By Mark L. Asquino, U.S. Ambassador (ret.)
On September 11, 2012, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a former colleague of mine, and three other official Americans were killed by terrorists in an attack on U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya. Their untimely loss in the service of our country led to immediate calls for an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the attack. As required by law, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton convened an Accountability Review Board (ARB) of outside experts chaired by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Michael Mullin to determine what had happened and to make recommendations. But even before this investigation took place, the director of the Department of State’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, Eric Boswell, a man of great integrity, took responsibility for what had happened in Benghazi and voluntarily resigned. Others in his chain of command and elsewhere at State were forced from their positions in the wake of the tragedy.
Congress was rightly concerned over the deaths of these four brave Americans. There were seven congressional investigations, five of them led by Republicans. Controversy occurred over whether the attack had been in response to an anti-Islamic film, as originally thought, or was a planned terrorist action, later viewed as far more likely. But what should have been an objective inquiry into these tragic deaths turned into ugly, partisan finger pointing by Republicans, who claimed Secretary Clinton was directly to blame for this tragedy and should be held politically accountable.
On October 29, 2015, Clinton spent 11 hours testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee in a hearing chaired by Republican Senator Trey Gowdy. The marathon session proved an embarrassment for Republicans because Secretary Clinton’s detailed testimony demonstrated what the ARB had already concluded in 2013. While there had been systemic management and leadership failures at the Department of State as well as inadequate security at the Benghazi facilities, the ARB report said Secretary Clinton bore no direct responsibility for what had happened, nor was she criticized for her response to the tragedy. In the years that followed the attack, U.S. law enforcement agencies worked tirelessly to bring to justice a Libyan terrorist. But despite this, the so-called “Benghazi Scandal” became a Republican campaign rallying cry, used time and again without any fair or reasonable basis, against presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.
On October 4, 2017, another tragedy occurred in Africa. This time four American soldiers were killed in a terrorist ambush outside a remote village in the Central African country of Niger. However, the response to the deaths of these brave soldiers in the service of their country could not have been more different from Benghazi. Understandably, immediately after the attack there was confusion over what had happened. Few details were released as the U.S. military searched for Sgt. La David Johnson, whose body was eventually found 24 hours later. But what followed only added the confusion.
There was a delayed reaction to the tragedy by the White House. The president addressed the issue only after media asked why there had been no official statement on the attack. They also asked President Trump why he had not reached out to the families of those who lost their lives. The president subsequently called the families, but he was criticized by Representative Frederica Wilson (D-Florida), who knew Sgt. La David Johnson’s family. She spoke out about what she regarded as the president’s callous tone in speaking with Sgt. Johnson’s widow, Myeshia. Sadly, for a time, the aftermath of this tragedy was focused more on the dispute between the president and Congresswoman Wilson than on learning more about the fatal attack.
Nearly three months after this tragedy, the Pentagon is still investigating what happened. Unfortunately, there are more questions than answers regarding the circumstances that led to the death of the four soldiers. This is especially true of Sgt. Johnson, who became separated from his comrades. Initial reports said he had been captured by Islamic militants, bound and then executed at close range. But more recently, another report claims he was fatally shot from a distance while firing his weapon and defending himself against his attackers. Despite repeated questions from media and Congress, it is still unclear what the mission of the patrol was when it was ambushed. In fact, Congress seemed surprised that the Africa Command had so many troops in Niger and elsewhere on the African continent. It remains unclear who exactly was commanding the soldiers on the ground. Nor do we know if anyone in an official position has been held accountable for what went wrong.
As Representative Wilson wrote in a November Op Ed in The Washington Post, why was there no quick deployment force to assist the soldiers when they were attacked? And what is the Africa Command doing in following the tragedy to better protect its forces?
Unlike Benghazi, there have been no congressional hearings into the deaths of the four Americans in Niger. Further, there is no ongoing investigation by a panel of outside experts, as happened after Benghazi. Secretary Clinton was first called in 2013 to testify before Congress on Benghazi, but in the case of Niger, there appear to be no plans for Secretary of Defense James Mattis to offer similar testimony. And to date, no one has suggested that Secretary Mattis should be held personally responsible for the tragic deaths of four American soldiers in a remote part of Africa. Finally, no one at either Africa Command or the U.S. Department of Defense has voluntarily resigned in the wake of the tragedy.
In my view, it is time for the U.S. government to provide a more detailed explanation on the nature of the terrorist attack that look the lives Sgt. Johnson and his comrades as well as to make clear why they undertook this fatal mission. Similarly, the families of the soldiers need to know what is being done by U.S. law enforcement to bring to justice those who committed this cowardly attack.
As Representative Frederica Wilson so eloquently concluded her Op Ed: “When such devastating losses occur, we owe it to the brave men and women who put their lives on the life to keep us safe to do all we can to learn what happened in the hope that it won’t happen again.”
Caveat: The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author. They do not necessarily express the views of either The Institute of Public Diplomacy and Global Communications or The George Washington University.