By Aaron Klein
In a new account, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell, who has been implicated in the Benghazi talking-points scandal, claimed the Sept. 11, 2012, attack against the U.S. Benghazi mission took place with “little or no advance planning.”
Morell’s theory does not explain how hundreds of militants arrived with weapons, erected armed checkpoints surrounding the compound and demonstrated insider knowledge of the facility while deploying military-style tactics to storm the U.S. mission.
Nor did he attempt to resolve how the attackers knew the exact location of a secretive CIA annex, including the specific coordinates of the building that were likely utilized to launch precision mortar strikes.
Morell’s latest claims also do not explain how militants with “little to no advance planning” could be capable of mounting a fierce, hours-long gun battle with highly experienced U.S. forces stationed inside the Benghazi mission and CIA annex.
Seeking to promote his new book on the war on terrorism published this week, Morell turned a section of the forthcoming work into a piece at Politico titled “The Real Story of Benghazi: A CIA insider’s account of what happened on 9/11/12.”
In the piece, Morell writes, “I believe that, with little or no advance planning, extremists in Benghazi made some phone calls, gathering a group of like-minded individuals to go to the TMF (Temporary Mission Facility in Benghazi). When they attacked, at about 9:40 p.m. local time, the assault was not well organized — they seemed to be more of a mob who intended to breach the compound and see what damage they could do.”
When you assess the information from the video feed from the cameras at the TMF and the Annex, there are few signs of a well-thought-out plan, few signs of command and control, few signs of organization, few signs of coordination, few signs of even the most basic military tactics in the attack on the TMF. Some of the attackers were armed with small arms; many were not armed at all.
Many of the attackers, after entering through the front gate, ran past buildings to the other end of the compound, behaving as if they were thrilled just to have overrun the compound. They did not appear to be looking for Americans to harm. They appeared intent on looting and conducting vandalism. When they did enter buildings, they quickly exited with stolen items.
Morell concluded, “Clearly, this was a mob looting and vandalizing the place—with tragic results. It was a mob, however, made up of a range of individuals, some of whom were hardened Islamic extremists. And it was a mob that killed two Americans by setting fires to several buildings.”
Morell’s account of “little to no advance planning” stands in contrast to a number of factors.
Fox News previously reported late Republican Florida Rep. Bill Young said he spoke for 90 minutes with David Ubben, one of the security agents severely injured in the assault. Young said the agent revealed to him the intruders knew the exact location of late Ambassador Chris Stevens’ safe room while demonstrating insider knowledge of the Benghazi compound.
“He (Ubben) emphasized the fact that it was a very, very military type of operation [in that] they had knowledge of almost everything in the compound,” stated Young. “They knew where the gasoline was, they knew where the generators were, they knew where the safe room was, they knew more than they should have about that compound.”
Morel’s description further doesn’t jibe with the State Department’s Accountability Review Board investigation into the Benghazi attack.
The ARB described a well-orchestrated attack with militants who apparently had specific knowledge of the compound. It doesn’t focus on looters but rather on “men armed with AK rifles” who “started to destroy the living room contents and then approached the safe area gate and started banging on it.”
In another detail suggesting a plan, the ARB states the intruders smoked up Villa C, likely to make breathing so difficult that anyone inside the safe room where Ambassador Stevens was holed up would need to come out.
It may be difficult for keen observers to swallow Morell’s claim of largely unplanned attackers and looters in light of events that demonstrated the attackers knew the location of the nearby CIA annex and set up checkpoints to ensure against the escape by Americans inside the special mission.
Further, the perpetrators attacked the CIA annex with mortars that reportedly landed on the roof of the building. Security experts stress the attackers would likely have had to possess exact coordinates of the CIA complex to calculate the precise trajectory and distance from which to fire.
Meanwhile, in his Politico piece, Morell linked the Benghazi attack to an attack against the U.S. Embassy in Cairo that same day. Morell claimed the Sept. 11, 2012, Cairo attack was motivated by an infamous anti-Islam YouTube video mocking Muhammad.
