Once a proud moment, the U.S. military intervention in Libya continues to haunt candidate Clinton.
by Michael Hirsh & Jeff Bartholet • Politico Magazine
Hillary Clinton tried to turn the page with her most recent campaign kick-off rally. She confidently laid out her claim to the presidency at her Roosevelt Island campaign rally, even as she conceded: “Lord knows I’ve made my share of mistakes. And there’s no shortage of people pointing them out.”
This week, one of those mistakes—perhaps her biggest and certainly her most politically potent one—will be front-and-center yet again when her longtime confidant and vast-right-wing-conspiracy whisperer, Sidney Blumenthal, testifies before a congressional oversight committee that is digging through what even Clinton has admitted was the No. 1 “regret” of her tenure as secretary of state: the unanticipated attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left the U.S. ambassador dead.
Whatever Blumenthal has to say in his closed-door deposition—GOP sources say they want to know whether his voluminous emails to Clinton on Libya, coming at a time when he might have had business interests there, influenced the administration’s overall policy—it’s clear that America’s Libya adventure will haunt the Clinton campaign well into 2016. Benghazi already has become a right-wing byword for “Clinton scandal,” as resonant to the ’10s as “Vince Foster” was to the ’90s.
But Clinton’s problems are not confined to the tragedy of Benghazi itself. In an interview with Politico Magazine, her latest nemesis, House special committee chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., made clear he aims to look at the administration’s entire policy toward Libya, not just the brief period before and after the Benghazi attacks of September 11, 2012, that left Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans dead. And that has put him at loggerheads with the White House and State Department. “They believe we’re supposed to be Benghazi-centered, looking at a couple of days on either side of the Benghazi attacks,” Gowdy says. “But the language of the [House] resolution is pretty clear: We’re to examine all policies and decisions that led to the attacks.”
The ongoing investigation and Gowdy’s forthcoming report—especially if it moves beyond Benghazi and into the broader problems with the Obama administration’s Libya policy—could prove to be an ugly albatross weighing on the Clinton campaign. While she has managed to avoid being tied directly to the Benghazi debacle, Hillary Clinton clearly did play a central role in the Obama administration’s overall policy toward Libya, especially at two decisive moments. And, overall, it’s a policy that even former administration officials concede was disjointed and poorly conceived. As former CIA deputy director Michael Morell says, “We never really had a conversation around the table about ‘what’s going to happen, how’s it going to look?’”
Looking back now, it’s easy to see how the Libya policy went off-course. It started early.
In March of 2011, as Moammar Qaddafi’s army moved on Benghazi, Bubaker Habib was preparing for the end. “I said goodbye to my family and thought it would be the last day of my life,” recalls Habib, who ran a private school in Benghazi, a city of 630,000 people along the Mediterranean Sea in eastern Libya, and also acted as a local facilitator for American diplomats visiting the area.
Habib knew Qaddafi was out for blood. Rebellions in Libya had often begun in the east, where the regime was weakest. A disproportionate number of political prisoners held by Qaddafi were from the east, and large numbers of them had been executed. Qaddafi had not placed many of his forces in the region, several hundred miles from Tripoli, because he was worried they’d initiate a coup from there. So when the uprising against the hated dictator began in Benghazi, it succeeded quickly, becoming the hub of resistance nationwide. “In four days we got rid of the whole regime in the eastern part of the country,” Habib says.
Still, Qaddafi retained strong control in the west. And as his troops marched eastward toward Benghazi, the dictator talked about hunting his enemies down “house by house, room by room.” On Libyan radio, Qaddafi ranted, “We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity.”
Back in Washington, debate raged in the White House over what—if anything—to do about what intelligence assessments warned was an oncoming slaughter. President Obama was not especially interested in getting involved in Libya, where, at least since Qaddafi had dismantled his fledging nuclear weapons program in 2004, there was no special U.S. national interest. Obama liked to say his presidency was about “ending wars, not starting them.” Nor was his stringent defense secretary, Robert Gates—whose ally for a time was the similarly cautious Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—eager to commit any U.S. military assets to saving the people of Benghazi. After a decade of bloodletting in America’s two-longest wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this was no moment to be getting embroiled in yet another conflict, certainly not one in another Arab or predominantly Muslim country.
