If you recall in the days and weeks after the Benghazi attack, the Obama campaign and the liberal media (but I repeat myself) scoffed at the notion that Benghazi was vitally important or that the explanation for the nature of the attack was important. They said those pressing for answers suffered from an “obsession” or were playing “election politics.” The generation of media elites who grew up on Watergate tales couldn’t fathom why it would be important to find out if incompetence or mendacity was behind the debacle or to demand an explanation for what happened. Curiosity so evident in infinitely more minor incidents (e.g. Valerie Plame) was in scarce suppply.

Hillary Clinton
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the Benghazi attack before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. (Linda Davidson / The Washington Post)

However, journalists who continued to plug away at the story, bit by bit, in turn pushed Congress and the administration to act. Out of the reporting, the State Department Accountability Review Board and the Senate Homeland Committee investigation produced two comprehensive government reports with a slew of criticisms and recommendations. So who was right about the significance of Benghazi, and who was simply running from (or intentionally ignoring) a story harmful to the president?

In blowing her lid (“what difference does it make?”), Clinton sure received her answer, while the congressional critics and few journalists who kept the investigation going got a measure of vindication. Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) gave one explanation: “When they put out word this was not a terrorist attack, it was sprung out of a spontaneous uprising, it furthered the narrative that somehow al-Qaeda was in disarray and that we had, by the elimination of bin Laden, had made this extraordinary reduction in the risk in the area. As it it turns out, not only was that not true in Libya, we’re now seeing that’s not true in other parts of North Africa as well. And the fundamental question is, did the administration really believe that? If they did, they badly miscalculated. Or did they know it wasn’t true, and for political reasons didn’t want that narrative out there?”

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) put it this way:

It was of course, as so many commentators, lawmakers, former officials and foreign policy analysts have since recognized, important to know whether our government had dropped the ball on al-Qaeda. It was important to know whether they had ignored warning signs in Libya and throughout Africa, thereby provoking either intentional misdirection or a series of falsehoods stemming from incredulity (It couldn’t possibly be al-Qaeda. It couldn’t possibly be that leading from behind was a debacle. It couldn’t possibly be that we have been clueless about the jihadists’ infiltration into North Africa.)

In fact, the people following the story and criticizing the administration were right — this was a policy failure, a management failure and a communications failure. Unless we get (and we should but won’t) Thomas Donilon, the president and others to explain how bad information continued to flow from top administration figures after they had ruled out a spontaneous protest and after they had determined al-Qaeda affiliates were involved, we won’t know how intentional was the effort to direct attention away from policy and management failures. The falsehoods, intentional or not,  are important because they revealed that we had no conception of the threat and no policy regarding al-Qaeda’s infestation in North Africa. We still don’t, actually.

Jennifer Rubin writes the Right Turn blog for The Post, offering reported opinion from a conservative perspective.