NEW YORK – Did the Obama administration plan to allow a U.S. ambassador to be kidnapped to set up a prisoner-exchange scenario that would provide a pretext for releasing the “Blind Sheik” imprisoned for plotting the 1993 World Trade Center bombing?
That’s one of the provocative explanations for the administration’s puzzling actions before, during and after the Benghazi attack that has prompted an investigation by the Washington, D.C.-watchdog Judicial Watch.
Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton told WND Tuesday his group is preparing to take legal steps to force government disclosure of documents pertaining to plans the Obama administration had to release “Blind Sheik” Omar Abdel-Rahman, who is serving a life sentence at the Butner Federal Correction Institution in North Carolina.
“Given what we know now, it is not out of the realm of possibility that the terrorist attack on Benghazi could have been a kidnapping attempt aimed at releasing the Blind Sheik,” Fitton said.
He noted, however, there is “no evidence” that the Obama administration may have been complicit in any kidnapping plot related to the Benghazi attack.
“To this day, we still have no reliable evidence about exactly how Ambassador Stevens died,” Fitton said. “The fact that there was intelligence that he was alive suggests that the State Department was right to be worried about a kidnapping attempt. We all should be curious to know if there was other information that had the State Department on the alert for possible kidnappings by al-Qaida.”
Since shortly after the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi in which U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed, James “Ace” Lyons — a former four-star admiral who served as the commander-in-chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet and a founding member of the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi — has proposed that the attack was an Obama administration-orchestrated kidnapping attempt that went “terribly wrong.”
He continues to speculate that the Obama administration wanted to give the al-Qaida-affiliated rebels operating in conjunction with the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood an opportunity to kidnap Stevens and exchange him for the Blind Sheik. The purpose of the plan, Lyons says, may have been to furnish the Obama administration with a pretext to justify to the American public the release of the Blind Sheik to then-Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, complying with a request Morsi made in his 2012 acceptance speech on becoming president of Egypt.
“Why else would all legitimate requests for increased security be denied? Why would you withdraw legitimate security assets in country?” Lyons asked in an interview with WND. “Why would you order Stevens’ personal security guards to store their weapons in a separate room in the complex on the day of the attack? This is pure dereliction of duty.”
Judicial Watch’s Fitton explained that in 2012, his organization sent Freedom of Information Act requests to the State Department and the Justice Department to obtain documents about the possibility the Blind Sheik might be released.
Fitton “got nowhere, but last year, he said, Judicial Watch received “extraordinary information” in response to a FOIA on the Benghazi attack.
The information indicated the State Department “had a concern as the attack was occurring” that “it was a kidnapping attempt and that the State Department thought Ambassador Stevens was alive in a local hospital.”
Fitton said the case of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who was exchanged for five top Taliban commanders imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay, “opened a Pandora’s Box suggesting the nightmare types of prisoner swaps the Obama administration may be willing to make with terrorists.”
“Now we are stepping up our investigation to obtain the documents we requested in 2012 on the Blind Sheik,” he said. “It is also well past time for Congress and other investigators and to explore further what was behind the State Department’s initial concern that the Benghazi attack was a possible kidnapping of Ambassador Stevens.”
Judicial Watch announced Tuesday it has filed a FOIA lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Defense seeking “any determinations” made by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that the five Guantanamo terrorists traded for Bergdahl were “no longer a threat to U.S. national security.”
In discussing the Benghazi kidnapping theory with WND, Fitton referenced a Daily Beast article published Sunday that revealed the Obama administration had floated in July 2014 to the then-U.S. ambassador in Qatar the release of Ali Saleh Al-Marri in exchange for two Americans held abroad.
Marri is a confessed al-Qaida sleeper agent held in a U.S. maximum-security prison.
The Daily Beast reported an exchange of Marri was proposed by the Obama administration shortly after the release of Bergdahl, who left his unit in Afghanistan without permission and was held captive by the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network in Afghanistan from June 2009 until May 2014.
On Monday, retired Army Lt. Col. Tony Schaffer, now with the London Center for Policy Research, said on the Fox News “O’Reilly Factor” show Monday that a “charge sheet” had been prepared on Bergdahl. On Tuesday, NBC News reported Bergdahl will be charged with desertion, according to senior defense officials. However, the Army Times has reported Paul Boyce, a spokesman for U.S. Army Forces Command, said Tuesday the Bergdahl case is still under review, and Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby stressed in a Tuesday press briefing that Bergdahl has not been charged with any crime and there is no timeline to make a decision.