“We know from having monitored social media and other communications in advance that the demonstration and violence in Cairo were sparked by people upset over a YouTube video that portrayed the Prophet Muhammad negatively,” he wrote at Politico.
Morel continued, “We believe that in Benghazi — over six hundred miles away — extremists heard about the successful assault on our embassy in Egypt and decided to make some trouble of their own, although we still do not know their motivations with certainty.”
However, the Cairo protest Sept. 11 was announced days in advance as part of a movement to free the so-called “blind sheik,” Omar Abdel-Rahman, held in the U.S. over the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.
The State Department’s 39-page ARB said a group acting to free Rahman was involved in previous attacks against diplomatic facilities in Benghazi.
The anti-U.S. protest movement outside the Cairo embassy was a long-term project to free Rahman. As far back as July 2012, Rahman’s son, Abdallah Abdel Rahman, threatened to organize a protest at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and detain the employees inside.
On the day of the Sept. 11, 2012, protests in Cairo, CNN’s Nic Robertson interviewed the son of Rahman, who described the protest as being about freeing his father. No Muhammad film was mentioned. A big banner calling for Rahman’s release can be seen as Robertson walked to the embassy protests.
Regarding his attempt to connect the Muhammad film to Benghazi, Morell fails to mention an independent investigation that found no mention of the video on social media in Libya in the three days leading up to the attack. A review of more than 4,000 postings was conducted by the leading social media monitoring firm Agincourt Solutions, finding the first reference to the video was not detected on social media until the day after the attack.
“From the data we have, it’s hard for us to reach the conclusion that the consulate attack was motivated by the movie. Nothing in the immediate picture – surrounding the attack in Libya – suggests that,” Jeff Chapman, chief executive with Agincourt Solutions, told Fox News.
Morell does concede, “I should note that our analysts never said the video was a factor in the Benghazi attacks.”
Still, it would be strange for the public to have gathered outside the Benghazi mission to protest a Muhammad film. The U.S. special mission was not a permanent facility, nor was its existence widely known by the public in Libya.
Indeed, State’s ARB report on the Benghazi attack itself documented the facility was set up secretively and without the knowledge of the new Libyan government.
“Another key driver behind the weak security platform in Benghazi was the decision to treat Benghazi as a temporary, residential facility, not officially notified to the host government, even though it was also a full-time office facility,” the report states.
Morell and talking points
A 46-page House Republican report from last April probing the Benghazi attack detailed how lawmakers who led the investigation were given access to classified emails and other communications that prove the talking points were not edited to protect classified information – as Morell had originally claimed – but instead to protect the State Department’s reputation.
“Contrary to administration rhetoric, the talking points were not edited to protect classified information,” states the ‘Interim Progress Report for the Members of the House Republican Conference on the Events Surrounding the Sept. 11, 2012, Terrorist Attacks in Benghazi.’”
“Evidence rebuts administration claims that the talking points were modified to protect classified information or to protect an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI),” the report continues.
The report charges that the talking points were “deliberately” edited to “protect the State Department.”
States the report: “To protect the State Department, the administration deliberately removed references to al-Qaida-linked groups and previous attacks in Benghazi in the talking points used by [United Nations] Ambassador [Susan] Rice, thereby perpetuating the deliberately misleading and incomplete narrative that the attacks evolved from a demonstration caused by a YouTube video.”
As KleinOnline reported, the tale of the talking points began when U.S. intelligence officials testified behind closed doors in early November 2012 and were asked point blank whether they had altered the notes on which Rice based her comments about the Benghazi attack.
On Sunday, Sept. 16, 2012, Rice appeared on five morning television programs to discuss the White House response to the Benghazi attack. In nearly identical statements, she asserted that the attack was a spontaneous protest in response to a “hateful video.”
Other Obama administration officials made similar claims.
Two congressional sources who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity said Morell, then acting CIA director, along with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, each testified behind closed doors that they did not alter the talking points.
On Nov. 16, 2012, former CIA director David Petraeus testified before the same congressional intelligence committees and also replied no to the question of whether he had changed the talking points, three congressional sources told Reuters.
