Mellisa Harris-Perry: 10 years ago this week, the United States Consulate in Benghazi, Libya was attacked.
Reporter: We have just learned that the US ambassador to Libya has been killed. It happened overnight when angry militants stormed the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. They fired shots, set the building on fire. Almost a dozen Americans were inside being guarded by Libyan security.
Mellisa Harris-Perry: The attacks on the Consulate and a nearby CIA annex left four Americans dead, US Ambassador Christopher Stevens, state department worker Sean Smith, and CIA contractors, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. The event in Benghazi and the lives lost were a national tragedy, but then came the political fallout, the investigations, the hearings, and the primary target, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Hillary Clinton: I'm here to honor those we lost and to do what I can to aid those who serve us still.
Mellisa Harris-Perry: Republicans portrayed Benghazi as a failure of leadership, and as a coverup by Secretary Clinton and the Obama administration. Democrats said Republicans were misusing the tragedy of Benghazi to score political points.
Hillary Clinton: It is deeply unfortunate that something as serious as what happened in Benghazi could ever be used for partisan political purposes.
Mellisa Harris-Perry: In the midst of Hillary Clinton's 2016 campaign for president, the Republican-led house issued an 800-page report on Benghazi. It detailed security failures of the Defense Department and the intelligence community, but ultimately did not square most of the blame on Secretary Clinton.
Hillary Clinton: After more than two years and $7 million spent by the Benghazi committee out of taxpayer funds, it had to today reported had found nothing, nothing to contradict the conclusions of the independent accountability board or the conclusions of the prior multiple earlier investigations, but I think it's pretty clear it's time to move on.
Mellisa Harris-Perry: Benghazi, of course, did not go away. It became a focal point of the 2016 election. Ethan Chorin is a former US diplomat to Libya, an author of the new book, Benghazi! A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink.
Ethan Chorin: The Benghazi that most of America is, or much of America is familiar with was focused on the so-called 13 hours around the attack. There was very little context. We know it as a huge political scandal, but we really don't today have a much better collective idea of where it came from, and what the consequences were.
Mellisa Harris-Perry: You write that you had a gut feeling before traveling to Libya for work trip, but that you went because of the work that you were trying to do in Benghazi. Can you tell us about that?
Ethan Chorin: Well, I had this feeling that after the Libyan revolution broke out that I needed to be back in Libya. It had been seven years since I'd been posted there. I was just spellbound by what was going on and felt a sense of somewhat obligation to go back and see if I could help do something for the city which I had grown to love.
A colleague and I had decided that one of the ways we could help would be to help bring American medical institutions and technology back into the country as part of reconstruction effort. We were in a situation where we saw things go progressively worse, and from a security perspective, law and order was falling apart at a rapid rate in Libya's east. I had this premonition that this was not going to be a good time to go.
At the same time, we were facing this situation where we had made some progress in a few fronts, one notably, a partnership between Benghazi Medical Center, a 1,500 bed facility in Benghazi, its largest, and two US teaching hospitals. There was a contract to be signed between those organizations. We felt like if we didn't go right then, the progress might be completely lost. I think those were very similar feelings that Chris Stevens had and ultimately what propelled him to Benghazi over the same period. It was a very difficult choice.
Mellisa Harris-Perry: Maybe just for our listeners because I do want to dig in with Ambassador Stevens and other parts, but that emotional connection that you described, like this country that you've come to really care about, share some of that with our listeners. What is Libya?
Ethan Chorin: Libya is a large country in, geographically, in North Africa on the border of Southern Europe. It has had a tumultuous modern history, much of it under the dictator Muammar Gaddafi, which is a figure that even if people in America don't really know much about Libya, often they've heard of him. He was overthrown in the 2011 revolution.
It's one of the more interesting cultural spots. Its physical beauty is unmatched in many ways. There's gorgeous beaches, areas that look like Napa Valley in California, desert oasis, the people are collectively very friendly. I lived for two years as one of the small number of American diplomats sent to reestablish relations with Libyan after the 2003 agreement. It was something of a honeymoon period in the sense that people were curious and open and wanting to know more about the United States and really appreciative of any interest that any American showed in their own culture and literature and history.
That experience I thought profoundly affected me and was one of the reasons that I felt this draw to go back once Gaddafi was overthrown. I had experienced Libya as a someone thinking of a police state, and I was really happy for Libyans that they managed to overthrow those constraints. Everyone was enthusiastic at that point in time. Of course, things would fall apart pretty quickly.
