Why the Benghazi Consulate Attack Will Blind the U.S.

The instinct to protect U.S. spies and diplomats will mean limiting their access to human intelligence throughout the restive Middle East

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Asmaa Waguih / Reuters

A Libyan government militia member guarding the entrance of the U.S. consulate fixes a note written by Libyans against the attack in Benghazi on Sept. 18, 2012

The overrunning of the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the murder of the American ambassador to Libya are disastrous for U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities in the Middle East. The resultant siege mentality in Washington creates an imperative to pull American spies and diplomats back into fortresses, heavily defended U.S. sanctuaries from which it’s almost impossible to collect good human intelligence.

Ambassador Christopher Stevens lost his life on Sept. 11 while doing his job representing the President. But never forget that ambassadors are also intelligence collectors. By wading in among the Libyans, from going to dinners at the homes of Libyan leaders to talking with ordinary people in the streets, he was gathering both important opinions and intelligence minutiae. It’s that daily immersion into the dynamics of a society that has always made the U.S. ambassador’s personal take on a situation as important as the judgment of any intelligence agency.

(MORE: The Revolt of Benghazi’s Moderates: Will the Rest of Libya Follow?)

After Benghazi, however, we can all but assume that the White House and State Department will have near zero tolerance for exposing U.S. officials to the risks attached to mingling in the Middle East. In countries even lightly touched with the downsides of the Arab Spring, American diplomats and spies will be confined to heavily guarded facilities and allowed out only in highly conspicuous entourages of visibly armed guards, traveling in heavily armored vehicles.

None of this is new, of course. American diplomats and spies are already confined to bases in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they meet locals only when accompanied by small armies of security personnel — or when those locals are willing to enter U.S. facilities, passing through metal detectors and armed guards.

People unfamiliar with espionage may wonder, given the risk, what the downside is of making locals go to Americans. The problem is a basic one: any local with dangerous information worth having won’t risk passing through a security cordon. Even if the would-be informant were willing to risk being seen by hostile lookouts while approaching a U.S. facility, that person simply could not be sure that the American guards aren’t working for the enemy.

The damage caused by Benghazi isn’t limited to making it harder for the local mole or informant to hand over a packet of documents or a nugget of information to his American handler. Any good spy has to immerse himself in the local milieu — just as a great diplomat like Ambassador Stevens was doing. Night and day, the capable spy is out meeting with locals, having schooled himself in their language and customs. As soon as he gets off the plane at his new destination, he’ll start learning his way around the streets. It means endless driving, getting lost and finding your way back. And it’s always done alone, with no safe way to reach out to a local for help.

(PHOTOS: Protests Rage in the Middle East, Sparked by Mysterious Anti-Islamic Film)

Maintaining direct contact with locals is the lifeblood of a spy seeking to understand a country. Most of what local sources say is of little or no interest to Washington, but such contact helps orient American intelligence officers and shows them how to find their way to real secrets. After Benghazi, that will be almost impossible to do. And keep in mind, sending out intelligence collectors disguised as students and businesspeople is just as risky and no more palatable to Washington.

The incidents of the past two weeks suggest it may be time to admit that large parts of the Middle East have fallen off the cliff for the U.S., and large parts of it will be beyond the ken of intelligence for the foreseeable future. Something terrible is going on in Syria, but because it’s too risky to put American intelligence officers on the ground there, it’s unclear just how terrible it is and how it could be ended. There’s simply no way for Americans to tell whether the armed rebellion is dominated by militant Islamists or Jeffersonian democrats. Nor can Americans get a picture of how the men leading the fighting forces on which Bashar Assad is most reliant might be turned.

This problem isn’t unique to Syria. A number of countries in the Middle East, from Lebanon to Yemen and from Jordan to Egypt, appear poised to fall into the political abyss. Consider Egypt: since the Muslim Brotherhood came to power, my sources tell me the army there is being purged of officers considered pro-American. I’ve been told that up to 4,000 officers have been let go, although I have no way to confirm that claim. But it would be surprising if the Muslim Brotherhood were not trying to cut Americans off from their traditional influence over the Egyptian military, just as the tragedy in Benghazi will likely cut off Americans’ access to ordinary Libyans.

