May 19, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 34
Benghazi, crazy. That’s the association the White House and its allies want to encourage as a House Select Committee begins what should be the most thorough investigation of the Benghazi attacks to date. The White House wants to delegitimize the process before it begins and preemptively discredit the findings. So last week senior White House adviser David Plouffe claimed that “a very loud, delusional minority” is driving the Republicans on Benghazi, and former representative Jane Harman compared questions about Benghazi to conspiracy theories about Vince Foster and aliens.
At first blush, it might seem an odd strategy. A Fox News poll taken in mid-April found that 60 percent of voters want Congress to continue investigating the Benghazi attacks—a total that included 77 percent of Republicans, 61 percent of independents, and 42 percent of Democrats. The same poll found that 61 percent of Americans believe the Obama administration is “trying to cover up” the real Benghazi story—87 percent of Republicans, 66 percent of independents, and 33 percent of Democrats. Just 26 percent think the administration has been “open and transparent.” Notably, this poll was taken before the court-ordered release last month of previously withheld White House emails and talking points, a revelation that provided fresh evidence of White House stonewalling.
But the Obama administration’s strategy isn’t intended for the country at large so much as it is for the Washington press corps. The goal is to convince reporters that by investigating Benghazi they are doing the bidding of crackpots and political hacks. The White House is betting that journalists are more cynical about House Republicans and their motives than they are about the Obama administration’s mendacity on Benghazi.
There’s some evidence that’s right.
Most of the reporting after John Boehner’s announcement of a select committee hinted at political motives. The New York Times, in a story that typified the coverage of the latest developments, led this way: “House Republicans on Friday escalated their battle with the White House over the continuing investigations into the 2012 attack that killed four Americans in Benghazi, Libya, ensuring that the issue will not recede in the midst of a fierce partisan fight for control of Congress.”
There’s no small irony here. The Obama administration sold a false narrative concealing the nature of a terrorist attack six weeks before the 2012 presidential election, and the coverage at the time reflected widespread journalistic skepticism about any possible political motive. But as Republicans move to investigate those false claims six months before midterm elections, their motives are self-evidently political.
It’s true that some Republicans have made the White House case easier by engaging in irresponsible public theorizing about Benghazi. If the goal is to understand what happened and why the administration offered such a misleading account of the attacks, it’s counterproductive as well as unwise for lawmakers to allow their conclusions to race ahead of the evidence.
Even so, reporters should do their jobs. The White House would have us believe not only that those still interested in Benghazi are conspiracy nuts, but that the Benghazi attacks are old news, that all relevant questions have been answered, and that the White House offered cheerful and eager cooperation with various inquiries.
That’s not true.
Consider what we’ve seen just over the past two months:
• After repeatedly suggesting that they’d released all documents related to the Benghazi talking points, the administration was forced by a court to release some previously withheld emails. The White House explanation for its stonewalling? That the documents released as part of a FOIA request for documents about Benghazi were not, in fact, about Benghazi. This isn’t a good-faith misunderstanding, it’s an obvious attempt to deceive.
• Among the newly released documents were redacted versions of emails. Why the redactions? These originally unclassified emails were classified on February 5, 2014, long after they’d been requested under the Freedom of Information Act and separately subpoenaed by congressional oversight committees. Those newly classified emails are currently scheduled to be released without the redactions years after Obama has left the White House—some in 2019, others in 2027, and still others in 2037.
• Obama administration officials have long claimed that Susan Rice was simply repeating intelligence community talking points in her September 16, 2012, television appearances. But those talking points didn’t once mention the anti-Islam video that Rice placed at the center of her narrative. Indeed, in the 100 pages of emails related to the talking points, released by the White House in May 2013, the video was mentioned just twice—once on a list of cables and again as the subject line on an email concerning a White House meeting. If the intelligence community had believed that the video was the proximate cause of the Benghazi attacks, one assumes intelligence officials might have discussed it in emails. When former deputy CIA director Michael Morell was asked last month about Rice’s reliance on the video, he testified: “When she talked about the video, my reaction was that was not something the analysts attributed this attack to.”
• Jay Carney and others repeatedly claimed that intelligence officials were responsible for all of the substantive changes to the original Benghazi talking points. Carney insisted the White House had made just one “stylistic” mistake. Hillary Clinton testified that the intelligence community was the “principal decider” on the talking points. But an internal CIA email reported that the State Department had “major reservations” about the talking points and that “we revised the documents with their concerns in mind.” In all, objections from Obama officials resulted in all or part of four paragraphs of the six-paragraph talking points being removed—148 of 248 words.
Now there are more questions about those edits. When Fox News’s Bret Baier asked former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor whether he had changed “attacks” to “demonstrations,” surely something that would qualify as a substantive change, Vietor allowed that it was possible he had. “Maybe. I don’t remember,” he said.
• The top military intelligence official at U.S. Africa Command, whose job it was to determine responsibility for the attacks, concluded almost immediately that they were the work of al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists. This view was included in a Defense Intelligence Agency assessment published two days after the attacks, on September 13, 2012.
• Over the past six weeks, the Obama administration turned over some 3,200 pages of previously withheld Benghazi documents to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. These are documents that were subpoenaed in August 2013.
Add these recent developments to the vast landscape of previously discredited claims from top administration officials—on al Qaeda involvement, on the talking points, on the video, on transparency—and you have an issue that demands further investigation.
To claim otherwise is, well, crazy.