CIA chieftains were caught off guard by the spiraling Islamic violence in postwar Libya, suddenly realizing that analysts had never brainstormed what the country would look like and that the White House had not asked.
The agency also acknowledged in a classified report that Moammar Gadhafi, Libya’s U.S.-deposed dictator, had long suppressed a variety of radical Islamic groups, including al Qaeda, from taking root in his country and endangering North Africa.
Today, absent Gadhafi’s iron fist since October 2011, Libya is in a civil war and has become a coveted destination for Islamic extremists, including the Islamic State in and around Benghazi. Based in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State boasts its largest franchise in Libya, where it wants to destabilize a fledgling democratic government in the capital of Tripoli and export terrorism. President Obama, who approved the intervention, has called Libya a “mess.”
The CIA views are among the interviews and documents compiled by the House select committee that investigated the Islamic extremist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi and on a nearby CIA base on Sept. 11, 2012. The attacks killed Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, his aide and two former Navy SEALs defending the CIA compound.
Released last week, the report details Mr. Stevens’ repeated requests for more security, only to be turned down by the State Department, then led by Hillary Clinton. Republicans also said the evidence showed there was much focus inside the White House on blaming a U.S. anti-Muslim video for the attack, at the same time Americans were under fire in Benghazi and asking for Washington’s help. Washington sent no troops or rescue planes to Benghazi.
The Americans were rescued the next morning by a militia made up of former Gadhafi loyalists. At the airport, the Americans left on a chartered aircraft and a C-130 provided by Libyans.
Inside the report are interviews with officials who say the Obama administration never conducted a rigorous “what’s next” analysis as Mrs. Clinton drove the policy decision to unleash the military in March 2011 to destroy the Gadhafi regime and let disparate groups take over Tripoli.
Michael Morell, the deputy CIA director at the time, told committee investigators that the Libya invasion was marked by failures throughout the administration.
“One of the problems was not going into it with a very detailed plan for how you were going to maintain stability,” Mr. Morell said. “We never really had a conversation around the table about ‘what’s going to happen, how’s it going to look?’ The intelligence community never wrote that paper. That conversation was not as rich and rigorous as it should have been.”
The select committee report, written by Republicans, said Mr. Morell blamed the intelligence community leadership, Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton for “not asking those questions and fostering a conversation about what would need to be done” after Gadhafi’s fall.
Mr. Morell said Libya, now mired in a civil war and at war with Islamists in the east, was not ready for democracy.
“It’s ingrained in us, this desire to spread democracy to the rest of the world,” Mr. Morell said. “I think people’s weaknesses flow from their strengths, in organizations and countries. One of our strengths is seeing ourselves as a beacon for democracy. It becomes a weakness when we try to impose it on societies that aren’t ready for it. I think of Iraq, Gaza, Afghanistan and Libya. I think it’s probably both a failure of intelligence and a failure of policy, in two different administrations.”
Mr. Morell was not alone in this view. Anne-Marie Slaughter, a former director of State Department policy planning, left the administration in February 2011, a month before the intervention began.
“It is so much easier to pound our chests and declare that the United States best rides the world like a colossus and should be able to dictate any outcome it wants,” Ms. Slaughter told investigators. “That is no longer true, if it ever were. We found that out the hard way by toppling a government in Libya without any idea of what might come next.”
The Obama administration’s basic postwar plan for Libya was to stay out of the way. No military occupation. A light diplomatic footprint.
“NATO demonstrated a hands-off approach to post-conflict stabilization, leaving Libyans to sort out post-conflict stabilization,” the House report said.
By June 2012, eight months after Gadhafi’s death and three months before Stevens would die in an Islamist-ignited inferno, the CIA issued a classified report detailing the lack of security.
“Government still possesses few cohesive and professional Army and police units because many militias are reluctant to disarm, and its nascent security bodies lack the leadership and organizational capacity to rapidly integrate thousands of poorly disciplined fighters,” the CIA said. “Many militias that have received official sanction to act as security units almost certainly remain at best loosely controlled by national leaders.”
That winter, the CIA issued a report for policymakers that delivered bad news: Libya was becoming a safe haven for extremists.
In the report, the agency noted that Gadhafi had kept a lid on such violent groups: “[T]he decimation of national-level security agencies — which during the Gadhafi regime made Libya a hostile environment for extremists — have allowed al Qaeda-associated extremists, including previously Pakistan-based al Qaeda members and al Qaeda members and al Qaeda in the Lands of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), to procure weapons and develop networks in line with the goals al Qaeda senior leaders to establish a permanent presence in Libya.”
In April, Mr. Obama told Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” that Libya was the “worst mistake” of his presidency.
“Worst mistake?” Mr. Wallace asked.
“Probably failing to plan for the day after, what I think was the right thing to do, in intervening in Libya,” the president answered.
Earlier, he told The Atlantic magazine that Libya is now a “mess.”
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