Ambassador Stevens died a hero. Whether or not he took an unnecessary risk, he knew he couldn’t do his job while isolating himself from Libyans. The same holds true for American spies.

If the contagion in the Middle East continues to spread, the one thing Americans can count on is going blind — and it won’t be the fault of U.S. intelligence or anyone in Washington but just another sign of Americans’ declining position in the region.

MORE: Political Battles in Tunisia Shade Attacks on U.S. Embassy

Baer, a former Middle East CIA field officer, is TIME.com’s intelligence columnist and the author of See No Evil and The Devil We Know: Dealing with the New Iranian Superpower.

32 comments
MaryElizabethDehart
MaryElizabethDehart

im not very knowledgeable on intelligence or government or spying but i like what robert wrote hes so honest and truthful i bet he wouldnt meet some  who wanted to catch him with his pants down i know i wouldnt go there not a good spy moma mary 1

Bankimchandra Desai
Bankimchandra Desai

Ambassador Christopher Stevens lost his life on a Libyan diplomatic assignment by President Obama. The events thereafter created havoc and panic in democratic circles in Arab and non-Arab world. The spirit of spring revolution vanished soon as the lawless armed volunteers of the revolution replaced everywhere the previous set up. The Americans, French , Germans and British thought in equal vein that all will be nice, smooth, favourable and rewarding in terms of easy favours in the form of men and material specially crude oil and minerals. All the shows of democracy after the Second World War were for control and supremacy over uninterrupted production and supply of crude oil, minerals and other natural resources. The Innocence of Muslims and Benghazi experience changed everything. Now the American diplomacy and Intelligence are shattered and shaken beyond imagination. CIA and to some extent FBI never took the number of American soldiers who laid their life, after 1945, on various war fronts and missions assigned to them. Governments everywhere are known to disown such loyal citizens for the sake of political, military and diplomatic convenience. No one bothers for the family members of such brave soldiers. Leaders of the governments accept flowers and then forget every thing. That is our Indian experience. i don’t think the situation is different in the USA and elsewhere. The policy makers in Pentagon and CIA have reasons to be nervous. No body in tie and diplomatic uniform is now readily willing to die in the manner of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The gathering and dissemination on information and intelligence now considered imperative for the interests of the USA and democracies throughout world requires strategic revision. The question is if policy makers are not ready to die themselves, then who is? How far love for country and material benefits will continue to lure prospective martyrs??

 

Mu Çe
Mu Çe

Don't you get it? The weakness of security was a secret plan of U.S 

and  you,people of U.S never see the truth. I think it is a great plan

of  throwing dirt on Obama before the election.

Bankimchandra Desai
Bankimchandra Desai

Ambassador Christopher Stevens lost his life on a Libyan diplomatic assignment by President Obama. The events thereafter created havoc and panic in democratic circles in Arab and non-Arab world. The spirit of spring revolution vanished soon as the lawless armed volunteers of the revolution replaced everywhere the previous set up. The Americans, French , Germans and British thought in equal vein that all will be nice, smooth, favourable and rewarding in terms of easy favours in the form of men and material specially crude oil and minerals. All the shows of democracy after the Second World War were for control and supremacy over uninterrupted production and supply of crude oil, minerals and other natural resources. The Innocence of Muslims and Benghazi experience changed everything. Now the American diplomacy and Intelligence are shattered and shaken beyond imagination. CIA and to some extent FBI never took the number of American soldiers who laid their life, after 1945, on various war fronts and missions assigned to them. Governments everywhere are known to disown such loyal citizens for the sake of political, military and diplomatic convenience. No one bothers for the family members of such brave soldiers. Leaders of the governments accept flowers and then forget every thing. That is our Indian experience. i don’t think the situation is different in the USA and elsewhere. The policy makers in Pentagon and CIA have reasons to be nervous. No body in tie and diplomatic uniform is now readily willing to die in the manner of Ambassador Christopher Stevens. The gathering and dissemination on information and intelligence now considered imperative for the interests of the USA and democracies throughout world requires strategic revision. The question is if policy makers are not ready to die themselves, then who is? How far love for country and material benefits will continue to lure prospective martyrs??