But Hillary Clinton had lately been having a change of heart, especially with the Arab League calling for the United Nations to intervene. She had met recently with Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, and Libyan rebel leader Mahmoud Jibril, and she was concerned about the administration’s waning influence in the wider Middle East. Moreover, Benghazi was threatening to become the Bosnia of the 21st century, a humanitarian tragedy and a PR nightmare. Susan Rice and Samantha Power had already been pressing the president to impose a no-fly zone, and Clinton’s voice in favor helped tilt the balance. “She played a really significant role,” says a former administration official involved in shaping the policy.
When the United Nations declared a no-fly zone (and more, since Obama also authorized drone strikes), there were huge celebrations in Benghazi. “American flags were flying everywhere, everywhere,” Habib says. “I can’t tell you how grateful I am to the State Department for saving our city that day.”
In the following months, what became known as “leading from behind”—allowing the Europeans to take the lead on Libya while providing American military support—appeared to work brilliantly. By the early summer of 2011, Moammar Qaddafi was hiding, his forces were retreating, and lawyers in the White House were arguing once again. And for the second time, Hillary Clinton proved to be a decisive voice. Obama had backed into this intervention with a no-boots-on-the-ground pledge and, initially, restricting himself to preventing a humanitarian disaster. But regime change seemed to be happening anyway, and by the summer of 2011 the administration was bickering over whether the rebels actually controlled enough territory to be legally recognized as a legitimate government.
In Turkey, the secretary of state had listened again to pleas for recognition by Libyan rebels, in particular Mahmoud Jibril, the transitional national council’s foreign affairs representative. That meeting, among other factors, persuaded her that this was a time for action, not dithering over legal niceties. “She basically broke the logjam,” said a former official involved in the policy. “She said, ‘Why shouldn’t we just do this?”
Once again, it was Hillary Clinton who led the way toward laying down policy that would help determine Libya’s future.
Then, on September 11, 2012, everything changed. Largely unnoticed by the public—perhaps even by senior officials in the administration—radical Islamist militias had been on the rise in Libya, which had been descending for more than a year toward deadly chaos. On the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, following anti-American protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, at least 60 Moslem radicals stormed a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi and set fire to the place. The smoke from the conflagration killed America’s ambassador to the country, along with State Department Information Officer Sean Smith. In separate attacks that night on a nearby CIA annex, militiamen firing mortars killed two American security officers, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty.
Suddenly Hillary Clinton became known as the first secretary of state to lose an ambassador in the field in more than three decades. In 2014, she described that day as “certainly the biggest regret that I have as secretary of state.”
Clinton’s GOP pursuers and, in particular, Trey Gowdy, however, want to know everything he can about what lead up to that deadly day. Unsurprisingly, Gowdy’s broad approach of examining the administration’s entire Libya policy has left him in a standoff with chief counsel Dan Eggleston. “We’ve been going back and forth with the White House on the scope of our jurisdiction. In fact there is more of a dispute going on between us and the White House than there is between us and the State Department,” Gowdy says.
Minority members of the special committee contend that Gowdy wants to take on the entire policy only because he can’t pin anything on Clinton from Benghazi, which has already been exhaustively examined. Gowdy has little foreign policy experience; his main credential for conducting a sweeping examination of U.S. Libya policy during a critical juncture is that he’s a former federal and state prosecutor, which Democrats believe tells you all you need to know about his underlying intent.
He’s on a “massive fishing expedition,” says a senior Democrat on the committee. “We continue to believe that Chairman Gowdy is pursuing this angle because he has not been able to find a scrap of evidence to support the wild allegations that Republicans have been making about Secretary Clinton for years, such as that she ordered a stand-down or approved an illicit weapons program, or made the day-to-day security decisions about the facility in Benghazi.”
On the face of it, the GOP does seem overzealous. Two previous investigations of Benghazi, including one led by GOP Rep. Mike Rogers, then chair of the House Intelligence Committee, cleared the CIA, the military and top Obama administration officials of wrongdoing in the attack. It was hard-right Republicans who pressured John Boehner to set up yet another probe.
Yet Gowdy insists he just wants to know what happened, and remains open to the idea that nothing nefarious occurred at all. Until now, he has taken a just-the-facts-ma’am approach. “If you’re also going to allege that anti-Western sentiment led to Benghazi, then it’s fair to ask: What is the source of that? Could it possibly have been the original intervention?” he says. He has asked for documents showing what U.S. foreign policy goals were in Libya: “Anything that discusses the strict limitation on boots on the ground. Anything that discusses our analysis of the need for and the mechanics of establishing a diplomatic and intelligence presence in Benghazi specifically. Part of that deals with the terrorist threat in post-Ghaddafi Libya. There are questions.”
