The Benghazi Scorecard
My guess is that Benghazi is about to be overshadowed by a slew of IRS-related scandals. For low-information citizens more interested in the tabloid fare served up in supermarket checkout lines, Benghazi is a long way away and its significance hard to pinpoint. Every one, however,deals with the IRS at one level or another.
But Benghazi will resurface in spades, if, as expected, Hillary Clinton decides to make a run for the presidency in 2016. Over her long public career, Hillary has been caught telling numerous lies. Remember her memory of landing under sniper fire in Bosnia. Remember the great "right-wing conspiracy" accusing her husband of improprieties.
None of her lies, however, reveal her Lady Macbeth-like ambition and ruthlessness to the same degree as her telling the father of slain Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, as his son's coffin lay in front of them, that the U.S. government would arrest and prosecute the maker of the film that allegedly triggered the Benghazi attack, long after she knew conclusively that the video had absolutely nothing to do with that attack. (The government did, in fact, arrest the filmmaker, and he has been in jail since for probation violation.)
Because questions still remain and because the issue is so likely to resurface again it is worthwhile to review what we know at this point and what we can reasonably surmise.
BENGHAZI CONSISTS of a number of separate issues and sub-scandals. The first is the failure to adequately protect the Benghazi mission or the U.S. Ambassador in Libya. That scandal leads directly to Hillary, who as Secretary of State signed off on the denial of multiple requests for stepped up security coming from Libya and even ordered the removal of a special security team in place, despite numerous warnings from diplomatic and security personnel in Libya of the "dire" security situation and multiple requests from Ambassador Stevens for increased protection.
Clinton would have us believe that those denials of additional security were all made at lower levels and signed with an automatic pen. But Regional Senior Security Officer Eric Nordstrom testified to Congress that the degree of danger to American diplomats in Libya was rated "HIGH," and that only the Secretary of State herself has authority to permit diplomats to remain in places with a high degree of danger. Moreover, Clinton was in close contact with Ambassador Christopher Stevens about the establishment of a permanent mission in Benghazi. So the Libyan situation was very much on her radar screen.
Yet remarkably the Accountability Review Board appointed by Clinton in the wake of Benghazi failed to even interview the Secretary of State. It also failed to interview Regional Security Officer Nordstrom or Gregory Hicks, the second in command of the Libyan mission at the time of the attack.
The second scandal is the administration's cover-up of the circumstances of the attack that claimed the lives of the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. The cover-up consists of several discrete sub-scandals: the extensive rewriting of the talking points provided to Congress about the attacks; U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's appearance on multiple Sunday morning talk shows propounding a story of riots caused by a video insulting to Islam; the failure of the ARB to interview key figures whose testimony might have embarrassed the administration; and finally, the repeated statements by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton blaming the video long after they knew that the attack on the Benghazi mission was a well-organized terrorist attack, not an exercise in overly boisterous film criticism.
The third and perhaps biggest potential scandal – and the one that has received least attention so far – concerns the decision to make no attempt to rescue the American personnel in Benghazi under fire, over a period of more than six hours. Gregory Hicks testified to Congress that a rescue team was on the tarmac in Tripoli ready to take off for Benghazi, when it was told to stand down. But who issued that order and why is still unknown. Also unknown is where was President Obama in the decision-making loop of possible military responses or whether he evinced any curiosity about those decisions before the fate of the Americans was sealed. One thing is for sure, there are no photos of the President in the White House situation room watching the unfolding events, as there were during the killing of Obama bin Laden.
To these scandals, I would add a fourth: the media's failure to investigate Benghazi at the time and the willingness of large segments of the mainstream media to continue to parrot the administration's line that congressional hearings are nothing but a partisan witch hunt and its righteous indignation that anyone would ask what the President was doing as events unfolded or with whom he spoke.
Political bias may be only one of the reasons for those media failures. CBS News head David Rhodes is the brother of Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor, who played the lead role in the multiple rewritings of the administration talking points. The network is rumored to have come down on its own award-winning reporter Sheryl Attkisson for having pushed the Benghazi story too hard. And the head of ABC News, Ben Sherwood, is the brother of Dr. Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, Special Assistant to President Obama. CNN deputy Washington bureau chief Virginia Moseley is married to Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Tom Nides.
