As new information surfaces about last year’s attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and as the National Security Agency scandal continues to swirl throughout the media, the Obama administration has come out with a worldwide warning about the possibility of serious terrorist attacks.
Please forgive my skepticism. The news media need to dig into the timing and motivation of these warnings, coming as they do against the backdrop of scandals, particularly when the administration has created what it thinks is a win-win situation. Simply put, if the attacks fail to occur, President Obama’s team can claim that they thwarted them. If the attacks do occur, the administration can say it provided fair warning. But that’s a fool’s bargain when dealing with terrorists who can simply strike another day.
In an hour-long broadcast Tuesday, “The Truth About Benghazi,” CNN reported that dozens of CIA operatives were on the ground in Benghazi on Sept. 11 — something the agency has apparently tried to cover up. That’s the night Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
Such information brings the Benghazi issue — one the administration thought had lost significant traction — back into public view. If the CIA had people on the ground, why were Stevens and the three others essentially left to die?
The Department of Justice filed a sealed indictment against a Libyan militia leader on the same day CNN broadcast its report on the Benghazi attack. Amazing coincidence? Please forgive my skepticism again.
By promoting its efficiency in picking up the chatter about possible terrorist attacks, the intelligence community may believe it can quiet critics outraged by the revelations of the NSA’s widespread domestic surveillance programs — information leaked by onetime NSA contractor Edward Snowden to Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian.
Once again, pardon my skepticism. The NSA scandal is unlikely to die down anytime soon, despite the terrorist threat taking over the news for this week. And think about it for a moment. Do you honestly believe that the leader of al Qaeda communicates with his right-hand man in Yemen without considering how many other sets of ears may be listening? I strongly doubt it.
Now is the time for reporters to look to their confidential sources about the nature of the terrorist threats. One problem exists — one you might have missed last week. The Justice Department won a key victory in the U.S. Court of Appeals to force a reporter for The New York Times to reveal his confidential sources about information he published in a book on the Iranian nuclear program. That decision creates a significant chill among sources who might want to talk about severity of the current threat.
I spent a decade reporting about Middle East terrorism for Newsweek and ABC News. Terrorists typically have several objectives. One is to inflict death and destruction. Another is to create fear among the civilian population of a stronger adversary, such as the United States, and its allies.
By closing 22 embassies and consulates throughout the Middle East and North Africa and keeping 19 of them shut for the rest of the week, the Obama administration has already given the terrorists a major public relations victory.
Remember during the campaign when Mr. Obama constantly said al Qaeda was on the run? Maybe he wanted to use intelligence information back then to get re-elected. Now maybe he and his administration want intelligence information to provide cover for a variety of scandals. The dots really don’t need to be connected; the connections are all too obvious.
• Christopher Harper is a professor at Temple University. He worked for more than 20 years at the Associated Press, Newsweek, ABC News and “20/20.” He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @charper51.