Krowster
Krowster

That whole area has not presented or provided the U.S. with anything but grief. Moreover, our continued dependencies on oil has only help 'fuel" their passion for greed and the continued strategic threat to our national and international stabilities. In addition, they just don't want us there but they do love our moneys.

So what is the purpose for our spy system? Simple answer, we spy on them because they threaten us because we spy on them. get the heck out of the area, allow China and Russia and India and whomever deal with them so that those nations them gain the burden that's rightfully theirs.

Mu Çe
Mu Çe

Weak security shows that it is a massive plan of U.S. Which state wants to hear the news of murder of its officers as a pawn?

anonymot
anonymot

If the U.S. wasn't blind before starting the Libyan war we wouldn't have their blindness to worry about now.

ttaerum
ttaerum

One of the things which happens when a country has disasters like Benghazi is the regular flow of personnel becomes disrupted and it becomes possible for hostile organizations to make logical inferences about who does what, to compromise well planned penetrations into terrorist organizations, and to make consulates and embassies vulnerable.  It's somewhat like pushing in a balloon - where does it pop out.  One example of such analysis goes back to WWII, where observers were stuck on Pacific islands and their job was simply to report the number and types of ships passing the island.  These kinds of simple density measures are a proxy for other activities.   My favorite (and something I encourage everyone to do)is measuring how busy highway traffic is.  It gets past the BS of economists and politicians.  When business is booming, highways are packed with cars and trucks.  When the economy is moving into a slump traffic drops precipitously.  Right now, traffic is remarkably light.  Actually, it is amazingly light and it has been light for months.   I think the real unemployment is much worse than government figures suggest. 

Earl High
Earl High

I thought we, the US, just took whatever info Israel invents and then hands to us as fact anyway.

Laurice M. Tatum
Laurice M. Tatum

I hate to say it but if Americans particularly our diplomats and spies are afraid to be there they need to rethink there position. It's an inherently "dangerous," business.  Those people need to resign and let others do the job. People that aren't afraid. Employees who are afraid to do their jobs have no business being there. I ask you this "whose interest is being served by our public servants cowering in compound as the world out side continues to serial into insanity." Certainly not ours!      

davidhoffman
davidhoffman

It is not necessarily that the employees are afraid.  It is partially the fact that such a high percentage of the USA voting public does not like these kinds of fatal incidents to happen.  It is kind of like the "rescue" submarines the US Navy has.  Submariners call them "mommy pleasers".  If a USN sub goes below hull crush depth and lands 25,000 feet under the water, there is no chance of rescue.  If you look where our submarines go, you will see that certain death lies below most of the ocean they travel in.  The rescue subs would be useless.  But the existence of the rescue subs pleases families.  

I think US operations in Lybia is not going to follow the path the writer proposes. First, for whatever reason, there was a severe backlash by some Lybians against the attacks on the US consulate.  The militias associated with the attacks were confronted.  I have never seen that happen in any other Arab or Muslim country.  The populace usually goes along with the idea that attacking and killing citizens of the USA is justified.  Second, the Lybian government did eventually come to agree that the numerous warlords and militias operating in the country need to be brought under the control of the government in some fashion. The Lybian government seems to be genuinely interested is making sure this type of attack has a low probability of being considered by anyone as repeatable.  If a group can get away with doing it to the USA, they may try it against other countries for some other minor reason.  Lybia's entire relationship with embassies and consulates within its borders will be damaged if the Lybians do not significantly reduce the probability that another similar attack would be considered or would be as successful.  Our State Department personnel will be back in Lybia soon enough.

As far as Syria goes, I am sure we have covert observers in Syria, providing us information.  What we probably do not have is some operation to support the anti-Assad forces with all kinds of arms.  Sometimes observing, while being as quiet as possible, is the best course of action.

JP
JP

I really have a wonder about the whole Libyan attack.  Everything points to the US being forewarned, even the fears expressed in the Ambassador's journal. 

Why was CNN able to walk in and find that journal days after the attack?

Why was security not beefed up?

How/why did the Amb's security detail get separated from him?

How/why did he get left behind?

How/why did the Amb's security detail make it through without loss?

