JERUSALEM – As media reports present evidence the U.S. has played a central role in arming Syrian rebels, new questions now emerge about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s involvement in the controversial scheme.
The questions prompt a second look at the perplexing security decisions made by Clinton and other top Obama administration officials the night of the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on American facilities in Benghazi.
One of those key decisions reportedly delayed an investigative FBI team from arriving at the Benghazi site for 24 days. The site was widely reported to have contained classified documents.
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WND raised the question Thursday of whether Clinton was telling the truth when she claimed in a Senate hearing that she had no information about whether the U.S. mission in Libya was procuring or transferring weapons to Turkey and other Arab countries.
Her claim appears to contradict a New York Times report that the CIA has been aiding Arab governments and Turkey in obtaining and shipping weapons to the Syrian rebels.
The goal of the alleged weapons shipments was to arm the rebels fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Any training or arming of the Syrian rebels would be considered highly controversial. A major issue is the inclusion of jihadists, including al-Qaida, among the ranks of the Free Syrian Army and other Syrian opposition groups
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Now a closer reading of two separate reports from the New York Times paints a picture of Clinton as the ring leader of the plan to arm Syrian rebels.
Confirming WND’s exclusive reporting for over a year, the New York Times last week reported that since early 2012, the CIA has been aiding the Arab governments and Turkey in shopping for and transporting weapons to the Syrian rebels.
The reported plan to arm the rebels mirrors a plan that, according to the New York Times, was concocted by Clinton herself.
Last month, the New York Times described Clinton as one of the driving forces advocating a plan to arm the Syrian rebels. At the time, the newspaper quoted White House officials stating they rejected the plan, which was also proposed by then-CIA Director David Petraeus.
A comparison of the Clinton plan to arms the rebels, as first reported by the Times, and the new Times report of American-aided shipments to the rebels since last year makes clear the Clinton plan was apparently put into action.
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Last month, the Times reported that the idea of the Clinton plan was to “vet the rebel groups and train fighters, who would be supplied with weapons.”
Last week, the Times reported that since at least November 2012, the U.S. has been helping “the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive.”
The earlier Times article described Clinton as having instincts that were “often more activist than those of a White House that has kept a tight grip on foreign policy.”
In an administration often faulted for its timidity abroad, “Clinton wanted to lead from the front, not from behind,” Vali R. Nasr, a former State Department adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the Times.
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Benghazi cover up?
Middle Eastern security officials speaking to WND have said U.S.-aided weapons shipments go back more than a year, escalating before the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi.
In fact, the Middle Eastern security officials speaking to WND since last year describe the U.S. mission in Benghazi and nearby CIA annex attacked last September as an intelligence and planning center for U.S. aid to the rebels in the Middle East, particularly those fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
The aid, the sources stated, included weapons shipments and was being coordinated with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Earlier this month, WND reported Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. stated in interview with Fox News that murdered U.S Ambassador Christopher Stevens was in Benghazi to keep weapons caches from falling into the hands of terrorists. Until that point, no official explanation for Stevens deployment to Libya has acknowledged any such activity.
Meanwhile, the New York Times reporting on how the plan for arming the rebels was put into action has prompted major questions about the role Clinton played in the U.S. response to the Benghazi attacks, assaults against the very facilities where the arms-to-rebels scheme was allegedly being coordinated.
National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor confirmed to Fox News in November that Clinton herself worked on the immediate U.S. response to Benghazi.
"The most senior people in government worked on this issue from the minute it happened,” he said.
“That includes the secretary of defense, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, secretary of state, national security adviser, et cetera. Additionally, the Deputies Committee – the second in command at the relevant national security agencies – met at least once and more often twice a day to manage the issue."
One of the key decisions by Clinton’s State Department that has perplexed many security experts was the determination not to deploy an interagency rapid response unit designed to respond to terrorist attacks known as a Foreign Emergency Support Team, or FEST.
FEST teams previously deployed immediately after al-Qaida bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998 and the USS Cole in 2000. But they were not used for Benghazi, confounding insiders speaking to the news media
Counterterrorism officials told Fox News in November that the FEST teams could have helped the FBI gain access to the site in Benghazi faster. It ultimately took the FBI 24 days.