The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler now rates President Obama's claim that he called the events in Benghazi a "terrorist attack" the next day Four Pinochios – i.e., a brazen lie. Unfortunately, neither the Post nor the rest of the MSM were able to figure that out when that claim was a subject of dispute in the second presidential debate and "moderator" Candy Crowley sided with the President.
MANY OF THESE STRANDS of the scandal are most clearly on display in the multiple iterations of administration talking points to be shared with Congress, in the days immediately following the Benghazi attack. The CIA drafted the original talking points, which began by wrongly averring that "currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault. . . . " That conclusion, three days after the events in question, is difficult to understand at any level.
First, there was no evidence whatsoever of any demonstration in Benghazi that "evolved" into something more serious. Heavy mortars, rocket-propelled grenades, and machine guns were employed in the attack on the mission. Demonstrators do not generally carry along with them heavy equipment, requiring expertise to use. In his conversation with Secretary of State Clinton, while events were ongoing, Ambassador Stevens' replacement Gregory Hicks told Clinton, that the mission was "under attack." In addition, State Department personnel, who were on live feed to Libya, already testified six months ago that they had never believed that Benghazi was a demonstration turned lethal.
But there was plenty in the original CIA points that the State Department did not want in the public domain. The CIA stated that it had warned State on September 10 (the day prior to the events in Cairo and Benghazi) that Egyptian jihadi groups were threatening to break into the Embassy. The chant of the mob at the US Embassy in Cairo the next day --- "Obama, Obama, we are all Osama" – evidenced the jihadis' heavy presence.
The CIA points mentioned the presence among the "Islamic extremists" in Benghazi of members of Ansar al-Sharia, a group devoted to the spread of Sharia law. And the CIA draft noted that it had produced "numerous pieces on the threat of extremists linked to al-Qaeda in Benghazi and eastern Libya," and that there had been five attacks on Western interests in Benghazi since April, including an attack on the British Ambassador's convoy.
Finally, the CIA opined that the "availability of weapons and experienced fighters in Libya almost certainly contributed to the lethality of the attacks." In short, the administration's Libyan policy had resulted in the creation of an anarchic, failed stated, into which all manner of terrorists had flowed.
As soon as the CIA's initial draft was circulated, the pushback from political operatives – e.g., State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland and Ben Rhodes (who came to the administration as a speechwriter) and Tommy Vietor of the National Security Council – was fast and furious. Nuland fretted that mention of the multiple warnings might be "abused by Members [of Congress] to beat the State Department." Throughout the drafting process she mentioned that her unidentified "superiors" were still not pleased.
The talking points were purely an exercise in damage control, not truth-finding. Omitted from the final draft was all mention of repeated warnings coming from Libya since April or of the warning of jihadis preparing to enter the Cairo embassy. Gone too was any discussion of the widespread presence of Al Qaeda and other jihadi groups in Libya.
The final product was so anodyne that CIA Director David Petraeus wrote, "Frankly, I'd rather not use this. . . . [T]his is certainly not what [Democratic] Vice-Chairman Ruppersberger was hoping to get for unclas[sified] use."
After reviewing the 12 iterations of the talking points, even the reliably pro-Obama New Yorker was forced to admit that the term "cover-up" was no longer just a Republican talking point. Both Obama and Clinton had good reasons to keep matters as vague as possible about what happened in Benghazi. Obama, the slayer of Osama, was running for re-election, in part, on the claim that he had vanquished terror, and here were annoying terrorists all over the place in Benghazi.
Nor did Obama and Clinton want the public to focus on how deposing Qaddafi had created a situation where they were, in the words of Maureen Dowd, "sending diplomats and their protectors into a country that was no longer a country, a land rife with fighters affiliated with Al Qaeda."
Dowd, whose snark met its moment skewering the lifestyle of the Clintons in the '90s, but who has shown herself consistently incapable of grasping the rudiments of public policy ever since, nevertheless summarized the drafting process perfectly.
