Only in Perry Mason stories does the real culprit break down in open court. After Hillary Clinton’s now-immortal Capitol Hill outburst about investigations into the deadly 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya—“What difference, at this point, does it make?”—the former secretary of state and Democratic candidate for president is unlikely to offer any such spontaneity when she testifies Thursday before the House Select Committee on Benghazi.
Nonetheless, the committee’s work is utterly serious, its preparations extensive (and extensively stonewalled by Mrs. Clinton’s team) and its mission vital to our fight against still-metastasizing Islamist terrorism. Much is at stake. The hearing’s focus must be on the key policy and leadership implications of the mistakes made before, during and after the murders of Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11 three years ago.
Before the attack, there was ample warning that the U.S. consulate in Benghazi wasn’t secure, with terrorist threats in the area multiplying. Even the International Red Cross had pulled out of Benghazi. After a string of requests from the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli for more security, in mid-August came a joint Embassy-CIA recommendation to move the State Department’s people into the CIA’s Benghazi compound. The State Department in Washington was invariably unresponsive, even though, as Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey later testified, the rising terrorist threat in Libya was well known.
Given her self-proclaimed central role in deposing dictator Moammar Gadhafi, why was Mrs. Clinton so detached from the deteriorating situation in Libya? She has so far dodged the issue, pawning off such “technical” matters on her subordinates. Working in the State Department in 1990 when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, I saw firsthand how Secretary of State James Baker dived into every detail of safeguarding U.S. diplomats stranded in Kuwait City. If earlier secretaries of state have been perfectly prepared to get their fingernails dirty in operational details when those under their responsibility were threatened, why wasn’t Mrs. Clinton?
Libya was no backwater for Mrs. Clinton. It was one of President Obama’s highest foreign-policy priorities, touted by the administration as evidence of successfully “leading from behind,” averting a Gadhafi bloodbath through “humanitarian intervention,” and with democracy and stability to follow. So acknowledging that precisely the opposite was happening, and appropriately increasing security in Libya, would demonstrate failure. That was politically unacceptable.
As the crisis unfolded that day in Benghazi, with violence also erupting in Tunis, Cairo and potentially elsewhere, Mrs. Clinton disappeared. Instead of staying at her desk, “on the bridge” of the State Department’s seventh floor, Mrs. Clinton literally left the building. Why?
Imagine the effect on morale when, with colleagues in Libya in mortal peril, State Department personnel learned that their leader had gone home for the evening. There is no evidence that Mrs. Clinton or President Obama did anything other than passively monitor events. Instead, Mrs. Clinton should have been continuously demanding assistance for her beleaguered diplomats: hectoring, pleading, whatever it took.
On Thursday, the House committee should ask Mrs. Clinton not about military operations that might have been launched on Sept. 11 to save American personnel in Benghazi, but about her supposed leadership at the State Department that fateful day.
Mrs. Clinton protests that she was still fully connected from home. But she reportedly spoke exactly once, at 10 p.m., with the president when he called her to discuss the State Department news release that first floated the fantasy that Muslim outrage over a blasphemous video about Muhammad sparked the attack. Incredibly, Mrs. Clinton never spoke at all to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta or Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey, according to their congressional testimony.
Was Mrs. Clinton using her private email server while her State Department desk stood vacant? If so, where are those emails? With Americans in peril across the Middle East, were others listening to Mrs. Clinton communicating from home rather than from fully secure facilities at the State Department?
And who did concoct the Muhammad video explanation? State Department and CIA personnel on the ground in Tripoli and Benghazi all knew in real time that a terrorist attack was under way. There was no fog of war in Libya, as Mrs. Clinton has contended. The fog was all in Washington, an ideological and political fog protecting the last two months of President Obama’s re-election campaign, and reflecting his unworldly view that the global terrorist threat was receding.
After the attacks, America’s response was pathetic: arresting one person, Libyan militia leader Ahmed Abu Khattala. Following limited intelligence-community questioning, he has received full due-process criminal protections. He remains in a federal jail facility in Virginia; no trial date has been set pending resolution of numerous defense efforts to have the charges dismissed.
This is no response at all, as terrorists, their state sponsors and America’s international adversaries all understand. The American people have a right to know the following: What was Mrs. Clinton’s role in formulating the U.S. response to the Benghazi attack? Did she ever advocate retaliation for the coldblooded killing of four Americans?
Policy, leadership and management failures at the administration’s highest levels brought us both Benghazi and the continuing fecklessness of, in effect, granting impunity to all but one of the terrorist attackers who killed American citizens, including a U.S. ambassador. Politics has no place in the committee hearing on Thursday, save for a question that many Americans may be asking: Is this how we want our country led?
Mr. Bolton, an American Enterprise Institute senior fellow, is the author of “Surrender Is Not an Option: Defending America at the United Nations and Abroad” (Simon & Schuster, 2007).