Analysis: Clinton hinted CIA cover was reason why State Department didn’t withdraw from Benghazi

Map of North Africa. SOURCE: Google

Providing diplomatic “cover” for the Central Intelligence Agency’s operations in eastern Libya appears to have been the primary reason why the State Department didn’t withdraw from Benghazi despite rapidly deteriorating security conditions.

Read more: Clinton confirms presence of CIA in Benghazi at the time of 9/11 attack

Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained that the State Department and the CIA were operating in Benghazi to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of terrorists, jihadists, and hostile militants seeking to exploit the security vacuum in Libya after the fall of Moammar Qaddafi’s regime.

“We had a concerted effort to try to track down and find and recover as many MANPADS and other very dangerous weapons as possible,” Clinton said. “One of the reasons that we and other government agencies were present in Benghazi is exactly that.”

The CIA operated out of the “Annex” facility, which was about a mile away from the U.S. consulate. Clinton suggested that the Benghazi consulate was established mainly to support the CIA’s work in gathering intelligence on militant groups and preventing the flow of arms out of eastern Libya.

Some lawmaker have criticized the State Department’s decision to keep the Benghazi consulate open even after a series of attacks on Western targets – including the Red Cross – and assassination attempts against foreign diplomats.

But had the State Department shuttered the Benghazi post, the CIA’s diplomatic cover would have been blown, forcing the agency to abandon its intelligence-gathering activities.

“We were clear-eyed about the threats and the dangers as they were developing in eastern Libya and in Benghazi,” said Clinton. “I want to make clear that no one in the State Department, in the intelligence community, any other agencies ever recommended that we close Benghazi…This is one of those terrible, tragic times when, you know, there was an assessment shared by the Ambassador, shared by others that turned out not to take into account the militants attacking that night.”

CIA’s mission in Benghazi

The terrorist attack in Algeria and turmoil in northern Mali illustrate the serious global threats posed by arms flowing of out Libya, which could explain why the CIA (and subsequently, the State Department) decided to stay in Benghazi despite the growing dangers.

“Libya was awashed in weapons before the revolution. Obviously, there were additional weapons introduced. But the vast, vast majority came out of Qaddafi warehouses…went on the black market, were seized by militias, seized by other groups,” explained Clinton. “This Pandora’s box, if you will, of weapons coming out of these countries in the Middle East and North Africa is the source of one of our biggest threats.”

Some of those Qaddafi weapons, Clinton confirmed, have made their way into Algeria, northern Mali, and possibly even Syria.

“There’s no doubt that the Algerian terrorists had weapons from Libya. There’s no doubt that the Malian remnants of AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb] have weapons from Libya,” said Clinton.

Clinton told lawmakers that the FBI is investigating reports that some of the terrorists captured in the Algeria oil refinery attack were also involved in the Benghazi assault.

The Algeria attack killed scores of Westerners, including 3 Americans, after a group of heavily-armed militants stormed the remote gas refinery operated by multinational companies such as BP.

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (with its leader, Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar) has claimed credit for the refinery attack, saying that the assault was in retaliation to the French military actions against Islamist militants in northern Mali.

At the request of the Malian government, the French – with some support from the U.S. military – are fighting against Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in northern Mali. Al Qaeda-linked terrorists and Tuareg rebels (who are known to have served as mercenaries for Qaddafi) exploited the military coup last year and captured territories in northern Mali, where they have established a safe haven for Islamist extremists.

“Concerns about terrorism and instability in North Africa are of course not new…But we have been facing a rapidly changing threat environment, and we have had to keep working at ways to increase pressure on Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the other terrorist groups in the region,” Clinton explained. “Benghazi did not happen in a vacuum. The Arab revolutions have scrambled power dynamics and shattered security forces across the region. Instability in Mali has created an expanding safe haven for terrorists who look to extend their influence and plot further attacks of the kind we saw just last week in Algeria.”

The State Department also believes that weapons from Libya may have also spread to Syria.

“Given the instability in Syria right now, what we are trying to do is to coordinate closely with a number of like-minded nations, neighbors, and partners to be able to work – to try to prevent those from falling into the wrong hands – jihadist hands, Hezbollah hands – but also to try to work with the internal opposition for them to understand the dangers that are posed,” said Clinton.

Clinton’s statements suggested that the influx of weapons – and foreign jihadists – into Syria could prompt President Bashar al Assad’s regime to deploy chemical weapons to quell the rebellion.

“It is a redline for this administration with respect to Syria concerning the use of chemical weapons,” said Clinton. “Syria, as you probably know, in addition to having the fourth largest army before this revolution has a very significant supply of chemical and biological weapons.”

 

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