviously, the Board simply restates Kirkpatrick's above conclusions. But the actual evidence Kirkpatrick provides is based almost entirely on interviews conducted with Libyans who claimed to have been present during the attack, a point driven home by the National Review Online's own editorial board, with regard to the role of the now-infamous YouTube video (my boldface):
The second finding: The massacre was partly a spontaneous event, and some of the Libyan attackers were angered by a YouTube video that Islamists across the Middle East cited as the inspiration for September 11’s violent demonstrations. This is remarkably thinly sourced — the account admits that “many [of those arriving at the U.S. compound] learned of the video for the first time,” and merely maintains that “Libyan witnesses . . . said they received lectures from the attackers about the evil of the film and the virtue of defending the prophet.” Even the Times didn’t manage to find witnesses who could support the Obama administration’s chronology. Susan Rice told us that a video-related demonstration gave rise to the attack; David Kirkpatrick and his Islamist sources say that those angered by the video arrived at a compound already overrun by attackers who had coordinated their assault.
To be clear: there is no verifiable evidence presented by Kirkpatrick that this video was the impetus for the assault in Benghazi. None. Rather, there is weak--at best--evidence that the video may have been used to "rile up" locals not involved directly with the actual attack in order to increase the general chaos of the situation. This is a far cry from the video "fueling" the attack, to say the least.

Yet that claim--that the video fueled the attack--is itself inconsistent in the extreme with the conclusion of the NYT Board, with regard to the supposed localized nature of the attack, with the idea that it was undertaken by local groups--unattached to a greater al Qaeda movement--for purely local (Libyan-based) reasons! The NYT Board chides "Republicans, Democrats, and others" for not understanding the linkages here, after demonstrating that it has little--if any--understanding of these linkages, at all.

Which brings us to the supposed lack of evidence for any involvement of al Qaeda in the attack. First, I should note the obvious fallacy of argument here. Namely, that an absence of evidence is not proof of absence (the so-called fallacy of the negative proof). Thus, if there truly was no evidence of al Qaeda involvement, one could still not say that al Qaeda was definitely not involved. So when the NYT Board says "the report debunks Republican allegations," it is telling a fib. The report does no such thing, even if we accept it as somehow authoritative.

That said, this is really immaterial, given that intelligence officials still insist there is such evidence, evidence of al Qaeda involvement. Eli Lake at the Daily Beast sums things up, first noting that the Times itself had previously reported the participation of the Jamal network in the attack, which has been directly linked to al Qaeda. Neither the NYT Board nor Kirkpatrick makes any mention of this factoid. Then, Lake notes the response to Kirkpatrick's piece from lawmakers with first-hand knowledge of actual intelligence from the time of the attack:
On Fox News Sunday, Schiff, a Democratic member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the intelligence indicated that al Qaeda did play a role in the attack. The intelligence community knows this, he said, from insights gleaned from eavesdropping on the night of the attack. Speaking of the Times report, Schiff said “they did not have the same access to people who were not aware they were being listened to. They were heavily reliant obviously on people they interviewed who had a reason to provide the story they did.”
The NYT Board attempts to shirk this off--the claim from lawmakers that intelligence contradicts Kirkpatrick's claims--by demanding the evidence be made public and, if it isn't, claiming Kirkpatrick's piece becomes the "authoritative narrative." And in so doing, the Board reveals it's political motivations here: defending the Administration in general and Hillary Clinton in particular. For the specifics, the actual intelligence compiled on Benghazi by government agencies, likely comes from many sources, some of which might be compromised if details are revealed. And there is no overriding reason to do so, no trial in progress, no lives hanging in the balance. There is just the reality that the Benghazi attack and its aftermath have made the Administration look bad. And it is the Administration's own agencies that are providing the information noted above to Congress. The NYT Board's demand is both pathetic and dopey.

Moreover, there is nothing that makes a piece penned by one if its writers "authoritative," simply because the Board agrees with the conclusions therein. The truly authoritative narrative may come, down the road, but there is no such animal to be seen right now. There are just facts, claims, and conclusions. The paramount one being: the Benghazi compound was attacked--and a sitting U.S. Ambassador was killed--by people who planned this attack in advance. How far in advance? That may be an open question. As to the identity of the attackers, some are known and some are not. But at least some of the groups involved here have ties to al Qaeda, this is also an actual fact.

Does this mean al Qaeda directed or ordered the attack? Absolutely not. But it does demonstrate just how clueless the NYT Editorial board appears to be. As I noted above, it seems to think everyone else lacks a real understanding with regard to the relationships--or lack thereof--between al Qaeda and apparently disparate terrorist groups throughout portions of Africa. As I have detailed extensively in previous pieces, AQIM's--Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb--tentacles reach from Mali to Algeria to Libya to Nigeria to Kenya to even Somali.

It doesn't take much to "link up" for various terrorist groups like Boko Haram, the Mua'qi'oon Biddam Brigade, Anser al-Dine, al-Shabaab, Ansaru, and Ansar al-Sharia, to name just a few. Sometimes, it's just a matter of convenience, from funding to arms smuggling. But sometimes, there is movement in membership, as well. Add to this soup the presence of AQIM, whose agents have been steadily involving themselves in more and more Islamic terrorist orgs, and it's just not much a leap to see the hand--however limited--of al Qaeda in Benghazi and elsewhere. To not understand this is ignorance and/or idiocy.

Cheers, all.

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