Under pressure from the right, the Obama administration has declared the killing of its ambassador in Libya a "terrorist attack." The trouble is, its explanations just don't make sense.
- By Louis Klarevas<p> Louis Klarevas is a senior Fulbright scholar in Greece. You can follow him on Twitter: @Klarevas. </p>
After days of holding back, the White House on Thursday labeled the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi a "terrorist attack." The incident, which involved heavy gunfire and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs), killed four Americans including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens. Highlighting the suspected presence of militia and terrorist elements in Libya, White House spokesperson Jay Carney told the press corps, "It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack."
The declaration comes one day after Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counter-Terrorism Center (NCTC), told a Senate committee that — despite the absence of "specific intelligence that there was a significant advanced planning or coordination for this attack" — the four Americans "were killed in the course of a terrorist attack on our embassy."
It all sounds like common sense, right?
But there’s just one problem with these statements: All acts of terrorism, by federal statute, require premeditation. If, as Carney acknowledged, there is "no information at this point to suggest that this is a significantly pre-planned attack," then the plotting criterion has not been met. No premeditation, no terrorism.
The confusion over how to characterize the Benghazi attack stems in part from a much larger problem: Policymakers — including even those at the highest levels — lack a clear understanding of what constitutes "terrorism." For political operatives like Carney, this is understandable. After all, he takes his cues from the experts in government. But for Olsen, whose job requires an intimate knowledge of the legal definition of terrorism, the oversight is troubling.
The statutory definition of terrorism is codified in Title 22 of the U.S. Code as: "premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents." As this definition indicates, officials at the NCTC — the agency tasked with making such determinations — must answer five questions in the affirmative before deeming an act to be terrorism:
1. Did the incident involve violence?
2. Was the target a noncombatant?
3. Was the perpetrator a subnational or non-state actor?
4. Were the perpetrators politically motivated?
5. Was the attack premeditated?
While there is evidence from Benghazi to support the first four criteria, to date, U.S. officials have not shared any concrete evidence of what is known in criminal law as "malice aforethought." Libyan officials insist that the attacks were preplanned, but they do not appear to have yet convinced their American counterparts.
The White House is no doubt feeling pressure from the right over the security measures in place at the Benghazi consulate. Following a Capitol Hill briefing Thursday with senior officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, Rep. Bill Flores (R-TX) told reporters, "They’re all just trying to cover their behinds." Similar sentiments were echoed by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who said "it’s really a stretch — a long stretch — to believe that all of this by coincidence happened on 9/11."
One of the sharpest beratings came from former Speaker of the House and Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich, along with his former adviser John McCallum, who criticized Obama and his administration for referring to the attack as "senseless violence" as opposed to an act of "murder."
The pressure might explain the administration’s reversal on whether to declare the assault an act of terrorism. But as the nation’s former top lawmaker should know, murder too requires premeditation.
The FBI has dispatched a team of federal investigators to Benghazi. Due to security concerns, though, they arrived only in the past few days. Prudence dictates that we let these agents conduct their investigation free of influence from Washington. While it might be hard to resist this temptation in the midst of the political season, we owe it to the victims to reserve our judgments until the FBI has had time to complete its work and present us with all the facts.
In the end, Olsen, Carney, McCallum, and Gingrich might be proven correct: The 9/11 attacks in Benghazi might indeed be acts of both terrorism and murder. But as a nation of laws, we need to let those laws guide us. Because the stakes are so high — including providing the legal grounds for arrest or targeted killing — we need to go on more than gut feelings.
Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.
A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.
Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C.| The Cable |
Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge.| The E-Ring |