The key to the administration’s position, he says, lays in an email by Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security advisor, who helped craft the administration’s talking points in the week after the fatal attacks. “If you go back to the Ben Rhodes email, they were saying they wanted to get the message out that what happened was not a failure of our policy. Which should lead us to ask: What was our policy?”
As best as it is possible to recreate it, the Obama administration’s policy was one of fitful and sporadic moments of attention to post-Qaddafi Libya, separated by long periods of inattention. But there was clearly a consistent bias toward minimizing U.S. involvement, fueled by President Obama’s “no-boots-on-the-ground” pledge, his eagerness to bring an end to the “war on terror,” and his preference for multilateral action in order to minimize U.S. burdens and responsibilities. Indeed, there were intense debates between the National Security Council and State Department over this very issue—whether Washington was paying enough attention to Libya—according to a former senior administration official, and a failure to fully appreciate the rise of new radical Islamist militias in Libya, despite many detailed intelligence warnings. “We weren’t aware in hindsight of some of the details of who was really playing the spoiler… basically sabotaging us and funding them,” says the former official. Among the apparent bad actors (who only later came to light): the Libyan interior and defense ministers.
American officials often seemed to be groping for clarity about Libya. Maybe that helps explain why Hillary Clinton was listening to and passing on observations from her old friend Sidney Blumenthal, who had no expertise in Libya but was involved in a business venture that stood to benefit from contracts from the post-Qaddafi government. Blumenthal showered Clinton with what she called “unsolicited emails” full of advice about Libya, and “which I passed on in some instances and [regarded as] just part of the give and take,” Clinton told reporters in late May.
It didn’t seem to matter that some of those ideas were half-baked. In April 2012, Blumenthal warned Clinton about the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood (which some Libyans thought was being funded by the Qataris). She then forwarded the memo to Jake Sullivan, who gave it to then-incoming Amb. Stevens; he in turn appeared to play down the analysis, saying the Brotherhood was small in Libya.
According to a source inside the Gowdy inquiry, the Blumenthal emails constitute such a large percentage of the pages handed over by State—about 35-to-40 percent of the total—the investigators are looking into whether they may have swayed Clinton or State in altering the administration’s overall Libya policy. Or failed to. “Even Sidney Blumenthal was warning about the security situation, noting in one of his emails that the Red Cross had pulled out,” said an investigator privy to the documents.
Nick Merrill, a spokesman for Clinton, says the Gowdy inquiry’s focus on emails reflects a basic misunderstanding. “Email was not how the business of the State Department was conducted” for most matters, he says. “Most communications were direct, on paper or on a phone call.”
Either way, there was a lot of bad or at best incomplete information coming into the administration about who was gaining leverage in post-Qaddafi Libya. Very early in the Libya conflict, the State Department appeared concerned about the rise of militias backed by rival Middle Eastern governments. At a meeting in the summer of 2011, Clinton’s top aide on Libya, Jeffrey Feltman, raised the issue with the Libyan defense minister for the National Transitional Council, Jalal al Degheily, who denied there was a problem. Bubaker Habib, who facilitated the meeting, says that Degheily’s statement was a falsehood. “Why do we have this mess in Libya now? Because of the regional players,” he says. “Each one had his favorite. It mainly became a competition between Qatar and Turkey on one side, and Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other.”
Salah El-Marghani, who served as justice minister in the post-Qaddafi transitional government from November 2012 to August 2014, told POLITICO he’d heard about outside backing for Libyan militias but wasn’t in a position to witness it. He believes the bigger problem was homegrown. After Qaddafi was overthrown, he says, the country was awash in arms and suffered high unemployment, particularly among young people. (He estimates overall unemployment was as high as 30 percent—and 50 percent among the youth.) Large arms depots contained a wide variety of armaments and ammunition, including hundreds of fighter planes and thousands of tanks—“all left behind,” he says. While NATO planes hit some depots—enough to put Qaddafi’s army on its heels—many others were left to be looted. “There was no way to control that amount of arms,” says Marghani, who now lives in Canada because of threats to his safety back home. “Various groups—rebels, tribal militias, people of all stripes—took advantage and looted the arsenals.”
