Jack Murphy, a political science major in the Columbia University School of General Studies, served for eight years in the United States Army before coming to Morningside Heights. He is managing editor of SOFREP.com, a special operations news and information site. His new book, Benghazi: The Definitive Report, co-authored with former Navy SEAL Brandon Webb, is among the first accounts of the September 11, 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which led to the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. CPR Managing Editor Taylor Thompson sat down with Mr. Murphy to discuss the book, the consulate attack in Benghazi, its implications for American counterterrorism policy, and some surprising ties between Libya and the resignation of Gen. David Petraeus as Director of the CIA.
Taylor Thompson: Why did you decide to write about the attack in Benghazi?
Jack Murphy: A couple of different reasons. I run a website with a friend of mine, a former Navy SEAL named Brandon Webb. We started this site up about a year ago, and we cover special operations and the intelligence community, so we write about this kind of thing to begin with. In addition to that, he and I both knew one of the people who were killed in Benghazi, Glen Doherty.
And then in addition to that, we saw how distorted the story was getting in the media, and how politicized it had become. We had the opportunity, through the people we know and the contacts we have to shed some light on it, and put the truth out there.
TT: Do you think that the news media have focused on the relevant issues with regards to Benghazi? What have they missed?
JM: I think the biggest issue they missed was the “why.” Why did the attack happen? And that’s really the critical questions I attempt to answer in the book—why this attack? The State Department put out one story, then they had to reverse course about this [anti-Islam film trailer on YouTube] that they said inspired the attack. You had other embassies getting attacked in the Middle East [on September 11, 2012] as well. None of them were nearly as bad as Benghazi, though—not even close. So why was [the US consulate] in Benghazi attacked on 9/11, and why was the attack so drastic and so much stronger than the others?
TT: And how do you answer that question in the book?
JM: What we found out was that there were covert operations that [the United States] was launching inside of Libya. These operations were through Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC), and they were targeting an al-Qaeda personality, an Iranian that’s acting as a money and foreign fighter facilitator. They were targeting him inside of Libya, and they were also taking and destroying the weapons that [Libyan] militias had captured during the war.
We had allowed the militias to take those weapons or facilitate them into their hands during the Libyan Civil War to oust El-Qaddafi, but things were a little bit different now, and we don’t want a bunch of al-Qaeda foreign fighters, and a bunch of, frankly, crazy people, running around with surface-to-air missiles. So what are we going to do to get those weapons back? These were legitimate counterterrorist operations. The problem was that they were not being de-conflicted at a higher level, specifically at a National Security Council level.
TT: What, specifically, was happening at the level of the National Security Council?
JM: John Brennan, who was acting as [President] Obama’s counterterrorism adviser, was authorizing the operations in Libya through the JSOC commander. But, for instance, General David Petraeus, who was the CIA Director at that time, was not being read on to these operations and did not know what was going on. And that’s with a sizable CIA and paramilitary operation going on inside Libya, [operating from] the annex at the Benghazi consulate. Also, Ambassador Stevens had no idea what was going on.
TT: So the top diplomatic official in-country and one of the country’s top intelligence officials didn’t know about these covert operations?
JM: Those two people definitely did not know. At best, I would say that the CIA paramilitary people on the ground had enough awareness or visibility from their perspective on the ground that they might have been able to see some of it. And they were smart enough to realize what was going on, but they were not being read on. Ambassador Stevens and the rest of the State Department, as well as the CIA paramilitary personnel at the Benghazi annex, never could have seen that there would be this blowback, this retaliation, because they didn’t know these operations were going on.
To make a long story short, [the JSOC covert operations] were what inspired the attack. There was a JSOC raid in early September, just before the consulate was hit. That was really the straw that broke the camel’s back, in that case.
TT: Who specifically conducted the attack on the consulate?
JM: The attack was really launched by Ansar al-Sharia, which is a militia inside Benghazi and that’s been active in Libya for a while. They claimed to fight against El-Qaddafi’s forces during the civil war, which is debatable. I’ve talked to people who fought in the civil war, and they say that they never saw them out there. But Ansar al-Sharia is also a group, which has come to be affiliated with al-Qaeda on some level, and it acts as a banner under which a lot of different people fight…
The only other thing that I would note with them is their leader, who was a guy named [Sufyan Ben] Qumu. He has an interesting sort of trajectory in his career as a jihadist, in that he ran a charity inside Afghanistan prior to 9/11, which was really a front for al-Qaeda inside Afghanistan and Pakistan. After 9/11, he came up on our shoot-to-kill list, so to speak, our target deck, and the Pakistanis picked him up. Instead of delivering him to Libya (he’s a Libyan national), they handed him over to the Americans.
