The full Benghazi story has been at least somewhat obscured by the political jousting which continues around the attacks of 2012. In Shadow Warfare, Stu and I discuss a number of indications that a major CIA operation involving both weapons interdiction (aimed at both Syrian and Trans Saharan weapons flow) and weapons procurement (routing deniable Soviet weapons to favored anti-government Syrian groups) was in play. Those operations were dealt a serious blow by the killing of the American ambassador and the exposure of the CIA operations base in the “annex”. I revisit Benghazi again in Surprise Attack, dealing with issues of diplomatic facility security, the actual attacks and what is can and cannot be done to deal with such attacks in the future.
Beyond both those topics, the question is whether or not Benghazi indicates a major structural change related to CIA practices. There is no doubt that CIA personnel have become increasingly “embedded” in military campaigns. We saw that early on in Afghanistan and we continue to see it with CIA personnel being assigned to Joint Task Forces. What was once a strategic intelligence organization has become more and more tactical, with personnel forward deployed into what are effectively combat zones. To some extent this indicates the extent to which real time intelligence has become part of contemporary, non-state war fighting.
But then there is Benghazi. Historically, CIA personnel (intelligence, counter intelligence and political action officers) were routinely deployed within State Department facilities, under State Department employee cover. Placing “spies” in Consulates and Embassies is an ages old game, played by virtually every nation. However there was great caution taken to separate operational and paramilitary staff and provide different types of covers for them. Commercial covers have been common, military assistance and advisory covers have been popular and of course there are other government agencies such as USAID. These days everyone suspects NGO’s to host a variety of intelligence types, depending on who is really providing the funds for their activities.
Great lengths were taken to locate CIA operations well away from diplomatic facilities, you can trace that from the CIA operations in Tibet, through Mexico City, and on to operations in Angola where officers were not even officially allowed to cross the border. All this may have been a form of gamesmanship but the efforts to keep operations covert and deniable were quite serious and the tradecraft to accomplish that was extensive.
Yet in Benghazi, the CIA ran an operations base several times larger than the American diplomatic mission, located within a mile or so of it and according to Congressional testimony from the CIA Chief of Station, there were even plans to consolidate the facilities. All of which is much like painting a bull’s-eye on the diplomatic staff – especially if said staff does anything at all to support the CIA’s in country mission. In Libya you had the State Department admitting it was attempting to control arms flow out of the country and the CIA doing exactly that and likely more secretly. As far as we can tell it appears that Joint Task Force Trans Sahara personnel may have been working out of the State Department mission in the capital and we know that an unarmed surveillance drone was flying over eastern Libya at the time of the attack. DOD personnel had also performed some security missions in Benghazi. It is no surprise that the paramilitary contractors performing security at the CIA base (using State Department cover) have said that the Annex was well known to militants in the city and that the attack on the Annex appeared to have been staged at one point from an adjacent house. Yet when the attack came, it appears that AFRICOM, the command with military responsibility for North Africa was not aware of the CIA annex location, even those certain DOD and Joint Task Force personnel were.
All this raises the question of whether Benghazi was an example of exceptional “entanglement” between CIA and State or whether it illustrates a sea change in standard Agency practice – as CIA intelligence personnel become more and more operational. Perhaps it was an exception, reflecting the Libyan ambassadors personal in country experience and connections. If not, it illustrates how far the CIA is being taken off its original course as a Central Intelligence collection and analysis function and shows the risk of closely coupling operational intelligence and diplomatic missions.