Mellisa Harris-Perry: Tell me about Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Ethan Chorin: Chris Stevens was a friend and a colleague. We had something of a correspondence relationship. We were introduced by a senior foreign service colleague while I was still posted to Libya and he wanted to talk to me about what Libya was like. It had a mixed reputation in the foreign service. There were lots of curtailments and the living conditions were difficult.
In any case, Chris did not have any reservations. I could tell from the start, he was very enthusiastic and, ultimately, I left Libya and he came and spent, I believe, two-plus years there after me. I never thought that I'd be back to Libya anytime soon and probably he didn't after he left his post. With the revolution, suddenly, he was appointed the envoy to the transitional government, and I had called him up and said, "Look, I'd love to come work for you."
His response, sort of typical, "The foreign service, it'll take a long time and you'll probably be posted to Venezuela, not Libya." Anyway, Chris was a very astute, kind, analytical person. He was thrust as I was, but on a much larger scale at that point into a situation where he saw behind the veil part and the pun of what the United States had done in and with Libya before the revolution and after.
I think he saw the incredible complexities and was privy to a world that most of the policymakers and people looking at what was going on after revolution just simply weren't. I think he saw into that chasm and was disturbed. Then you can see traces of that in his official and private correspondences. I mentioned many of the official ones in my book.
Mellisa Harris-Perry: Talk to me about that day. Four lives, four Americans who died. Tell us about the events that triggered that day.
Ethan Chorin: I think many Americans have a sense that Benghazi just came out of nowhere, triggered this political brawl, and then petered out and was somewhat inconsequential. I'm really challenging that characterization. The Benghazi attack, really, the roots of it can be found in 9/11 and many of the policy moves that were made after it, and particularly the raproshmal with Muammar Gaddafi.
The Western intelligence agencies led, in part, by the UK had essentially tried to overthrow Gaddafi on many occasions, in part, by supporting former Mujahideen, Libyan national foreign fighters who came back to Libya and were dead set on assassinating Gaddafi and overthrowing the regime. There was these relationships. Then 9/11 comes along and all of these people are immediately enemies, enemy combatants.
Many of them were back in Afghanistan and the United States essentially went out, kidnapped them, and rendered them back to Libya for interrogation and torture. Unfortunately, much of that interrogation and torture seems to have been done by the Americans, not the Libyans. These were not people who were friendly to the United States by any means. It then comes this raproshmal with Gaddafi and there is this sense, both on Gaddafi's part and to some degree within Washington, that we can perhaps become, I don't know, [unintelligible 00:10:00] may be the right word to these individuals, and that this was also necessary for the survival of Gaddafi's regime.
That these people were under surveillance, they were in jail for the most part, and it looked like a controlled issue, but then came the Arab Spring. The nut of it is that within the chaos of the revolution, United States lost track of whom within the rebels were friends and who were not friends or who were temporary friends.
As the revolution continued and we weren't really present and helping organize all of this, and the political vacuum became stronger and stronger, these individuals became more and more empowered. Ultimately, they were the vector through which, or at least part of it, al-Qaeda and then ISIS came into the country.
One of the big ironies of Benghazi was that, essentially, the United States intervened in Lybia, essentially, to protect the city of Benghazi of a million people from Gaddafi's wrath because the revolution started and flamed up there and ultimately wound up turning it over to al-Qaeda. That's a problem. I can talk about the consequences as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I was going to say. You've brought us up to now, what does it-- The other piece, obviously, of what you are giving us that is this new history is also the new history of what happens thereafter, what triggers after that day.
Ethan Chorin: I tend to look at Benghazi as something like a mirror on American policy. As in, both sides could project the most awful images of the other on it, and it would bounce back onto us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Like a green screen.
Ethan Chorin: Yes. The scandal was what was the real-- If Benghazi was just limited to the attack and its immediate aftermath locally and nothing-- As far as America is concerned, the real damage was done by the scandal. Again, the paradox is that the scandal itself became the problem. Benghazi was the perfect scandal for a whole number of reasons that have to do with timing, technology, and the issues that were involved.
Of course, it occurred on the cusp of the 2012 election, it involved 9/11, the war on terror. These are all issues that were very much in play in the election and which the Obama administration was extremely sensitive to. The Obama administration, for quite some time and due to the Republican reaction to various previous terrorist incidents, were highly concerned that the Republicans would do what they signaled early they would do, which is make a huge issue out of it.
This dysfunctional dynamic, I think, was one of the major causes of the scandal. Republicans never regret doing what they were trained to do, again, like a dysfunctional married couple.
Then there's the technological aspect. I interviewed a lot of data scientists and people who track social media trends, and a couple of them confirmed that, in their belief, Benghazi occurred at a very particular moment in the evolution of social media and its capacity to create silos and divide and cultivate extreme opinions. That if it occurred a few months before, without all these other factors, we may not have seen such a blowout.
