As day follows night, the MSM yawns after hearing testimony Wednesday damaging both to the president and Democrats’ other icon, Hillary Clinton. No blockbusters. Just politics. Well, that is just bunk.
To begin with, the very compelling witness Gregory Hicks explained to lawmakers that the YouTube video lampooning Muhammad was a non-event; rather, he understood the assault on the Benghazi consulate to be a terrorist attack and briefed Clinton that night. There was no confusion about the attack in that sense. The “spontaneous demonstration” story line did not come from people on the ground or from the intelligence community (who knew from the get-go that al-Qaeda linked operatives were involved). It came from senior administration officials.
Hicks, the State Department’s deputy chief of mission in Libya, asked Beth Jones, the acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, why U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was pinning the incident on the YouTube video. He said he was told not to ask questions.
Then there is the matter of the rescue forces. Among others, then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta testified in February that no forces were called and none were told to stand down. The testimony yesterday tells us that isn’t true. (That may have been a correct military judgment, but we’ll never know.) The forces from Aviano Air Base in Italy and a second team of special forces in Tripoli were told to stand down, according to Hicks. He said the military personnel there were “furious. [A military officer told Hicks,] ‘This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military.’ ” Mark Thompson, the State Department’s deputy coordinator for counterterrorism, also testified, “I was told this was not the right time to deploy the team.”
In the wake of the attack, Hicks testified, he was told not to speak with a congressional delegation visiting Libya. After he participated in a classified briefing without a State Department lawyer present, Cheryl Mills, Hillary Clinton’s chief of staff and sometimes called Hillary’s alter ego at State, contacted Gregory Hicks and told him she was “very upset.”
Hicks also testified that the Libyan ambassador had told the State Department (confirmed in an e-mail from Jones on Sept. 12) that Ansar al-Sharia, affiliated with Islamic terrorists, conducted the attacks.
After all of this, Hicks was demoted to a desk job.
Unless you are employed by the administration or unwilling to compare yesterday’s testimony to the multiple statements of administration officials up through the president’s United Nations speech on Sept. 25, you have to conclude the administration departed from the set of facts it had available almost immediately.
Eli Lake, who has broken one story after another, writes, “For 11 days after the 9/11 anniversary assault on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, top Obama administration officials told the public that the assault stemmed from a protest of an anti-Muslim YouTube video. That was the public line from the White House in the closing weeks of a presidential election season, but it was not the view of several State Department officials at the time or the U.S. personnel on the ground in Libya.” Nor does it match up with the e-mails and the multiple drafts of the talking points prepared in advance of Susan Rice’s Sunday talk show appearances.
Elliott Abrams, who served in both the Reagan and Bush 43 administrations, explains: “The [State Department's Accountability Review Board] protected all of the department’s higher-ups and blamed career officials down the ladder. The board is now itself under investigation by State’s inspector general, and Wednesday’s testimony revealed the sore feelings of career officers about the review board’s conduct.” Moreover, it is also apparent who is enabling the effort of higher-ups to escape scrutiny:
No doubt politics motivated some of the Republicans, but due to the nature of the hearing they were cast as investigators. Most Democrats appeared far more dedicated to defending Mrs. Clinton and the Obama administration than to finding out exactly what happened, and any criticism of Ms. Rice was rebutted. After all, Chris Stevens is gone but 2016 is just around the corner.
The three witnesses seemed to be visitors from a different reality—different from Rep. Carolyn Maloney and her outrage that anyone could criticize the great Secretary Clinton, or from Cheryl Mills and the anger she expressed at Mr. Hicks for allowing a congressman to escape the presence of the lawyer she had sent.
The Accountability Review Board was also part of that Washington culture, protecting the top levels of the State Department—the secretary and the deputy and under secretaries—and laying blame (and punishment) on the career people below them. This hearing did not ascertain where the buck should stop, but it was a step forward in getting the facts. And it was a reminder that in Washington we should not permit people with political motives to blight the careers of civil servants and blame them for failures of management and policy at the top.
Indeed, the greatest tragedy in this fiasco was the loss of four brave Americans, in part because this administration ignored and was unprepared for jihadist activity in Libya. But that gross error should not obscure lesser but still important missteps, most especially if they were deliberate efforts to cover up, shift blame and deny responsibility for the underlying tragedy. To claim that career diplomats or underlings in Foggy Bottom are lying or engaging in some misconduct is, well, lower than low. What’s more, it just isn’t true.
UPDATE: This is not to say Hillary Clinton’s political career is not at issue. Of course, her conduct and testimony will be relevant to her future political career. If you had any doubt the new conservative opposition research group America Rising is out with a video. Yes, it’s very political, but then so was the response to Benghazi.