Initially, these groups were on the same page: They were united in their desire to rid the country of Qaddafi and his regime. But it didn’t take long for competition to emerge. And their interests were threatened by the rise of democratic institutions.
Meanwhile the Obama administration, El-Marghani said, was narrowly focused on collecting MANPADs—shoulder-fired missiles that could bring down civilian aircraft—and any weapons of mass destruction that might threaten the international community. But they didn’t collect or destroy the arms that would sow chaos inside Libya. While Western countries including the United States were very interested in bolstering democratic institutions by providing training and other civilian support, “they generally neglected the issue of arms.”
U.S. complacency and inattention may have led to a fatal lack of security, both former administration officials and CIA officials concede. As Clinton’s own Accountability Review Board—a quasi-independent administration committee appointed to look into Benghazi—noted in its report last year: “There was little understanding of militias in Benghazi and the threat they posed to U.S. interests.” According to the Senate Intelligence Committee report on Benghazi, pleas on the ground for more security went unanswered despite “hundreds of analytic reports… providing strategic warning that militias and terrorist and affiliated groups had the capability and intent to strike U.S. and Western facilities and personnel in Libya.” The Obama administration also left U.S. officials in Benghazi uncertain whether the temporary diplomatic facility there would remain open, “a situation best summarized in a June 2012 document from the principal officer in Benghazi, commenting that [i]f there is a real mission, fund us and find the staff,” the Senate report said.
Gowdy faults the Clinton ARB report for failing to question whether the Obama administration, starting with the president, created the conditions for Benghazi by overstating the decimation of al-Qaida and playing down the significance of extremist elements that reemerged in the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Libya and elsewhere. “The ARB never talked to all of them [high officials],” Gowdy says. “Mike Rogers didn’t talk to all of them.”
Clinton herself appeared to deliver fly-by attention to Libya. Although she attended the regular meetings of the Libyan “contact group” (consisting of representatives from 32 countries, the United Nations, European Union, NATO, the League of Arab States, the Organization of the Islamic Cooperation, and the Gulf Cooperation Council), she limited her time in Libya itself to one trip of several hours to meet with political opposition leaders in October 2011, nearly a year before Stevens’ death. Yet even then, Gowdy complains, there are “big gaps” in the email record from State. “I do think it is curious that there would be no emails and documents from when she was in Libya. There are gaps on either side of that trip,” he said. Gowdy is also upset that the State Department has refused to turn over key emails, and he is currently in a prolonged standoff with Clinton, saying her scheduled testimony cannot occur until he has the additional documents. “I still do not have emails from her senior level advisors: Cheryl Mills, Jake Sullivan, Huma Abedin,” he says. “They always cite technology and personnel shortcomings… They say they have to hand-sort them. You would think in six months you’d have had the opportunity to start on hand sorting.”
Merrill, Clinton’s spokesman, says Gowdy once again misunderstands what really happened. “There were about 50 people on that plane [to Tripoli], including Jake Sullivan, Huma Abedin, Philippe Reines, Jeff Feltman, and Harold Koh,” he says. “So you had her deputy chiefs of staff for policy and operations, the assistant secretary for the region, and a number of other senior advisors and staff, including from the White House and the Pentagon. Who would she have been emailing with about Libya if they’re all right there? It’s like going home for the holidays and having someone ask you suspiciously why email traffic with your mom plummeted.”
Clinton campaign officials also tend to play down her influence on the initial decision to go into Libya, though they don’t deny that she opted to take a strong stand in favor after she met with key Arab and Libyan figures abroad. “The decision to go was made by the president in two meetings while HRC was abroad in North Africa,” says one official. “She participated by phone in the first meeting but not the second meeting. But indeed, she was supportive, particularly after seeing Amr Moussa and [the United Arab Emirates’ foreign minister] who were on board, respectively), and she felt like Jibril was credible, so she reported back that this was doable and made sense.”
Clinton’s in-and-out approach to Libya was not atypical of her tenure at State. Although she was one of the most traveled secretaries of state ever, she spent a good deal of her time giving speeches and doing “soft” diplomacy (read: PR for the U.S.) and typically avoided getting her hands dirty with direct mediation. Clinton agreed to leave key negotiations in crisis spots—particularly the Mideast and south-central Asia—to special envoys such as George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke, and rarely stepped in as each of them failed. Like many others, she was also caught flat-footed by the Arab Spring. She backed the besieged Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, one day (the dictator and his wife Suzanne were “friends of my family,” she said at the beginning of her tenure) and then finally called for his ouster. As late as January 2014, only weeks before her departure from the administration, Clinton conceded in Senate testimony on Benghazi that she and her State Department needed a “better strategy” to deal with the rise of new jihadist groups in Libya and Northern Africa.
