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FBI Investigation Continues on Benghazi Attacks, Searching for Alleged Suspects

October 2, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
After officially announcing that terrorists were responsible for attacks on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, the U.S. intelligence community is pursuing alleged suspects. Margaret Warner talks to The Wall Street Journal's Siobhan Gorman and Greg Miller of The Washington Post for more on the state of security in Libya.
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MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Issa’s letter also detailed some 13 anti-U.S. and anti-Western security incidents in the months leading up to the attacks.

For more now on the state of security in Benghazi at the time and the hunt for suspects, we turn to two reporters who have been covering all this, Siobhan Gordon of The Wall Street Journal and Greg Miller of The Washington Post.

Welcome to you both.

President Obama pledged on September 12 to bring the killers to justice.

Siobhan, starting with you, how far along is the U.S. in the investigation, the kind of investigation they would have to do to do that?

SIOBHAN GORMAN, The Wall Street Journal: Well, they’re fairly far along in terms of being able to identify some individuals through either tracking conversations or through video that is picked up, photographs and the like.

And so they have identified a number of individuals. And they are trying to figure out now what the next steps are to deal with those individuals. And they have discovered that they hail from a number of different militant groups.

MARGARET WARNER: And, in fact, you had a story today about an Egyptian-born militant who was freed last year after the Egyptian revolution from an Egyptian prison.

SIOBHAN GORMAN:  Right. Right. He’s a former Egyptian Islamic Jihad operative, Muhammad Jamal Abu Ahmad. And he is — he was in the sights of the spy agencies prior to this attack.

But they have discovered that some of the militants in his network — because he has set up these training camps in Libya, because you have more freedom of movement there — have turned up as having taken, you know — taken aim at the consulate as well.

MARGARET WARNER: And how far along are they, Greg, in terms of the kind of planning that would go into doing something about…

GREG MILLER, The Washington Post: Well, I think they’re in the early stages of trying to make some decisions about that.

I think this administration has signaled that it would prefer to work through the Libyan institutions and see if they can detain people and apprehend people that way. I’m sure that they are drawing up contingency plans for if that doesn’t work and what does the United States do?

But I think we’re some distance from seeing anything that looks like a drone strike in Libya.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, critics say that the fact — administration critics — that RPGs were used in the attacks should have been prima facie evidence that this was a terrorist attack.

But from your reporting — and you have been both been reporting on this — what were the signs or the evidence that led the administration to reverse its initial assessment?

Greg?

GREG MILLER: Well, I think there’s been a number of things. They have come from different sources.

So there was — there have been some intercepts that show contacts between some of the militants and organized militant organizations, perhaps even including al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

And there was other information coming in from informants and/or detainees who have been scooped up and are being questioned to some extent in Tripoli.

MARGARET WARNER: And what was — do you want to add something to that?

SIOBHAN GORMAN:  No. That’s…

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let’s go on to the state of security, because you have written a lot about this.

What was the state of security at that consulate and the whole environment in the city before the attacks?

SIOBHAN GORMAN:  Well, the state of security had been pretty constant.

And they were relying largely on local Libyans to handle it. There were four armed Libyan guards and four unarmed Libyan guards.

And there were also five armed Americans at the time. And I believe there were probably twice that many at the separate site, the annex, where there was a second set of attacks later on.

But that’s pretty minimal. And that had really been the state of security for the several months leading up, even though there had been a number of attacks on Western targets, including the consulate itself, which had been bombed in June.

MARGARET WARNER: And these were detailed, some of these, in Congressman Issa’s letter, including an attack on the British ambassador’s convoy.

GREG MILLER: Right. There were attacks throughout the summer.

MARGARET WARNER: With RPGs?

GREG MILLER: There were attacks on the Red Cross facility in Benghazi. As Siobhan said, there was a June 5 attack on this very consulate that was later sieged.