How is it possible that the US did not retake control of the consulate as soon as possible?

What intel was lost after the attack?

If I were into conspiracies I might think the whole 9/11 video protest thing was just a cover for a cover.  It would be covering the attack on the ambassador.  The attack on the ambassador would be covering the fact that something significant was in that consulate and was left there for the enemy to take during the hit on the ambassador.

We'll probably never know but it surely is curious.

davidhoffman
davidhoffman

How about the idea that the fundamentalist Islamic forces in Lybia do NOT want USA  and European ideas of freedom and civil rights to get a stronghold there.  There are too many, for the fundamentalist Muslims, Lybians who appreciate that the USA helped get rid of Muammar Gaddafi, and the fundamentalist Islamic terrorist groups do not like that.  If the USA is able to operate unchallenged, then Lybians might decide that freedom of religion is a good thing to have. The terrorist Muslims do not want that to occur.  

AlexVallas
AlexVallas

Few Americans appear to understand the functions of the the Foreign Service and the role of the Ambassador and his staff.  It is absolutely absurd to blame the President and complain that there was not sufficient protection in Benghazi.  Even if the consulate had a large marine detachment, they could not have proteced it and the Ambassador from a rocket attack.  Even at embassies, there are only a few marines on duty at any one time.  It is up to the host country to protect our missions overseas.  Having served in numerous embassies, including three in hostile countries, we were well aware if the dangers.  That was part of our job even to the point of exposing our families.  You simply cannot build embassies that are not accessible, and in particular consulates that deal with visas and protecting American interest.  All the congressmen who are yelping know this as they have been to most of the countries.  They are just politicians on a stage to gain political points.     Further, the Ambassador cannot have his/her hands tied and do a good job.  Nor is it good management practices to let Washington know every time you step outside of the embassy. 

SG1_Guy
SG1_Guy

Yeah, I agree with KJak, this was an unfinished piece posted a little too soon. Or edited by someone with a weak grasp of English.

KJak
KJak

Who proof-read this article?  Difficult to follow the story when you get hinged up on all the disruptive errors. 

Go Vikes
Go Vikes

Too little, too late.  Obama and Hillary Clinton have supported, financed, armed and provided favorable media to these jihadi "rebels".  Now they have arms, thanks to Obama/Clinton.  Our Ambassador was probably killed with a weapon we provided them.

Mu Çe
Mu Çe

 Don't you get it? The weakness of security was a secret plan of U.S  and  you,people of U.S never see the truth. I think it is a great plan of  throwing dirt on Obama before the election.

superlogi
superlogi

Don't be a simpleton.  Do you really think all of our humint works out of an embassy.

John Hermann
John Hermann

First of all, our "spies" are "intelligence officers".  The locals working for us are "intelligence agents" or "local assests".  The people working against us are "spies".

Second, if you think that our intel officers are going to be confirmed to "travelling heavily armored vehicles" it becomes obvious that you don't have a CLUE as to what "espionage" is about.

Finally, If these operations are "no longer palatable" to Washington then it shows the distinct lack of intestinal fortitude of THIS administration to put people in harms way because of their crappy foreign policy and is EVEN MORE reason to get rid of these clowns.

If people believe articles like this, written by people like the author, it is no wonder why this country is so screwed up...

RavingArmy
RavingArmy

Considering the author of the article is a former field spook, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say he's probably got a better idea of how the scenario will play out than most of us.

"Intelligence officer" is as much of a euphemism as "operative" or "agent."  They are, by definition, spies.  Some of them happen to be our spies.  Some of them are not.  That is how it has been since the earliest days of espionage.  No doubt the Israelites who sent their spies into Jericho had some suitably innocuous euphemism attached.

When Baer talks about "Washington," he's not necessarily talking about the elected officials.  CIA is like any other agency in the federal government.  It's a bureaucracy, it's run as a bureaucracy, and bureaucrats specifically do not stand for election.  When was the last time you voted for the Director of Central Intelligence?   A bureaucrat's first reaction when disaster strikes isn't "This is a serious setback to our foreign policy and intelligence gathering operations."  It's "How badly will this screw my chances for promotion?"  Usually followed by "How much paper will I need to cover my backside?"  The bureaucratic response is to pull back, to cut losses, to do everything possible to avoid catching the blame.  I'm certain there are case officers in place who manage to avoid this reflex, and good for them.