In reality, all of those things together created a step function up in polarization. Benghazi was truly the first social media-powered scandal. As a result, nobody, including the Democrats and the Republicans don't really want to talk about it, which is also interesting because there's this collective amnesia or confusion, like, "Okay, well, this stuff happened, and ultimately, what difference does it make as--" not to borrow the quote from Hillary Clinton.
I explained why it had a major impact on the 2016 election. As one former senior Obama official confirmed to me when I expressed that view, it was the common denominator amongst almost all of the other factors that were blamed for the election or loss of Hillary Clinton-- [crosstalk]
Melissa Harris-Perry: Yet, your point that on the one hand-- As you're making these connections, on the one hand, it seems so profoundly clear, those connections, but also, I can't think of the last time that I've heard someone in public space, in the context of all that it may have set off, actually say the word Benghazi or have a conversation about as we approach this year 10. I'm wondering why the actual catalyst itself, why Benghazi then almost disappears, gets lost.
Ethan Chorin: I think, for the Democrats and for the left, it's very clear. I think there's this pervasive fear that the mention of it is going to set off another chain reaction. I call Benghazi something of a-- It's like a collective trauma of this country. I don't say that it didn't impact Republicans as well, but it certainly affected the left. Again, without context, it seems people don't know what to make of it. It just looks like a complete and utter fabrication.
Again, there were other impacts of the scandal more than the attack itself, but the scandal was on our foreign policy. A number of senior officials in various departments of government have referred to something they call the Benghazi effect, which, essentially, when it boils down to it, was this massive risk aversion that nobody wanted to take in the field. We withdrew our spies, we put diplomats behind walled enclosures, and we weren't willing to take risks. This has greatly facilitated the chaos in Lybia over the last 10 years.
I go on in the book about other impacts of this pervasive risk aversion, one of which is this increasing reliance on remote-controlled warfare as a means of, again, not putting boots on the ground. Yemen is a perfect manifestation of that in the humanitarian crisis there. As a result, I think the major beneficiaries of all of this have been all of America's adversaries. First and foremost, al-Qaeda, it must be thinking, "Geez, we never thought 9/11 was going to be so disastrous for the United States, and heck, we've done it again with this simple booster in the form of Benghazi."
It's impacted our relations with-- You can trace the conflict in Ukraine and partly to US-Russia relations around Lybia. The Russians were mightily unhappy with the way the US handled Lybia, and the Chinese also. The United States is really less present dramatically in these regions, which, regardless of we think that it's best to leave it alone, they always pull us back in, and we're being pulled back in in an increasingly disadvantageous position.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Is there a way, if we zero in, if we understand the broader context, if we can see these connections, as you've drawn them in the book? Is there a way to change course so that that signal boost that leads to that reluctance can shift? Is there a way, perhaps, certainly, not to fix all the consequences but to begin to address them?
Ethan Chorin: I don't know. I've certainly asked myself that question many times during the course of writing this book, which was a long effort. The United States projects peace and reconciliation efforts on other countries that have gone through civil conflicts, it would be great if we could do it for ourselves. Partly, that's because the polarization has gotten to a point where stuff simply doesn't penetrate in on either side, which goes back to what you were saying before about the unwillingness to look at things that trigger an instant reaction like Benghazi did.
I don't know, but one of the big issues is, and I hope this point comes across in the book, is that institutions are what-- It's not a Republican or a Democratic thing. The last three presidencies, and maybe before that, but really starting with the Bush administration and the Iraq war, each administration has, essentially, upped the level of politicization of internal bureaucracy. You have the CIA, the State Department, the NSA, the NSC all playing different roles and all organizing to preserve their turf, make sure they don't get hit with anything that comes in. They're all scanning the social media, just worried that they're going to be blamed for the next thing.
It's not always from bad intent. I think the Obama administration was reacting very much to a culture that started in the Bush administration. I would say that President Trump was more-- His worldview and many of the things he did were almost invited by the climate that was produced at that point. Shoring up our institutions and making sure that we have the best people and that they're communicating with one another and that they're incentivized to do their best work, this is the issue.
America cannot face the challenges of the world ahead while its own bureaucracies are essentially aligned against each other on political lines or are so cautious that they can't take [00:19:48] decisions because they're worried that another Benghazi is going to come down the pike, and they're going to be holed up in front of a committee.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Ethan Chorin is author of the new book, Benghazi: A New History of the Fiasco that Pushed America and its World to the Brink. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Ethan Chorin: Thanks for having me.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.