Perhaps, she smelled blood in her old hunting ground of "Hillaryland." Certainly, Clinton had more to fear from Benghazi than Obama did prior to the election, and much more today. He will never run for election again; she would like too. The fine points of foreign policy are beyond the ken of most Americans. Voters were not likely to be that interested in how U.S. foreign policy helped turn Arab Spring into Arab Winter or why the Libyan intervention had only created another failed state rife with terrorists of all stripes.
Clinton's failure, however, is easy to describe and comprehend. As Dowd wrote, "Yet in this hottest of hot spots, the State Department's minimum security requirements were not met, requests for more security were rejected, contingency plans were not drawn up, despite the portentous date of 9/11 and cascading warnings from the CIA."
No wonder, Clinton chief of staff Cheryl Mills called Gregory Hicks, who had spoken to Clinton on the night of the attack and who was well versed in the months of pleas for greater security, and demanded to know why he had ignored her orders and met with a Republican congressman, without a State Department lawyer present to monitor – read censor -- his testimony.
More amazing still, Dowd grasped the really big scandal – the one that went beyond gross incompetence: Benghazi punctured "our deepest national mythology: that if there is anything, no matter how unlikely or difficult, that we can do to try to save the lives of Americans who have volunteered for dangerous assignments, we must do it."
THE ONE PERSON SLIGHTLY helped by publication of the multiple drafts of the talking points was the hapless Susan Rice, who spent an entire Sunday morning touting the "movie-made-them-do-it" theory on various public affairs programs. After all, the initial CIA points did link the attack in Benghazi to events earlier in the day in Cairo and claim that the attack in Benghazi evolved from a demonstration.
But the help is very partial. For one thing, Rice went far beyond the original CIA talking points. Those talking points made no mention of the video that Rice insisted had so riled up the Cairo mob. Indeed the original talking points spoke of jihadi threats on September 10 to burn the Cairo Embassy. Those threats came from Muhammad al-Zawahiri, brother of Al Qaeda top honcho Ayman al-Zawahiri, and made no mention of a video. Two days earlier another Arabic language website called for burning the Embassy if its grievances were not met. Again, none of those grievances involved a video.
More important, Secretary of State Clinton certainly knew Rice's video story was balderdash long before her September 15 TV appearances. There was no demonstration at the Benghazi mission when Ambassador Stevens bid his final visitor adieu, an hour before the attack began. Stevens conveyed to Hicks and Hicks directly to Clinton that same night, "We're under attack."
State Department official Charlene Lamb, who was in direct communication with the Embassy in Tripoli throughout the night, testified at an October 9 State Department briefing that the State's view had been from the beginning that Benghazi was a terror attack.
SO WHO CAME UP WITH the preposterous story of film criticism run amok? We cannot know for sure. But Andrew McCarthy, the prosecutor in the first World Trade Center bombing, points to an interesting coincidence. During all the questioning after Benghazi about what the President was doing that night, before heading off to Los Vegas for fundraiser the next day, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney never mentioned a phone conversation between President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton around 10:00 p.m., a few hours after the death of Ambassador Stevens was confirmed. That conversation only came to light when Clinton mentioned it in her Senate testimony after the election.
Immediately after that telephone call, Clinton issued her first public statement on the attack: "Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others." In other words, as soon as she got off the phone with the President, she tried to link the Benghazi attack to that in Cairo, where the American mission issued several craven apologies for the video, as the attacks gathered steam. That was the beginning of "the-film-made-them-do-it" line.
The President, from what we know, could not be bothered during the more than six hours of fighting in Benghazi to inquire of his top security officials what options had been considered and what was decided upon. Why, for instance, did no U.S. fighters, less than an hour's flight-time away, buzz the Benghazi compound in an effort to scare away the attackers? Why was the rescue team assembled in Tripoli told to "stand down" and by whom?
But he may have had time to concoct a cover story with his Secretary of State. The President was still blaming a video no one has ever seen in his speech to the United Nations on September 25, two weeks after Ambassador Stevens and three other American were murdered, and long after the preposterous nature of that claim was well known.
So the President did not just go to sleep when American diplomatic personnel were fighting for their lives. But somehow that is not too comforting.