In the short term, yes, the situation is all kinds of screwed up.  The danger for CIA agents and assets is probably going to be higher than it has been for many years, and it will likely remain that way for the near future.  But I think Baer is being perhaps overly pessimistic.  Things will settle down again.  Intelligence networks can and will eventually be rebuilt.  We may not have as good a "look" into the cultures that are coming about from the Arab Spring right now, but we will eventually.

47wing
47wing

Being an effective foreign diplomat means understanding the risks and being there in the moment. Ambassador Stevens knew his job and was doing it. Now it is the job of the American people to understand those risks and get a little thicker skin. 

In order to have a decent foreign policy means staying where the action is and playing the game. Americans are becoming more and more of Monday morning quarterbacks preferring to judge and make policy without being in the field at the moment.

The Romans, the Moors, the British and the Spanish were colonial superpowers for almost 500 years in foreign lands because they had boots on the ground integrated into the local populations.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

If the contagion in the Middle East continues to spread, the one thing we can count on is going blind ­ and it won’t be the fault of U.S. intelligence, or anyone in Washington, just another sign of our declining position in the region.

I guess the pro-American and pro-democracy demonstrators in Behghazi were another sign of our declining position in the region. For the first time in my long memory, we are beginning to base our relationship with the Arab Middle East on democratically elected governments (the people), not on making deals with repressive dictators. We need to reject the CIA's propensity to work with repressive dictators and start the hard work of gaining the trust of the people. It can happen. Stevens showed the way in Libya, and the demonstrations in Benghazi gave proof that our new, and riskier, approach to the Middle East works. The last thing we need to do is work through repressive proxies to subdue the people just to make sure the oil flows. That approach has not worked, except to line the pockets of the oil barrons around the world. The new people-oriented approach will be better for the U.S. in the long run Anyone who can't see that is indeed blind.

AlexVallas
AlexVallas

A bit confused with your statement : "our declining position"  What I see is improved relations where we become allies similiar to our relations with other free countries.  I don't see that as declining but improving as we support democracies. 

KJak
KJak

Definitely well said. 

John Hermann
John Hermann

Well said...If you are one of those people that continues to believe that the CIA MAKES policy instead of just implementing it.

Daniel Freysinger
Daniel Freysinger

The CIA is nothing but terrorism wrapped in stars and stripes.

Dan Bruce
Dan Bruce

I'll defer to Charlie Wilson on that one.

Talendria
Talendria

Our intelligence activities in that region have been compromised for a decade.  We thought Iraq had WMDs, and they didn't.  We thought we could defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, and we couldn't.  We thought the Arab Spring was a good thing, and it wasn't.  We touted the murder of bin Laden as a success, but what did that really accomplish?  Are his followers any less determined to destroy us?  At this point there's very little we can do to stem the tide of radical Islam in the Middle East.  The citizens of those nations must choose the path of cooperation and prosperity or the path of dogmatism and destruction.  Then we must act accordingly.

AlexVallas
AlexVallas

Simply stated, you are wrong.  The Bush Administration knew there were no WMD in Iraq.  If you were to read the comments by former Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz (often hazy), he hints we were there to defuse them before they could attack Israel once our troops were withdrawn from Saudi Arabia at their request.  They did not want foreign troops in the land that houses their holiest site of Mecca.  WMD was the excuse "that most Americans would accept."  The Arab Spring is a very good thing.  The people are now voicing their opinions and it may not be what we want to hear now, but I am confident our relations will improve.  That is already the case in Libya. Even now the protesters represent a small segment of the populations.  Many are teenagers peeved at their unemployment.  The Arab countries have a legitimate grip against us which should improve if we create more balanced foreign policy.  Killing bin Laden was big and should not be underestmated.  As far as fighting the Taliban, I agree we should just get the hell out.

KJak
KJak

Actually no,  no one really believed there were WMDs in Iraq. There was no intelligence to say there were. And the media refused to do its job and print the truth. It was too good for ad sales.  And if you dared speak against the story - you were suddenly "unpatriotic".