Friday, October 5

Rewind Elvis and the FBI have left the building (UPDATED 11:30 PM EDT)

Shashank Bengali, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, has filed a report datelined October 6 from Benghazi that scrapes together more data about the FBI's investigation in Benghazi .  Given how much this story has already been picked over by other reporters (see the rest of this post), Bengali's effort is impressive -- so impressive I'm dedicating a Pundita post to it.  But for this update I'll just present the link to the report, which is headlined U.S. investigators leave Libya consulate in Benghazi.
The truth, and the tragedy, is that the attack on the Benghazi consulate has been heavily politicized by every player with skin in the game, and that is a lot of players.  But reporters have to inform the public about what officials tell them about the incident, which adds to the confusion. 

So what started as a routine fog-of-war situation, as news organizations scrambled to get their best reporters to Benghazi to investigate what happened, is now a kind of hall of mirrors made up of official statements that constantly shifts and changes. This makes it hard for reporters to get the story straight on even a relatively simple situation connected with the Benghazi Incident.  That's what happened yesterday when an official source let news organizations know that the FBI had gotten to the Benghazi consulate.

The earliest report from the Associated Press, which I think was the first news organization to break the news, got the FBI team's arrival date wrong.  It said that the FBI had arrived in Benghazi on Wednesday and left the next day -- Thursday, October 4. By late in the afternoon, AP had corrected the report:
Agents arrived in Benghazi before dawn on Thursday and departed after sunset, after weeks of waiting for access to the crime scene to investigate the Sept. 11 attack.

The agents and several dozen U.S. special operations forces were there for about 12 hours, said a senior Defense Department official who spoke anonymously because he was not authorized to speak publicly about the ongoing investigation. The FBI agents went to “all the relevant locations” in the city, FBI spokeswoman Kathy Wright said. The FBI would not say what, if anything, they found.
Then the question was how long the FBI had spent examining the consulate. The CBS report I quoted yesterday noted that "FBI investigators spent a day examining the destroyed complex in the port city of Benghazi." 

A Wall Street Journal report more-or-less backed up the CBS report: "The [FBI] agents collected evidence for about 12 hours with protection from U.S. military personnel and perimeter security from Libyan personnel, then left the city because of security concerns, officials said."

The New York Times was more cautious about assigning a time frame:
The officials did not say how many F.B.I. agents were involved or precisely how long they were on the ground. The Pentagon press secretary, George Little, would only say at a briefing that the agents and their military escorts were in Benghazi “for a number of hours” before returning to Tripoli.

The agents were specialists in evidence collection, according to law enforcement officials, and were there to sift through the wreckage and to determine in better detail how the attack unfolded. It is unclear how much can still be gleaned from the site, which a senior American law enforcement official has described as so badly “degraded” that linking evidence to the attackers will be difficult at best.
It went on like that, as every major news organization worked its sources in Official Washington in the effort to get the story straight.

A Washington Post reporter decided to stop playing Washington's game and instead worked his sources in Libya's government. (And/or scared up a sympathetic employee at the State Department who patched him through to a Libyan source.)  Here's what the source told the reporter, Michael Birnbaum. (If the name rings a bell, he's the reporter who found several official documents at the Benghazi consulate, which, depending on what source you listen to, were classified or sensitive or not that important -- for that last read Hillary Clinton's remarks to the WSJ):
For the first time since the onslaught, an FBI team accompanied by a “small footprint" of U.S. military personnel visited Benghazi, Pentagon spokesman George Little said. A spokesman for the Libyan Interior Ministry in eastern Libya, Ezzdeen Alfizany, said that the Americans spent less than five hours in the city, including about an hour at the ransacked U.S. mission, and visited a tatty bazaar called the “two dinar” market, apparently in search of items looted from the compound.
Does rooting around a tatty bazaar constitute 'visiting all the relevant locations in the city' and 'sifting through the consulate wreckage to determine in better detail how the attack unfolded?'  Well, as long as the agents also did detailed forensic groundwork. Such as striving to answer questions that Arwa Damon's observations raise. To return to the Times report:
It is unclear if the F.B.I. investigators plan to return to the site, but Mr. Little hinted that they might. He offered few details about the military escort operation, adding, “We may need to replicate it in the future, and I wouldn’t want to tip off the wrong people.”

It appears that the F.B.I. spent little or no time interviewing residents in Benghazi. Typically they would spend weeks, rather than hours, at a crime scene as important to national security as this site.
Now see spending little time interviewing residents would pose a problem, if one wants to attempt to resolve a seeming contradiction brought out by Arwa's observations, which I'll deal with in the next post.

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