And so, that’s why there were these questions right at the outset right after — in the aftermath of the attacks in Benghazi. What was the security profile and didn’t all of these other episodes — weren’t those cause for concern, significant concern in escalating the security profile there?

MARGARET WARNER: And what has your reporting told you about that? I mean, did U.S. officials, American officials think that that created a more dangerous environment for Ambassador Stevens to be walking into, and, if so, what did they do about it?

SIOBHAN GORMAN:  I think they thought that it may have created a more dangerous environment, but they were dealing with it adequately.

After the attack on the British ambassador’s convoy, Britain actually pulled out of Benghazi. And the U.S. made its decision to stay there. The officials we spoke with said it was for unspecified national security reasons, and they were doing a lot of different operations in that area. I think that…

MARGARET WARNER: So, intelligence operations.

SIOBHAN GORMAN: Basically, yes. Well, yes.

MARGARET WARNER: … listening posts, intelligence sector.

SIOBHAN GORMAN: And so, you know, there was a need for an American presence there. And so they — you know, it was explained to us they did keep evaluating the security even up until just before September 11, in light of the anniversary of September 11. And they decided that the security was adequate.

So, at least as it’s been presented to us, it was considered regularly. But it was pretty limited security that was put in place.

MARGARET WARNER: And have you run across anyone who — any American officials who said to the home base, we need better security?

SIOBHAN GORMAN:  I have not yet in our reporting, and obviously we have been asking about that.

And I think that some — a lot of officials are waiting for this accountability board review to turn up its findings, because I think that their belief is that that will probably create at least the most definitive story about security warnings up to this point.

MARGARET WARNER: And so what led — and you reported on this last Friday, Greg — the head, director of national intelligence to come out and made this statement last Friday about why they believed one thing initially and then came to believe something else.

GREG MILLER: Well, according to the director’s office, they issued that statement to try to clarify that the intelligence picture had been shifting in Benghazi.

And they thought that their — the stories about this and the attacks coming from Capitol Hill were mischaracterizing the evolution and the understanding by the intelligence community of what had happened there.

So they came out with a letter, which is a pretty unusual step. I mean, we’re in the middle of an investigation by the State Department.

And the DNI steps in the middle of that by issuing a statement saying, look, initially, we thought this was spontaneous, and after looking at it more closely in the days that followed, we saw new indications that suggests that this was really a terrorist attack.

MARGARET WARNER: Stepping back — you both have good sources in the administration. Is there a feeling from people you talk to that they really — this was an intelligence — I hate to use the words failure, but that, in retrospect, the situation was far more dangerous than they realized and should have realized? Or are they not there yet?

SIOBHAN GORMAN:  I’m not sure that they’re characterizing it as an intelligence failure, because there haven’t been any indications that have come up that would have shown yet — you know, we may well see that.

But we haven’t yet seen that smoking gun of, you know, this was the piece of intelligence that was missed that would have provided clear warning.

I think that what you’re seeing, particularly from lawmakers, and some within the administration, is a discussion about whether or not they were underestimating the security risks that they were putting U.S. officials into, especially when they were in these sort of outer-lying diplomatic outposts.

I mean, they called the Benghazi consulate a temporary outpost, but it was there for a year. So, they were thinking about it in the context of this is a temporary kind of thing. And that may have factored into the way that they were looking at security.

GREG MILLER: The same thing. I don’t think that anybody is calling this an intelligence failure. If there were failures, they seem to be broad failures. At least, that’s what the evidence indicates so far.

Nobody has come forward to say that there was specific intelligence about this attack that it was under way, that it was coming or anything like that, that would have enabled specific, you know, precautions.

But, more broadly, yes, we still don’t really have clear answers as to why, amid all of this violence there and in this very violent setting, why this facility remained so vulnerable.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Greg Miller of The Washington Post, Siobhan Gorman — excuse me — I mispronounced your name earlier — of The Wall Street Journal, thank you both.

SIOBHAN GORMAN: Thank you.