In an interview with WND, Fitton referenced Judicial Watch’s release April 29, 2014, of 41 Benghazi-related State Department documents. They included the declassified email showing then-White House Deputy Strategic Communications Advisor Ben Rhodes and other administration public relations officials were “attempting to orchestrate a campaign to ‘reinforce’ President Obama and to portray the Benghazi terrorist attack as being ‘rooted in an Internet video, and not a failure of policy.”
The document was widely credited as prompting House Speaker John Boehner to appoint a House Select Committee on Benghazi that is currently headed by Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.
“Official State Department emails in the 41-document release show State Department officials initially described the incident as an ‘attack’ and a possible kidnap attempt,” Fitton said.
Fitton pointed WND to U.S. State Document No. C05415756, a Sept. 11, 2012, email written by State Department official Eric J. Pelofsky, sent at 9:06 p.m. Eastern Time, as the Benghazi attack was under way, to the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice.
Pelofsky wrote: “Yes – I’m very, very worried. In particular, that [Ambassador Christopher Stevens] is either dead or this was a concerted effort to kidnap him.”
It followed an email released in the same State Department record group that Pelofsky sent Rice at 8:51 p.m. Eastern on Sept. 11, 2012, in which he wrote: “Post received a call from a person using a RSO (Regional Security Officer) phone that Chris was given saying that the caller was with a person matching Chris’s description at a hospital and that he was alive and well. Of course, if he were alive and well, one could ask why he didn’t make the call himself.
Lyons presented his theory at the media roundtable of the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi held at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on April 22, 2014. His theory was not included among the conclusions of the commission’s interim report, nor is it shared by all of other commission members.
Lyons first offered his theory in response to a question by Lou Dobbs Nov. 14, 2012, on the Fox Business Network.
“What happened was a terrible mistake by the Ansar al-Sharia terrorist group,” Lyons said. “I speculate that Ambassador Stevens was supposed to be kidnapped, held hostage, in exchange for the release of the Blind Sheik that we are currently holding in prison. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me. Otherwise, he never would have stayed there that night.”
Lyons further suggested to Dobbs “the only way to get to the bottom of this” was to have a special prosecutor and for General David Petraeus, director of the CIA at the time of the Benghazi attack, to be allowed to testify freely, with immunity from prosecution.
Lyons explained to WND that the safe room at the villa in the State Department special mission compound at Benghazi had a window with bars that could be opened from the inside.
“The State Department security staff had rehearsed several times Ambassador Stevens escaping an attack by having an armored car backing up to that window so Stevens could open the bars and get out to be hustled over to the CIA annex nearby,” Lyons said.
“But on the day of the attack, the armored car was not there,” he noted. “Why not? Whose responsibility was it to have the car there?
“I believe this was an operation that went terribly wrong,” Lyons said. “I believe this was to be a kidnapping of Stevens, so he could be held hostage and ransomed for the release of the Blind Sheik. Nothing else makes any sense to me. Why didn’t the White House order the Pentagon to get the military resources in the region to Benghazi in an attack that lasted some 13 hours? I’m told the day of the attack, the Blind Sheik was being prepared to be moved.”
Blind Sheik prosecutor won’t rule out theory
Andrew McCarthy is the former chief assistant United States attorney in New York who led the successful criminal prosecution against Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman and 11 other jihadis for their involvement in the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center and a plot to bomb New York City landmarks.
He told WND that Lyon’s theory is possible, but he is not aware of any evidence to support it.
“I don’t think there is any evidence I know to date, certainly nothing that I’d be willing to hang my hat on, that there was contemplation of a swap for Ambassador Stevens for the Blind Sheik,” he said.
“I don’ think we have any proof. I know there has been all kinds of speculation, but I have been very careful not to get out in front of what we know or think we know,” McCarthy said.
“But I’m not saying that’s impossible. I just don’t think there’s evidence of that on the public record now, or in any information I know about at this time.”
He noted there was “information and I wrote about it at the time, that the United States government was in discussion with Egypt about the release of the Blind Sheik for some U.S. prisoners in Egypt.”
In an article titled “Releasing the Blind Sheikh?” published in National Review on March 1, 2012, McCarthy cited reports in the Arabic-language newspaper al-Arabiya that the Obama administration had offered to release Rahman to Egypt in an effort “to end the impasse over 16 American ‘civil-society activists’ (including the son of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood) being detained by Egypt’s interim government.”
McCarthy told WND that the conversations between the Obama administration and the Egyptian interim government at that time “did not go far.”
