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October 18, 2012
Notes from the Pentagon

Benghazigate debate heats up
The presidential debate Tuesday between President Obama and Republican nominee Mitt Romney added new life to the fierce debate over the Obama administration’s mishandling of the terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. The Sept. 11 attack by more than two dozen heavily armed terrorists killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The Obama administration initially insisted the attack was a spontaneous uprising by Muslims angry at an online video trailer about an anti-Islam film. That explanation persisted for more than a week, despite the fact that intelligence about the raid had indicated it was an al Qaeda-linked attack.

During the debate, Mr. Obama, with support from supposedly neutral moderator Candy Crowley, a CNN reporter, sought to defend the administration’s misleading claims about the attack by insisting his Rose Garden comments a day after the Benghazi attack showed he had called the attack a “an act of terror.”

“The day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden, and I told the American people and the world that we are going to find out exactly what happened, that this was an act of terror,” Mr. Obama said in the debate.

A somewhat surprised Mr. Romney then asked Mr. Obama “is that what you’re saying” that the attack was terrorism from the start?

“I want to make sure we get that for the record, because it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror,” he said.

“Get the transcript,” Mr. Obama said.

Ms. Crowley then said to Mr. Romney: “It… he did, in fact, sir.”

But the transcript of the president’s remarks Sept. 12 shows he did not refer to the Benghazi killings that occurred a day earlier as terrorism, only as “an attack” and “senseless violence.” But Mr. Obama stopped short of saying terrorists had carried it out.

The only reference to terrorism came late in a prepared statement when he said that generally “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”

In the following days, the president appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “The View” but declined, when asked, to say the attack was the result of terrorism.

Things got worse for the administration when Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, explicitly rejected terrorism as the cause, telling television interviewers Sept. 16 that the attack was a “spontaneous” reaction to the anti-Muslim video. She has since said she was given bad intelligence and was simply repeating what she had been told.

However, a U.S. intelligence official told Inside the Ring that the intelligence on the raid clearly pointed to al Qaeda from the earliest reports, based on highly classified intelligence showing clear links between the militia group blamed for the attack called Ansar al Sharia and al Qaeda.

“The American people don’t like to be lied to,” the official said.

The president and his administration have sought to tamp down criticism of the growing scandal, which is been dubbed “Benghazigate” on social media, by saying Mr. Obama took responsibility for the failures that have begun to threaten his re-election bid.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who traveled to Peru this week, also sought to minimize the roles played by Mr. Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden in the scandal. She said they would not know about the requests for more security in Libya, which the State Department turned down.

However, U.S. officials said the White House watch center receives copies of most significant cables from around the world and likely received information on U.S. security officials’ requests for increased security in Libya.

Republicans were quick to pounce on what they have termed a major security and policy failure in Libya.

House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter T. King said on Tuesday the administration has a lot to explain.

“From the day this story broke back on Sept. 11, Sept. 12, they told misleading stories, confusing stories, contradictory stories,” the New York Republican told CNN. “The reality is, what they said on the very first day, almost every word they said has been disproven.”

Earlier, Sen. Lindsey Graham issued a harsh critique of the administration on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

The South Carolina Republican said intelligence officials told him within 24 hours of the attack that the strike was a pre-planned act of terrorism and not spontaneous violence.

The administration is “trying to sell a narrative, quite frankly, that the Mideast, the wars are receding and al Qaeda’s been dismantled, and to admit that our embassy was attacked by al Qaeda operatives … undercuts that narrative,” Mr. Graham said. “I think they have been misleading us, but it finally caught up with them.”

China worried by Huawei report
China has denounced the recent report by the House Permanent Select Committee that concludes two Chinese telecommunications companies, Huawei Technologies and ZTE, pose threats to U.S. national security.

The Chinese see the report as undermining their efforts since at least 2008 to help the global telecom giants to gain a foothold in the lucrative U.S. telecommunications market. The government first blocked Huawei from a merger with 3Com in 2008 and in other ventures since.

Chinese Commerce Ministry spokesman Shen Danyang was quoted Oct. 9 as saying the report was “groundless” and “violated [the U.S.] free market principle.” A Foreign Ministry spokesman also said Chinese telecom investment in the United States would be mutually beneficial and that the U.S. government should allow it.

To try and counteract the U.S. efforts to block Chinese high-tech firms, China announced it is setting up a new Foreign Ministry Department of International Economic Affairs office that an announcement Oct. 9 said would “safeguard” Chinese development interests and economic security.

The office will seek to address China’s growing number of international business disputes.

The House report, based on classified and unclassified reports, concluded that “the United States should view with suspicion the continued penetration of the U.S. telecommunications market by Chinese telecommunications companies.”

“The United States Intelligence Community must remain vigilant and focused on this threat,” the report said.

The report also said the Treasury Department-led Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States “must block acquisitions, takeovers, or mergers involving Huawei and ZTE given the threat to U.S. national security interests.”

The report said legislation should be used to expand the authority of the Treasury Department committee to include the review of purchasing agreements of U.S. and foreign companies.

“U.S. government systems, particularly sensitive systems, should not include Huawei or ZTE equipment, including component parts,” the report said, noting that government contractors should avoid ZTE or Huawei equipment.

Additionally, private U.S. companies also should consider long-term security risks of doing business with Huawei or ZTE.

The report noted that a former Huawei employee provided evidence to the committee that Huawei was linked to an elite cyberwarfare unit of China’s People’s Liberation Army.

It also warned that the Chinese government can use its access to Huawei and ZTE equipment installed on foreign computer networks to covertly conduct economic espionage or cyber-reconnaissance — placing clandestine software inside foreign computers that can be activated for sabotage in a crisis or conflict.

French prepare for Mali op
The French military is quietly building up forces for an expected intervention in the North African nation of Mali.

According to U.S. officials, French forces are increasing military activity in the region called the Sahel, a band stretching across the continent that includes the Sahara desert.

The military activity includes preparations to reinforce French special forces in the region, deploy drones and plan for the use of French jet fighters to support ground-attack missions.

French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said on television Tuesday that military intervention in the northern part of Mali “is a question of a few weeks, not several months.”

France is concerned about al Qaeda’s movement into the area through the group, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Magreb. French jihadists operate in the northern part of the country where there was an attempted attack on a French embassy. Terrorist websites also have increased anti-France rhetoric in recent weeks.

The French military operation is expected to last a month and will likely be carried out with international support, including U.S. military backing in the form of intelligence and reconnaissance.

On Monday, European Union foreign minister approved urgent planning for a possible military mission. An EU statement said it “is determined to back Mali in reestablishing the rule of law and a democratic and fully sovereign government across its entire territory.”

A statement called for planning for “a potential military mission … to be pursued and deepened urgently.”

A military coup in Mali’s capital of Bamako in March ousted the president. The northern and eastern part of the country is not in the hands of militias linked to al Qaeda.

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