Ahem. Didn’t Barack Obama warn American news agencies that all your phone records are belong to us if they published leaks about US intel and military efforts? Oh, wait — that apparently doesn’t apply to stories that make the White House look good … at least relatively speaking. Fire away, CNN:
The U.S. military has updated plans to “capture or kill” alleged perpetrators of the deadly terror attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, CNN has learned.
The development comes amid growing pressure on the White House to show progress in the effort to catch those who killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans last September 11.
Officials emphasize that military planning has been underway since the immediate aftermath of the armed assault.
One part of the plan calls for potentially putting U.S. military personnel on the ground inside Libya, if ordered by President Barack Obama.
Two U.S. officials confirmed the details to CNN, but declined to be named because of the sensitive nature of the information.
Before we get too excited, let’s look at this carefully to see what it is … and what it’s not. It isn’t a leak about a mission that’s going to happen immediately or in the near future, which is what it seems like on first blush. This is just an update to a contingency plan in case the US sees an opportunity to capture or kill the terrorists that attacked Benghazi. And note that this plan won’t get used if the Libyan government can effectuate arrests, which would be a neat trick in Benghazi considering they can’t even lift a blockade of the defense ministry in Tripoli:
Officials are emphasizing that its possible no military options will be carried out if the United States and Libyan law enforcement make any arrests.
CNN says that this wasn’t a PR effort on behalf of the administration:
The information was confirmed to CNN as a result of several days of reporting. It was not offered to CNN by the officials as part of any coordinated effort to reach out to the media.
Er, sure. The White House tried taking the heat off on Benghazi yesterday by releasing an e-mail string specific to the adaptation of the talking points used on September 16th, which (a) didn’t let them off the hook, and (b) left a lot more questions unanswered about e-mails and other communications between 9/11/ – 9/13 inclusive. Rep. Jason Chaffetz said yesterday that the release only accounted for “a smidgeon” of 25,000 pages of material yet to be released specific to the promulgation of those talking points:
“I know absolutely for total certainty this is but a small smidgeon,” the Utah Republican told Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren when asked about the 100 pages of documents that the White House released Wednesday.
The lawmaker called for the White House to release one email in particular, written to several senior State Department officials by Beth Jones, acting assistant secretary of state for Near-Eastern affairs, the day after the Sept. 11, 2012, attack.
“She says definitively that she told the Libyan ambassador that it was Ansar al Sharia, Islamic extremists, that committed this terrorist attack,” Chaffetz told Fox. “She doesn’t say terrorist attack, but she does say Ansar al Sharia, which has al Qaeda ties. Why doesn’t the White House — if it’s OK to release these hundred documents — release that one?”
Back to the contingency plan. What’s the news value in this? We’ve known for months that the terrorists can be identified, and that they’re hiding in plain sight. Heck, we put out pictures of a handful of them two weeks ago, which even then drew criticism that the Obama administration seemed to be dragging its feet doing something about the perpetrators despite Obama’s pledge to bring them to justice. Contingency plans are supposed to be continually refined, especially on missions with mobile targets, but we’ve known for some time that the White House was planning something like this.
Actually, we first heard this three weeks after the attack, when the political heat erupted after the “spontaneous demonstration” story collapsed. Remember? The NYT report even sounds almost identical to CNN’s report today, including the low likelihood of arrests by Tripoli:
The United States is laying the groundwork for operations to kill or capture militants implicated in the deadly attack on a diplomatic mission in Libya, senior military and counterterrorism officials said Tuesday, as the weak Libyan government appears unable to arrest or even question fighters involved in the assault.
The top-secret Joint Special Operations Command is compiling so-called target packages of detailed information about the suspects, the officials said. Working with the Pentagon and the C.I.A., the command is preparing the dossiers as the first step in anticipation of possible orders from President Obama to take action against those determined to have played a role in the attack on a diplomatic mission in the eastern city of Benghazi that killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three colleagues three weeks ago.
Read the caveats from October:
But any American military action on Libyan soil would risk casualties and almost certainly set off a popular backlash at a moment when gratitude for American support in the revolt against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi has created a measure of appreciation for the United States in the region.
Reflecting a surge in nationalism, the Libyan government has opposed any unilateral American military action in Libya against the attackers. “We will not accept anyone entering inside Libya,” Mustafa Abu Shagur, Libya’s new prime minister, told the Al Jazeera television network. “That would infringe on sovereignty and we will refuse.”
At the same time, the Libyan government still depends almost entirely on autonomous local militias to act as the police, complicating any effort to detain the most obvious suspects. Libyan and American officials acknowledge the possibility that some of the perpetrators may have fled the country, perhaps across the porous southern border.
Compare them to today’s from CNN, which aren’t identical but similar:
One military official said the military is well aware that if it is ordered into action now by the White House, it could be viewed as a political move in light of the ongoing controversy over Benghazi. But he noted that initial planning began shortly after the attack last year.
One military official said the administration was concerned that any American military intervention could weaken the fragile Libyan government so much that it might collapse.
That argument has also been made in the more recent discussions, but several officials say intelligence about the targets has improved.
In other words, the administration has seen value in giving the media a leak that makes it look like the status quo is somehow change.