There’s an unexpected casualty of the September assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya: the reputation of David Petraeus, the celebrated Army general turned CIA director. For among the first times in his career, a bureaucratic effort to throw Petraeus under the bus is showing through in the press.
Last week, a Fox News story portrayed the CIA as doing practically nothing while the consulate burned. The CIA pushed back against that on Thursday, telling reporters that two different CIA teams, one on hand at the Benghazi compound and the other rushing in from Tripoli, played an active role in repelling the hours-long assault that ultimately left four Americans dead. But not everyone is happy about the CIA’s performance — including that of its director.
The Wall Street Journal cites several anonymous officials who go after Petraeus hard. The CIA, operating out of an “annex” near the 13-acre consular compound, dwarfed the regular diplomatic presence in Benghazi, with the mission of hunting down ex-dictator Moammar Gadhafi’s unsecured rockets and missiles. That apparently led to an expectation at the State Department that the CIA would secure the compound in the event of a disaster, which never congealed into a formal arrangement. The next month, after a contentious congressional hearing, the Journal reports that officials “were surprised” Petraeus attended a screening of the film Argo, a celebration of a CIA success.
The complaints compile: unlike predecessor Leon Panetta after the 2009 attack on a secret base in Afghanistan, Petraeus kept the CIA’s Benghazi role in the shadows. The Journal’s sources portray Petraeus as shielding the agency from embarrassment; keeping the agency’s role in Benghazi a secret even from top-level officials; and leaving Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to phone Petraeus directly as the attack proceeded in the hope of getting real-time intelligence.
And while the Journal piece doesn’t mention it, there’s a possible policy element to the discrepancy between the State Department and CIA. The CIA had 10 people to protect its annex in Benghazi, but the State Department relied on a previously obscure British firm, Blue Mountain, to guard the entire compound. Blue Mountain paid its Libyan guards $4 an hour. It’s speculative, but the State Department’s expectation that the CIA would be “the cavalry” in an assault, as an anonymous official tells the Journal, might have contributed to State’s relatively lax security posture at the consulate.
It’s worth noting that, in the CIA’s telling, the agency did come to the compound’s aid. One CIA team, at the annex inside the compound, prepared an extraction mission within 25 minutes of the attack beginning, arming itself with heavy weapons and lining up a vehicular fleet to extract personnel while dodging rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and thick smoke. A second team raced to Benghazi from Tripoli, toting a suitcase full of cash to commandeer a plane ride, and arrived about three hours later owing to Libyan officials who wanted Libyan security officers on the scene. Ultimately, the extraction proceeded without U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was lost in the chaos and died, apparently at Benghazi Hospital.
Petraeus is not used to being under the bus. His record commanding the surge in Iraq has given him a tremendous reputation, within official Washington and beyond. Politicians and the press tend to downplay his missteps, such as his less-than-impressive record training Iraqi security forces and the stalemate that persists in Afghanistan despite Petraeus’ year in command. Additionally, there is some concern that under Petraeus, the CIA is focused too much on counterterrorism and insufficiently on its broader intelligence mission, although the CIA denies that’s the case.
It’s unclear what Petraeus’ future holds, either in a second Obama term or a Romney administration. Regardless, congressional investigation into Benghazi is expected to accelerate after next week’s presidential election, including a closed-door hearing in two weeks by the Senate intelligence panel. Petraeus may have more tire-treadmarks on the back of his suit jacket before the Benghazi inquiries conclude.