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UNCERTAIN GROUND: More questions than answers.
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UNCERTAIN GROUND: More questions than answers.

Covering tracks

Libya | One year after a devastating attack in Benghazi, the Obama administration is throttling investigations into what happened

Issue: "Rethinking the death penalty," Oct. 19, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. State Department held no formal ceremony to mark the one-year anniversary of last year’s Benghazi terrorist attack on Sept. 11. There was no moment of silence for Ambassador Christopher Stevens and others slain there, no presidential statement, and no public recognition from Secretary of State John Kerry.

Instead, about two dozen State Department employees gathered for a quiet, awkward remembrance beside a plaque memorializing employees killed in the line of duty. They exchanged hugs and tears, then went back to work. 

Earlier this year when lawmakers asked then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton about the cause of the attack, she exploded, “What difference at this point does it make?”  

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Apparently it makes a big difference: Government agencies are waging an unprecedented campaign of intimidation to silence Benghazi survivors and those with knowledge of U.S. operations in Libya. U.S. officials are subjecting some employees to regular polygraphs and requiring others to sign nondisclosure agreements that are in addition to the ones they signed when they took their positions.

Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va.—whose district includes CIA headquarters—confirmed rumors of intimidation in September when he said a lawyer representing an unnamed CIA agent who declined to sign the additional agreement contacted his office. Refusing to sign a nondisclosure agreement is a career death sentence, but breaking one will result in criminal prosecution.

Joe diGenova, a lawyer representing a State Department whistle-blower, also confirmed the ongoing intimidation by multiple agencies when I spoke to him in late September. He said as time passes more people are coming forward with information, but “we still have not received an hour-by-hour chronology of what [President Obama] did that night. … We’ve been told several different stories and we don’t yet know what the truth is.”

What seems more clear about what happened in Benghazi is that U.S. personnel there had been involved in transferring Libyan arms through Turkey to rebels in Syria. Ambassador Stevens, considered an expert on Libyan weapons stockpiles from two previous stints in the country, held meetings with the head of a Libyan shipping company and a Turkish official on the day of the attack. And a Turkish newspaper spotted then CIA director David Petraeus arriving in Istanbul—at least his second unannounced trip there in six months. A British newspaper reported a Libyan vessel docked in Turkey with a 400-ton shipment including surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades—all as Petraeus met with Turkish officials in Istanbul and Stevens met with at least one Turkish official in Benghazi. 

The State Department has denied any role in transferring weapons, saying it was only helping Libya destroy surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) following its 2011 revolution. But there is growing agreement that seizing U.S.-controlled weapons may have been a reason for the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission: Estimates of how many SAMs fell into jihadist hands range from a few hundred to thousands.

CIA director John Brennan, who was the White House counterterrorism adviser at the time of the attack, recently wrote a letter to House Intelligence Committee chairman Mike Rogers, saying the identification of officers in Benghazi is classified, but the agency will supply “relevant information” to the committee. 

“In the CIA they call that plausible denial,” former CIA officer Kevin Shipp told me. “Most of us call it lying.” 

Shipp, part of a 13-member Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi launched in September, spent part of his 17-year career as a polygraph examiner and a senior briefer on nondisclosure agreements. Administering regular polygraphs, he said, and requiring after-the-fact nondisclosure agreements are against CIA policy and illegal: “In my entire career in executing nondisclosure agreements I never saw that happen.”

With the administration’s choke hold on Benghazi survivors, congressional hearings 

in September yielded little new information, focusing instead on the findings of the Clinton-commissioned Accountability Review Board. The lack of progress has led to increasing support—177 co-sponsors—for Wolf’s bill to create a select committee on Benghazi.

Family members of Benghazi victims addressed Congress in September and expressed frustration over the stonewalling and misdirection of the Obama administration. “No more lies,” said Charles Woods, father of Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, who was killed in the attack. “No more smoke and mirrors. That’s what Ty would want.” Woods said some of his son’s friends want to testify and haven’t been summoned. That same day Rep. Darrell Issa, who chairs the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, subpoenaed two Benghazi survivors. 

Patricia Smith, who lost in the attack her only child, Sean Smith, pleaded with lawmakers to find answers. She said Obama, Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and other top officials personally told her the attack was spawned by a YouTube video that insulted Islam—a story they knew at the time wasn’t true. 

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