‘It doesn’t make sense’
Admiral Lyons’ theory remains a topic of debate within the Citizens’ Commission on Benghazi, a 17-member panel of retired military commanders, Congress members and intelligence experts that was formed in 2013 in response to the political barriers faced by congressional efforts to ferret out the truth.
Commission member Clare Lopez, a former career operations officer with the CIA and currently vice president for research at the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, told WND she believes Lyon’s best evidence is circumstantial.
“I remain skeptical of the kidnap idea,” Lopez said. “Relations between the Obama and Morsi administrations were close in 2012, and Egypt had at least some reason to believe the White House might eventually come around and release the Blind Sheik to Egypt.”
“Why would Egypt support a violent assault on our diplomatic mission in Benghazi to get by violent assault what possibly was going to be handed over to them by a very friendly Obama administration?” she asked.
“Especially if public opinion is factored in, releasing the Blind Sheik likely would be opposed by many in the United States,” she said.
“It would makes no sense to think the release of the Blind Sheik would somehow be more acceptable to the American public under the conditions of a violent assault on the American mission, followed by the kidnapping and hostage-taking of an American ambassador,” Lopez argued.
She said that if kidnapping Stevens were the objective of the attack, it makes no sense to assume storming into the U.S. diplomatic compound at Benghazi with terrorists armed with AK-47s blazing and RPGs (Rocket-Propelled Grenades) that she described as “tactics you use when you want to kill people, not if you want to have any hope whatsoever of obtaining, a living, breathing, uninjured hostage.”
‘Explanation that makes the most sense’
Retied Air Force Lt. Col. Dennis Haney, is one of the CCB members who supports Lyons’ theory.
In the Air Force, Haney served three years on the 52nd Tactical Fighter Wing Staff in Spangdahlem, Germany. On the citizens’ commission, he played a key role coordinating with the Global Response Staff, or GRS, contractors that were present defending the CIA annex during the Benghazi attack.
“I believe the real question that needs to be asked is why the terrorists attacked the Benghazi diplomatic complex in the first place,” Haney argues.
“The United States and specifically Chris Stevens supplied arms to the al-Qaida-affiliated militia in Libya before Gadhafi’s fall and afterwards were working to transfer arms from Libya to al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists in Syria,” he pointed out. “Why would Ansar a-Sharia attack the United States and risk cutting off their weapons supply?”
Haney’s questions closely parallel questions Lyons has asked since his appearance on Lou Dobbs’ show in the immediate aftermath of the 2012 attack.
“The terrorists knew Stevens was in Benghazi for a ribbon-cutting ceremony, and from a tactical perspective, the only reason to attack Benghazi was to get U.S. hostages for exchange,” Haney argued. “The diplomatic compound was relatively unprotected, Stevens was the top target, and the terrorists figured that kidnapping some Americans, including maybe some of the CIA guys at the CIA compound, might be fairly easy to accomplish.”
Haney contends the only theory that accounts for the known facts is that the terrorist attack was aimed at kidnapping hostages to exchange and that the Obama administration might have been in on the plot, secretly conspiring with Morsi in Egypt.
“How else do you explain the State Department not providing Stevens the extra security he requested?” Haney asked. “Why did the Obama administration do nothing to bring military forces to save the U.S. personnel in Benghazi in what turned out to be a 13-hour attack?”
He said it appears that in “the top levels of the U.S. government, the decision was made that Stevens was expendable.”
“I hate to think he was being set up by our government to be kidnapped, but given the destructive prisoner exchanges and releases as of late, it would fit right into an administration policy geared on something other than reason,” Haney said.
Haney thought it was important that Ambassador Thomas Pickering, the author of the State Department’s 39-page ARB report and the State Department’s lead Benghazi investigator, under oath to Congress refused to dismiss the possibility the Benghazi attack was an attempt to kidnap Stevens.
On Sept. 24, 2013, WND reported Pickering, testifying under oath at a House Oversight and Government Reform committee hearing, refused to answer (at 4:30:05 in the C-Span broadcast of the hearing) a direct question asked by Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wy.
Lummis asked: “Is it true that they were trying to kidnap the ambassador and it went wrong?”
Pickering replied: “I can’t comment on that.”
In the exchange with Lummis, Pickering acknowledged the State Department had reason to believe operatives from Egypt were involved in the Benghazi attack.
“If Pickering knew there was no basis whatsoever to the kidnapping, he would have answered the State Department could categorically eliminate that possibility,” Haney surmised. “He didn’t do that.”