We put him in Guantanamo, and later we cut a deal with El-Qaddafi as our relations warmed with him and we started to cooperate with him on counterterrorism initiatives in North Africa. But we handed Qumu over to El-Qaddafi, and then El-Qaddafi cut a deal with sort of the indigenous, armed Islamist group within Libya. Part of the deal was that he had a kind of charity day at the prison and cut all these prisoners loose—Qumu’s one of them.
TT: Without divulging too much information about your sources, who did you talk to in writing this book, and what other sorts of research did you conduct?
JM: All sorts of people diffused across various governmental agencies—people in the intelligence community, people in the military.
TT: Was that people within the special operations community, primarily?
JM: I would not say primarily. We had to talk to a lot of different people to put the whole story together, because there are so many different angles to it, and people saw things from different perspectives. There are still some unanswered questions, but I think we got the bulk of it. Obviously, we consulted open-source material as well, like white papers that came out of the State Department and history books. I interviewed somebody that fought in the Libyan Civil War as well, to get some of that background.
TT: This was somebody from Libya?
JM: No, no, he was an American, actually, a Georgetown graduate. [Laughs] Matthew Van Dyke is his name—he’s a wild guy. So the answer to the question is that we used primary and secondary source materials.
TT: I’d like to go into the aspects of the book that deal with David Petraeus. Tell us about the Petraeus resignation and the angle that you and Brandon took on that.
JM: I really went into the Gen. Petraeus scandal in the book because there was a lot of confusion out there and a lot of people speculating about what [his resignation as CIA Director] did or did not have to do with Benghazi. What was going on behind the scenes was that after Benghazi, Gen. Petraeus finally opened his eyes to the fact that he was an outsider in the Obama administration. If anything, they brought him in to prevent him from being a political threat on the outside.
He realized this, and since he wasn’t being read on to these JSOC operations inside Libya, he was prepared to resign. I was surprised that he resigned citing an affair. So what was going on there, and that was one question that I tried to answer in the book. The answer is that his protection detail knew about this affair, and when the time came, the information was basically capitalized upon by people within the CIA to get Gen. Petraeus ousted.
TT: Why? What kinds of problems did Gen. Petraeus encounter at the CIA?
JM: A lot of it had to with clashes of culture between pursuing the paramilitary mission over the traditional intelligence gathering. The CIA is already very paramilitary and has been since 9/11. Gen. Petraeus was going to take it even farther in that direction. There was also a clash between military and civilian institutions. Gen. Petraeus, obviously, is a career military man, and he was still acting like a four-star general, and that upset a few people.
TT: What do you make of the allegations that Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was one of the four Americans killed during the Benghazi attack, was linked to a scheme to supply weapons to Syrian rebels?
JM: I think this is an interesting question, and I’ll try to be as clear as I possibly can. Ambassador Stevens and the State Department had absolutely nothing to do with trafficking weapons, and for that matter, neither did the CIA. That was a State Department mission in Benghazi that had been packed full of paramilitary operatives from the CIA, but the thing I would emphasize is that none of them—the State Department or the Agency—were running guns to Syria. But I can confirm and I have to say that, yes, there is an endeavor to smuggle or otherwise traffic weapons from Libya to the battlefields in Syria. That does exist, but it’s a private endeavor that has de facto authorization at a very high level.
TT: What do you think are the lessons of Benghazi for American foreign policy, the military, the intelligence community, and the US public?
JM: I think there is a foreign policy question, on the bureaucratic incentives that exist for pursuing counterterrorism. And in this sense, I think we have to look at who is being targeted in Libya, and we now have this billion-dollar counterterrorism apparatus that’s coming to the point where it doesn’t have a war to fight anymore. They’re all looking for a place to go right now, on the government side and on the private side—the private military contractors and private intelligence and so forth.
I think there are three big lessons that I take away from Benghazi, one positive and two negative. The positive thing is what Ty Woods did that night—launching a rescue mission on his own initiative. He was really the guy pushing for that on the ground level, and he and a couple other guys rescued all those people at the consulate, and they did an amazing job. Sadly, Glen and Ty made the ultimate sacrifice, but I think there is a very positive message in that these were two guys who manned up and went out there and did it.
On the negative side, I think you have to look at the State Department—whether or not they were in compliance with their own security policies, from the Secretary of State all the way down, and what the institutional failures were. We know Chris Stevens was writing about the security at the consulate, and he had concerns with it. The Diplomatic Security Service people were being rotated in and out of the consulate so quickly that there was very little continuity as far as establishing security measures there. Moving past the security issue, though, we have to look at the de-confliction of missions. We now have a situation in which the CIA, the State Department, and special operations are all doing their own things separately. High-level bureaucrats have essentially carved out their own little professional fiefdoms, and they’re stepping on each other. And it’s to the point now where the actions of one military element over here is getting the paramilitary element over there killed, all because the left hand isn’t talking to the right hand. I think that’s really something that has to be dealt with. If it doesn’t get solved now, there’s going to be another Benghazi. It’s going to happen again, and it could be even worse, with an even greater loss of life.