The CIA was spying on arms shipments from Libya to Syrian rebels at the time of the 2012 attack on its Benghazi facility, according to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.
But a controversial Committee report asserts the CIA did not make "unauthorized" arms shipments to the Syrian rebels, further confusing what the two dozen officers and contractors were doing at the Libyan port city.
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Claiming the panel conducted a "comprehensive and exhaustive" probe of the attacks, the report concluded that the committee "found no evidence that the CIA conducted unauthorized activities in Benghazi and no evidence that the [intelligence community] shipped arms to Syria."
No details on the CIA’s authorized mission in Benghazi were disclosed in the once-secret report. The agency’s relationship to some of the militias operating in Benghazi also was not disclosed in the 36-page report.
Critics have said the report failed to answer several key questions, such as what role the CIA played in facilitating the transfer of weapons from Libya to Syria using intermediaries from Turkey and Qatar. Also, the CIA’s relationship with many of the militia groups in Benghazi also was omitted from the report.
Andrew McCarthy, a former federal counterterrorism prosecutor faulted the report for not addressing the CIA’s authorized activities.
"The report is an exercise in dissimulation," McCarthy said. "It claims there were no ‘unauthorized’ CIA activities and that the intel community itself did not ship arms to Syria. Of course, the question Americans want answered is what was the CIA doing—authorized or not—and did any American personnel facilitate or encourage the transfer of weapons to Syrian jihadists, regardless of whether such personnel were directly involved in the shipping."
A former senior intelligence official knowledgeable about Libya operations said the CIA, through the NATO alliance, was directly involved in arming and training Libyan militias that overthrew Moammar Gadhafi during the period between March and August 2011.
The official said the full role of the agency in Benghazi has not been made clear by the House report.
But the agency was working with Libyan militias that had been armed and equipped earlier by NATO, and who were engaged in arms transfers to Syrian rebels after Gadhafi had been overthrown.
"They were clearly gun running from Libya to Syria," the former official said, adding the operation was conducted out of the White House and that the State Department and CIA not directly involved. "But the United States was involved."
The report was released last week and provides some of the first details of the CIA operation in Benghazi where a nearby State Department diplomatic compound was attacked on Sept. 11, 2012 by armed terrorists.
Four Americans were killed in the attacks by militants linked to al Qaeda on both facilities, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stephens.
The report concluded in one of its key findings that "the CIA was not collecting and shipping arms from Libya to Syria.
However, the Committee report indicates that staff questioned all CIA witnesses whether they had observed weapons intended for export inside the CIA annex, and all claimed there were no weapons, including shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles stored at the annex.
According to CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell and other witnesses quoted in the report, "the CIA’s mission in Benghazi was to collect foreign intelligence," the report said.
"From the annex in Benghazi, the CIA was collecting intelligence about foreign entities that were themselves collecting weapons in Libya and facilitating their passage to Syria," the report said.
"The Benghazi annex was not itself collecting weapons," the report said, adding that the panel has not seen "any credible information to dispute these facts."
The House report also concludes "there is no evidence of an intelligence failure" in the Benghazi attack because the CIA lacked intelligence warning of an attack. "The [intelligence community did not fail to provide specific, tactical warning of the attacks in Benghazi because it had no credible intelligence about the attacks before they began," the report said.
That statement raises further questions about the mission of the CIA in Benghazi and would appear to contradict the statement of CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell that the agency’s mission was to "collect foreign intelligence."
The agency had warned that the security environment in the area was deteriorating, the report said.
Much of the report was focused on the administration’s response to the attack, including whether a military rescue mission had been blocked and how CIA talking points were altered to obscure links between al Qaeda and the attackers.
For weeks after the attack, the administration insisted the attack was not a terror attack but instead had been triggered by a spontaneous demonstration against an online anti-Muslim video. Later, links between al Qaeda and the main group behind the deadly strike, Ansar al Sharia, were disclosed.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R, S.C.) dismissed the House report as insufficient.
"I think the report is full of crap," Graham told CNN on Sunday.
"I don't believe that the report is accurate, given the role that Mike Morell played in misleading the Congress on two different occasions. Why didn't the report say that?"
Graham also said he disagreed that the report’s finding that no members of the Obama administration deliberately covered up the scandal.