Can we finally put the Benghazi faux scandal to bed?
No doubt some were hoping for fireworks on Capitol Hill during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s testimony before Congress on the Benghazi, Libya, attack, but they didn’t exactly get what they wanted.
At one point, she got into a heated exchange with WI Sen Ron Johnson over his accusations that the White House misled the administration. Clinton interrupted him and said, “With all due respect, the fact is, we had four dead Americans. Was it because of protests or because of guys out for a walk one night and decided to go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?” (She was angry at this point. Listen here.) “It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator!”
Republicans keep saying they want answers. “Here we are, four months later,” said John McCain, “and we still don’t have the basic information.” Sure they do, but that’s not the information they want. They want a smoking gun that makes the Obama administration look like it did something wrong. But they never been able to decide what that is.
Initially, the problem was that President Obama “apologized” to the terrorists. That was Mitt Romney’s argument in a statement he issued hours after the attack, and one that Romney himself came to regret. This charge was mostly discarded.
Then the focus was that Obama didn’t call the attacks terrorism until two weeks later, a complaint Obama easily deflected during a presidential debate, when Obama demanded moderator Candy Crowley check the transcript” of his Rose Garden speech the day after the attacks and he did use the word “terror,” much to Romney’s embarrassment.
Then it was on to U-N Ambassador Susan Rice, who said on five different Sunday shows that the attacks were inspired by protests in Cairo over an anti-Islam video. If you follow a timeline of events in the days before and after the Benghazi incident, you can see why these early conclusions were drawn:
- Sept 04: One of the people behind the film telephoned a reporter at a newspaper in Cairo about an exclusive and e-mailed the video link. The reporter, though disgusted, wrote up a three paragraph story on it. This eventually got the attention of a top commentator on a popular conservative television station. He aired portions of the video, a co-host demanded not apologies but convictions. Within hours of that broadcast, the video had gotten more than 1.2 billion hits.
- Calls for protests on Sept 11th rang out. In Cairo, on the 11th and even the day before, thousands gathered outside the U-S embassy. Some protesters managed to scale the embassy walls, remove the American flag. At one point, the Egyptian Army intervened to get things under control.
- In Libya on the same day, we know now what happened, but given that calls for protests over the film were ongoing in Cairo and beginning to surface across the Arab world, it’s easy to see why the early intelligence would first assume that was what was motivating unrest. In fact, there had been protests against the anti-Muslim film prior to the 11th.
- Sept 10: Protesters gathered the U-S Embassy in Manila, the Philippines, calling for a ban on the film. Other protests that day occurred in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Somalia.
- For the rest of the week, protests were occurring all across the region, in Yemen, Afghanistan, in Syria, Pakistan, Tunisia, Morocco, India, Indonesia, Greece, Kashmir and several Muslim-majority countries. By the following Monday, Hezbollah called for a second week of protests over an anti-Islam film. Even a month later, Muslim extremists called for additional protests, again because of the film.
- Here’s a map showing where protests occurred worldwide following the release of the video. Despite all this, it still cost Rice the Secretary of State nomination.
But that wasn’t enough. In last week’s hearings, Republicans had tough questions for Clinton, but what do they think is the scandal?
How come no one was punished? “To my knowledge, no one was held accountablefor the insufficient security, said Sen Bob Corker. But four state department officials have been placed on administrative leave. Rice lost the nomination. Clinton said she didn’t read the cables related to the security situation at the Benghazi consulate. “I am the secretary of state,” she said, “and the ARB [Accountability Review Board] made very clear that the level of responsibility for the failures that they outlined was set at the assistant secretary level and below.
How come no one got fired? “People who make judgment errors should be fired and replaced,” said Sen Rand Paul “Had I been president… I would have relieved you from your post.” But Clinton explained that federal statute prohibits the state department from firing people for failure of leadership. (It would help if Mr. Paul knew something about the government in which he works operates.)
So then it’s back to the Sunday talk shows. WI Sen Rob Johnson decided, “I’m going back to then Ambassador Rice five days later going on Sunday shows and what I would say purposefully misleading the American public” (which he has no way of knowing unless that was the intention of the CIA). Clinton said she had no role in preparing Rice’s talking points. McCain mentioned his Sunday show appearance in the hearings, saying, “By the way, as I said at the time –I just happened to be on one of those talk shows– people don’t bring RPGs and mortars to spontaneous demonstrations. That’s a fundamental” (although in a relatively lawless country that had just dispatched its dictator, there were certainly a lot of RPGs and mortars for people to walk around with).
But there was a telling moment during John Kerry’s confirmation hearing Thursday when Johnson, still seemingly looking for a scandal after his being at odds with Hillary Clinton on Tuesday, pressed Kerry to commit to finding out exactly what happened in Benghazi. Kerry asked if he had attended a briefing that explained what happened.
Johnson said no, he wasn’t at the briefing.
Whoops.Kerry explained that those who went to briefing “sat for several hours with our intel folks, who described to us precisely what we were seeing. We saw the events unfold. We had a very complete and detailed description.”
Johnson still wants to know “why we were misled,” still believing that there was misleading going on. Here is what Susan Rice said on “Meet the Press” the Sunday following the attacks (emphasis mine):
“Well, let us– let me tell you the– the best information we have at present. First of all, there’s an FBI investigation which is ongoing. And we look to that investigation to give us the definitive word as to what transpired. But putting together the best information that we have available to us today our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of– of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video. What we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding. They came with heavy weapons which unfortunately are readily available in post revolutionary Libya. And it escalated into a much more violent episode. Obviously, that’s– that’s our best judgment now. We’ll await the results of the investigation. And the president has been very clear–we’ll work with the Libyan authorities to bring those responsible to justice.”
Exactly what a prudent government official would say, based on the information she had at the time, or… the information she was only allowed to say for national security reasons.
And it may well be that critics may have a profound misunderstanding of the process of intelligence gathering, or in the case of lawmakers, they’re simply ignoring it for the sake of political point-scoring.
A former CIA analyst writing in the Atlantic Magazine offers these guidelines to consider before accusing any president of lying during a crisis:
- A lot of first-contact intelligence is wrong. When bad things happen, the intelligence (and the assumptions that flow from it) often is contradictory, fragmented, or flat-out erroneous.
- Intelligence analysts almost always hedge their language. Analysts don’t own crystal balls, but they nevertheless are asked to comment upon the likely future status of current events. So it is a rare document indeed that authoritatively states an analytic judgment, and such statements are almost never made after a fluid situation like the Benghazi attack.
- The intelligence community’s production timelines are ill-suited to our 24/7 news cycle. That one should be obvious. Most Americans are ADD headline readers who want everything solved in about the same time it takes cops to catch the bad guy on CSI. It doesn’t work that way.
Bottom line, the former CIA analyst writes:
“To believe that the initial statements about what happened in Benghazi were a lie, one has to assume: (1) The administration had all the facts, even as the situation was evolving; (2) the administration chose to tell a deliberately false story about those facts; and (3) the story it told was consistent, with no administration official contradicting the official line. There is little evidence to support any of these three pillars of the Republican case against the White House.”
Perhaps the fixation on Benghazi has something to do with the fact that Republicans have been attacking Obama on Benghazi for four months and it hasn’t damaged him. Maybe now that Hillary Clinton has testified, this can finally be put to bed, though no doubt all the conspiracy kooks who said her concussion was phony because she wanted to duck testifying… where are those saps now?