And though no one will ever know for certain, it is possible that the relative lack of attention at high levels of the U.S. government drove officials on the ground, like Chris Stevens, to try to achieve too much with too little. Stevens, having been in the country during the rebellion against Qaddafi, knew very well how important it was to have a presence in the east as well as the west of the country—which is one big reason he was in Benghazi that fateful day, says the former senior administration official. Tripoli and Benghazi were the two poles of the political spectrum, and Libya experts like Stevens knew that it was important to exercise influence in both regions.
Former CIA deputy director Michael Morell says it’s clear the State Department failed on multiple levels, including “critical errors” in not having enough security personnel on the ground. Those specific lapses—including ignored or declined requests to beef up diplomatic security in Libya—have been detailed in earlier investigations. But Morell says the overall policy was plagued by a lack of foresight, and here the CIA was to blame as much as State. “One of the problems was not going into it with a very detailed plan for how you were going to maintain stability,” Morell told POLITICO. “We never really had a conversation around the table about ‘what’s going to happen, how’s it going to look?’ The intelligence community never wrote that paper… That conversation was not as rich and rigorous as it should have been.”
Former Justice Minister El-Marghani acknowledged that Libyan officials and politicians were also, for a long time, in a “state of denial” about the growing threat of militias. “Whether in good faith or bad is another question,” he said. “I think it was good faith in the beginning, when everyone was focused on getting rid of the Qaddafi regime. After that, everyone had conflicting interests.” But he’s not prone to cast fault on those who had good intentions: “It is very easy to criticize what happened in the past, because we know now what happened. But for many good-faith people, what happened was unpredictable.”
In the end, says Michael Morell, the mistakes made in Libya were those of excessive hopefulness. “There was no intelligence failure in terms of seeing the rise of extremists in Libya,” he said. “We watched it. We followed it. We reported on it. The bigger question is this desire on the part of Americans, and I think it’s both parties… It’s ingrained in us, this desire to spread democracy to the rest of the world. I think people’s weaknesses flow from their strengths, in organizations and countries. One of our strengths is seeing ourselves as a beacon for democracy. It becomes a weakness when we try to impose it on societies that aren’t ready for it. I think of Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan and Libya. I think it’s probably both a failure of intelligence and a failure of policy, in two different administrations.”
Indeed, it is hard now to remember that only weeks before the Benghazi attacks, Libyans had voted in free elections for a new governing body. Despite a boycott threat and sporadic violence, more than 60 percent of registered voters—1.7 million people—cast ballots. The joy and celebration that Bubaker Habib remembers from the early days of the intervention in Benghazi had carried over into a generalized hopefulness about the future, even among many moderate Libyans. It was all too easy to turn America’s attention—so much in demand—elsewhere around the world. Among those so distracted, perhaps, was Chris Stevens himself, who had a pleasant dinner at a very public hotel in Benghazi the night before the attacks.
The larger question, perhaps, is whether America ever learns—and if Hillary Clinton is elected president, whether she will. As Michael Morell notes, “In Iraq, we never wrote a national intelligence estimate, or even a piece for the president, that said, ‘Here are all the challenges you are going face in building a society when Saddam Hussein goes. Similarly in Libya we didn’t write the same piece for Obama: what are all the challenges you’re going to face when Qaddafi goes … How are we going to maintain stability in the aftermath of that. In both Iraq and Libya it was a similar failure. Nobody really thought that through.”
Nobody appears to be thinking it through now either, at a time when the story of Libya is not over—far from it. El-Marghani says there’s still an opportunity for the international community to help repair his country. “With the exception of the extremist elements, there are no anti-Western feelings in Libya,” he says. Most leaders will listen to the West, and don’t want to face sanctions. He thinks the International Criminal Court, and perhaps the U.N. Security Council, should initiate war crimes cases against militia leaders, which would send a strong message to all Libyans that committing atrocities, and destroying civilian facilities and institutions, does not pay. “They must not continue to enjoy impunity,” he says.
If Hillary Clinton eventually does win the White House—despite the GOP’s best efforts to defeat her—she may get a chance to make up for past mistakes.