Morsi pressed Obama to release sheik
Lyons further speculates Obama and top presidential adviser Valerie Jarrett were acquiescing to deliver on a promise he believes Obama secretly made to Morsi shortly after Morsi became president.
Lyons points to an opinion piece former Attorney General Michael Mukasey published in the Wall Street Journal on Sept. 24, 2012, less that two weeks after the Benghazi attack. Mukasey asked in reference to Rahman, “Are senior Obama administration officials considering transferring to Egypt a poisonously influential Islamic cleric serving a life term in federal prison for trying to unleash a war of urban terrorism in the United States?”
There is abundant evidence that Morsi was pressing the Obama administration to release the Blind Sheik, starting virtually the moment he took the oath of office to become Egypt’s president.
- The New York Times on June 29, 2012, reported that at the military-choreographed swearing-in ceremony in Cairo, televised to tens of thousands of Morsi supporters at Tahir Square, Morsi gave an acceptance speech in which he promised to work for the release of Rahman: “I see signs for Omar Abdel Rahman and detainees’ pictures. It is my duty and I will make all efforts to have them free, including Omar Abdel Rahman.”
- On Sept. 9, 2012, two days before the Benghazi attack, news sources in the United States were reporting the Obama administration State Department under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was actively considering entering into negotiations with the Egyptian government for the transfer of custody of Rahman for humanitarian and health reasons.
- On Jan. 11, 2013, Fox News was still reporting on the possible release of the Blind Sheik, with Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, head of the House Homeland Security Committee, demanding a response from Obama to continued speculation the State Department was making preparations for it.
‘Obama pressed for war in Libya’
Lyons told WND he believes Obama’s decision to arm the al-Qaida-backed militia in Libya was knowingly advancing the goals of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. The Brotherhood sought to depose Moammar Gadhafi to destabilize Libya in favor of the “rebel” groups the U.S. supported, exactly as the Obama administration had backed the Brotherhood months earlier when Morsi came to power in Egypt.
“You have to back up and recognize that in Libya, we switched sides on the global war on terrorism,” Lyons said. “We wound up defending and supporting the al-Qaida-related militia that were under the political control of the Muslim Brotherhood. That fact has been glossed over by the mainstream media.”
WND reported last week retired Rear Adm. Chuck Kubic’s account of his effort to take advantage of an offer by Gadhafi to abdicate and negotiate a peaceful transition of power, obviating the need for the U.S. to arm the Libyan al-Qaida-affiliated militia in their violent rebellion to overthrow the dictator.
“There never had to be a ‘war of liberation’ against Gadhafi in Libya,” Lyons insisted. “The White House has promoted the rebellion by the al-Qaida-affiliated militia in Libya as a ‘freedom and democracy’ movement, which is pure nonsense.”
“Gadhafi wanted to abdicate, and Admiral Kubic was making progress in the negotiations between Gadhafi’s top people and U.S. AFRICOM, and Gadhafi had agreed,” Lyons continued. “Gadhafi had pulled back his forces from Benghazi to show his good faith in proceeding with these negotiations until the Obama administration shut the door on Gadhafi abdicating, because the Obama administration had a different agenda in Libya.”
‘Hillary left Benghazi vulnerable’
In laying the background for his theory, Lyons noted that prior to the Benghazi attack, Ambassador Stevens made repeated pleas to the State Department in Washington, warning that security was inadequate.
“The ambassador is the State Department’s chief representative in a foreign country,” Lyons noted. “When an ambassador makes a request to the State Department, the ambassador typically gets what’s requested. Why was Stevens being constantly turned down by Hillary Clinton and the State Department every time he requested increased security at Benghazi?”
Documents made public by the House Oversight Committee one month after the Benghazi attack show Stevens and his staff providing an evidentiary record of their security concerns in Libya and the apparent lack of interest shown by the State Department in Washington, as reported by then-ABC news reporter Jake Tapper on Oct. 19, 2012.
Lyons said: “The truth is that the U.S. State Department completely ignored repeated requests for increased security; and with the al-Qaida-related militias the United States knew were operating freely in the Benghazi region in 2012, we had strategic and tactical warnings that an attack in Libya was going to happen.”
Even the State Department Accountability Review Report, he noted, “documents the State Department in Washington had concluded in an internal review that either security should be increased at the U.S. special mission compound in Benghazi or the facility should be closed.”
Among the conclusions of the ARB was “Finding #2,” which reads: “Systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”