Then, on Nov. 27, the CIA reportedly told lawmakers that it had in fact changed the wording of the unclassified talking points to delete a reference to al-Qaida, according to senators who met with Morell that day.
The Nov. 27 meeting was between Morell, Rice and Republican Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte.
The three senators said in a statement that Morell told them during the meeting that the FBI had removed references to al-Qaida from the talking points “and did so to prevent compromising an ongoing criminal investigation” of the attack on the U.S. mission.
The senators’ joint statement reads: “Around 10:00 this morning in a meeting requested by Ambassador Rice, accompanied by acting CIA Director Mike Morell, we asked Mr. Morell who changed the unclassified talking points to remove references to al-Qaida.
“In response, Mr. Morell said the FBI removed the references and did so to prevent compromising an ongoing criminal investigation. We were surprised by this revelation and the reasoning behind it.”
Morell’s claim of changing the talking points for security reasons is contradicted by the April Republican probe.
Further, on Nov. 28, 2012, CBS News reported the CIA then told the news agency that the edits to the talking points were made “so as not to tip off al-Qaida as to what the U.S. knew, and to protect sources and methods.”
That same report quoted a source from the Office of the Director for National Intelligence who told Margaret Brennan of CBS News that the source’s office made the edits as part of the inter-agency process because the links to al-Qaida were deemed too “tenuous” to make public.
Meanwhile, a few hours after his meeting with the senators, Morell’s office reportedly contacted Graham and stated that Morell “misspoke” in the earlier meeting and that it was, in fact, the CIA, not the FBI, that deleted the al-Qaida references.
“They were unable to give a reason as to why,” stated Graham.
“CIA officials contacted us and indicated that Acting Director Morell misspoke in our earlier meeting. The CIA now says that it deleted the al-Qaida references, not the FBI. They were unable to give a reason as to why,” said the senators’ statement.
“This was an honest mistake and it was corrected as soon as it was realized. There is nothing more to this,” an intelligence official said about Morell’s briefing to the senators.
The official said the talking points “were never meant to be definitive and, in fact, noted that the assessment may change. The points clearly reflect the early indications of extremist involvement in a direct result. It wasn’t until after they were used in public that analysts reconciled contradictory information about how the assault began.”
However, the intelligence community clearly at first portrayed the edited White House talking points as a bid to protect classified information.
White House blames Morell
Morell’s involvement in the talking points was further called into question in a New York Times article in May 2013 quoting administration officials who said Morell deleted a reference in the draft version of the talking points to CIA warnings of extremist threats in Libya, which State Department officials objected to because they feared it would reflect badly on them.
The officials said Morell acted on his own and not in response to pressure from the State Department.
According to the interim House report on Benghazi, after a White House deputies meeting on Saturday, Sept. 15, 2012, the administration altered the talking points to remove references to the likely participation of Islamic extremists in the attacks.
The administration also removed references to the threat of extremists linked to al-Qaida in Benghazi and eastern Libya, including information about at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi.
Charged the report: “Senior State Department officials requested – and the White House approved – that the details of the threats, specifics of the previous attacks, and previous warnings be removed to insulate the department from criticism that it ignored the threat environment in Benghazi.”
The report authors said that they went through email exchanges of the inter-agency process to scrub the talking points. They wrote that the emails do not reveal any concern with protecting classified information.
“Additionally, the bureau itself approved a version of the talking points with significantly more information about the attacks and previous threats than the version that the State Department requested. Thus, the claim that the State Department’s edits were made solely to protect that investigation is not credible.”
In a particularly stinging accusation, the report states that when draft talking points were sent to officials throughout the executive branch, senior State Department officials requested they be changed “to avoid criticism for ignoring the threat environment in Benghazi.”
“Specifically, State Department emails reveal senior officials had ‘serious concerns’ about the talking points, because members of Congress might attack the State Department for ‘not paying attention to agency warnings’ about the growing threat in Benghazi.
With additional research by Joshua Klein