Buried in the House intelligence committee report on Benghazi released on Friday afternoon – the horse’s rear end of the weekly news cycle – was some astonishing information on who knew what about the CIA’s involvement in arms smuggling from Benghazi to the Syrian rebels.
As with so many whitewash reports from Congress and the executive branch, you have to read between the lines to get the facts. After all, these reports are written to obscure the facts, not illuminate them, as Jonathan Gruber has reminded us.
From page 3 of the main report: “The Committee also found no evidence that the CIA conducted unauthorized activities in Benghazi and no evidence that the IC [intelligence community] shipped arms to Syria.”
What exactly does that mean?
For the CIA to have conducted “unauthorized activities” in Benghazi would have been the height of insanity, as many former CIA executives explained to me when I was researching my book on the September 11, 2012 attacks.
Ever since Iran-Contra, when Democrats in Congress teamed up with federal prosecutors to go after CIA officers and White House officials for operating beyond official guidelines, no sane CIA officer will engage in a covert operation – such as helping to arm the Syrian rebels – without explicit legal authority.
It’s called “lawyering up.” Everyone does it. And nothing happens without it these days.
The CIA was operating in Benghazi to train and equip the Libya rebels under the authority of a presidential finding. Therefore, anything they did in Benghazi, including liaising with militias now recognized as terrorist groups who were involved in the attacks that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Ty Woods, was authorized.
Is that a scandal? Absolutely. But it gets passed over in the HPSCI report because it was “authorized.” Don’t look here, is the message.
Again, on pages 12 and 16 of the main report, HPSCI maintains that “the CIA was not collecting and shipping arms from Libya to Syria,” contrary to media allegations.
The report attempts to provide some context to this obfuscation of the facts:
Committee Members and staff asked all witnesses what they observed at the Benghazi Annex and whether they had any information to support allegations about weapons being collected and transported to Syria. Each witness reported seeing only standard CIA security weapons at the base. No witness testified that non-CIA weapons were brought to the Annex. Security personnel and officers testified that they had complete access to the Annex and would have observed any weapons, such as MANPADS [shoulder-fired surface to air missiles], stored at the facility.
But no serious source ever alleged the CIA was stockpiling weapons at the annex. It would have been the height of folly to do so, since the annex was an operational base for CIA case officers and their NSA colleagues, who were manning sophisticated signals intelligence equipment aimed at the jihadis and against Hezbollah and the Iranian Quds Force, which had a sizeable (and visible) presence in Benghazi.
Instead, as former CIA officer Larry Johnson points out, the CIA Annex was conducting liaison operations with British, Qatari, Saudi, and Turkish intelligence operatives in Benghazi, who were involved in collecting MANPADS and other weapons and shipping them to the Syrian rebels.
“Yes, the CIA was neither ‘collecting nor shipping the arms,’” Johnson wrote in response to the HPSCI whitewash report. “That was being done by Brits, Turks and Arabs from the Gulf. I also know personally of one American who was hired by a British firm who convinced the man that he was a non-official cover officer of the CIA. This man was in Benghazi, did collect MANPADS and turned them over to a British citizen who was part of the company he worked for.”
Left-wing journalist Seymour Hersh has claimed that the Senate Intelligence Committee in a highly classified appendix to its January 2014 report on the Benghazi attacks, “described a secret agreement reached in early 2012 between the Obama and Erdogan [Turkish] administrations” to funnel weapons to the Syria rebels through front companies in Libya.
The actual weapons smuggling was done by Australian front companies in Benghazi, who hired “retired American soldiers, who didn’t always know who was really employing them,” Hersh wrote.
Under an exception to the rules of reporting clandestine activities to Congress, liaison operations such as this did not require a presidential finding. Instead, just the eight top leaders in the Senate and the House, Republicans and Democrats, were kept in the loop. Among them, of course, was HPSCI chairman Mike Rogers and his Democrat counterpart, Maryland Congressman Dutch Ruppersberger, not one of the sharpest tools in the Congressional box.
Page 16 of the HPSCI report suggests that Hersh was right:
According to testimony from CIA Deputy Director [Mike] Morell and confirmed by other witnesses, the CIA’s mission in Benghazi was to collect foreign intelligence. From the Annex in Benghazi, the CIA was collecting intelligence about foreign entities that were themselves collecting weapons in Libya and facilitating their passage to Syria. The Benghazi Annex was not itself collecting weapons.
That is a major admission in what otherwise should be seen as a coverup report. But it is couched in such misdirection and legalese as to have escaped much attention until now.
Deep in the weeds (p87) of the classified hearing transcripts partially released on Friday by the House Intelligence Committee is a telling exchange between Republican Rep. Devin Nunes of California (the incoming chairman of the committee), and deputy CIA Director Mike Morell, who has left government to work for a consulting firm run by Hillary Clinton proteges:
Mr. Nunes: Are we aware of any arms that are leaving that area [Benghazi] and going into Syria?
Mr. Morell: Yes, sir.
General Clapper: Yes.
Mr. Nunes: And who is coordinating that?
Mr. Morell: I believe largely the [REDACTED] are coordinating that.
Was the deleted reference to the Turks? The Qataris? As I report in Dark Forces, both were deeply involved in Benghazi and in the effort to smuggle arms to the Syrian rebels.
Mr. Nunes: And were the CIA folks that were there, were they helping to coordinate that, or were they watching it, were they gathering information about it?
Mr. Morell: Sir, the focus of my officers in Benghazi was [redacted] to try to penetrate the terrorist groups that were there so we could learn their plans, intentions and capabilities [redacted].
Mr. Rogers [cutting him off]: Excuse me. Not every member in the back is cleared for [redacted.]
What type of CIA operation is not briefed to members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, the primary oversight committee charged with keeping tabs on the CIA and the rest of the sprawling U.S. intelligence community?
Answer: Liaison operations such as the ones former CIA officer Larry Johnson described where the CIA was monitoring the collection of surface-to-air missiles and other weapons from Qaddafi’s arsenal by friendly intelligence services and their front companies, and the shipment of those weapons to the Syrian rebels through Turkey.
One such shipment that went awry in late August 2012 involved 400 tons of weapons sent by a Libyan jihadi group to the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated charity IHH in Turkey on board the Al Entisar. The shipment caused a stir in Washington because it attracted the attention of Western reporters, and ultimately caused CIA Director David Petraeus and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to send Ambassador Chris Stevens to Benghazi to put a lid on the whole operation.
Another that I revealed in Dark Forces involved the smuggling of 400 SA-7 surface-to-air missiles from Qaddafi’s arsenals to Niger where they were upgraded with CIA batteries and new gripstocks from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt before being sent to jihadi groups in Mali, Gaza, the Sinai, and elsewhere. CIA Director David Petraeus attempted to investigate the arms pipeline, but was shut down by then White House counter-terrorism director (now CIA Director) John Brennan.
In another telling exchange, Rep. Nunes asked CIA deputy director Morell to explain the reason the CIA was in Benghazi. “Mr Chairman, obviously the room is not cleared, but I would like at some point maybe like to get more into what exactly our mission is there.”
What an incredible statement of the powerlessness of Congress. A senior member of the House intelligence committee – soon to become the chairman of the same panel that issued this whitewash report – acknowledging that he and fellow members of the committee, other than the chairman, do not have the necessary clearances to even ask the most basic of questions that the American people want answered: What was the CIA – and by extension, Ambassador Stevens – even doing in Benghazi in the first place?
Friday’s report raises more questions than it answers, and is yet another summons to Rep. Trey Gowdy to set his Select Committee on Benghazi to work to get the truth.