The site reportedly contained a large volume of classified documents related to the activities of the Benghazi facilities.
Further, during the night of the attack, top counter terror officials felt out of the loop, according to emails shared with both Fox News and CBS News in November.
Counterterrorism sources and internal emails reviewed by CBS News expressed frustration that key responders were ready to deploy but were not called upon to help in the attack.
Besides strangely not deploying FEST, the Counterterrorism Security Group, or CSG, was never asked to meet the night of the attack or in subsequent days, according to two separate counterterrorism officials, as first reported by CBS News.
The CSG is composed of experts on terrorism from across government agencies and makes recommendations to the deputies who assist the president's Cabinet in formulating a response to crises involving terrorism.
It is likely that the CSG task force, if contacted, would have recommended FEST aid, according to CBS.
CBS reported the lack of coordination with the Counterterrorism Security Group made the response to the Benghazi crisis still more confused.
One official told CBS News the FBI received a call during the attack representing Clinton and requesting agents be deployed. But he and his colleagues explained the call was just a gesture and could not be implemented.
He said his colleagues at the FBI agreed the agents "would not make any difference without security and other enablers to get them in the country and synch their efforts with military and diplomatic efforts to maximize their success."
Days after the Benghazi attack, WND broke the story that Ambassador Stevens himself played a central role in recruiting jihadists to fight Assad’s regime in Syria, according to Egyptian and other Middle Eastern security officials.
Stevens served as a key contact with the Saudis to coordinate the recruitment by Saudi Arabia of Islamic fighters from North Africa and Libya. The jihadists were sent to Syria via Turkey to attack Assad’s forces, said the security officials.
The officials said Stevens also worked with the Saudis to send names of potential jihadi recruits to U.S. security organizations for review. Names found to be directly involved in previous attacks against the U.S., including in Iraq and Afghanistan, were ultimately not recruited by the Saudis to fight in Syria, said the officials.
The latest New York Times report has bolstered WND’s reporting, citing air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders describing how the CIA has been working with Arab governments and Turkey to sharply increase arms shipments to Syrian rebels in recent months.
The Times reported that the weapons airlifts began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanding into a steady and much heavier flow late last year, the data shows.
The Times further revealed that from offices at “secret locations,” American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia. They have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive.
The CIA declined to comment to the Times on the shipments or its role in them.
The Times quoted a former American official as saying that David H. Petraeus, the CIA director until November, had been instrumental in helping set up an aviation network to fly in the weapons. The paper said Petraeus had prodded various countries to work together on the plan.
Petraeus did not return multiple emails from the Times asking for comment.
Both WND’s reporting, which first revealed the U.S.-coordinated arms shipments, and the Times reporting starkly contrast with statements from top U.S. officials who have denied aiding the supply of weapons to the rebels.
It’s not the first time WND’s original investigative reporting on U.S. support for the Syrian rebels was later confirmed by reporting in major media outlets. Other WND reporting indicates support for the Syrian rebels that goes beyond supplying arms, painting a larger picture of U.S. involvement in the Middle East revolutions.
A story by the German weekly Der Spiegel earlier this month reporting the U.S. is training Syrian rebels in Jordan was exclusively exposed by WND 13 months ago.
Quoting what it said were training participants and organizers, Der Spiegel reported it was not clear whether the Americans worked for private firms or were with the U.S. Army, but the magazine said some organizers wore uniforms.
The training in Jordan reportedly focused on use of anti-tank weaponry.
The German magazine reported some 200 men received the training over the previous three months amid U.S. plans to train a total of 1,200 members of the Free Syrian Army in two camps in the south and the east of Jordan.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper also reported U.S. trainers were aiding Syrian rebels in Jordan along with British and French instructors.
Reuters reported a spokesman for the U.S. Defense Department declined immediate comment on the Der Spiegel report. The French foreign ministry and Britain’s foreign and defense ministries also would not comment to Reuters.
While Der Spiegel quoted sources discussing training of the rebels in Jordan over the last three months, WND was first to report the training as far back as February 2012.
At the time, WND quoted knowledgeable Egyptian and Arab security officials claimed the U.S., Turkey and Jordan were running a training base for the Syrian rebels in the Jordanian town of Safawi in the country’s northern desert region.
Additional research by Joshua Klein