On “Meet the Press,” New York Times columnist David Brooks declared:
[T]his IRS story is going to be big. It’s going to confirm a lot of suspicions a lot of Republicans have. You combine that with the Benghazi thing, you combine it with even the red line in Syria where that looks like a political thing now because you wouldn’t carry through it. So what the president needs, I think, is a group of people put out there who are clearly above politics, who are senior older people; show that a significant part of this administration and the core of this administration is not hyper-political, and that has been a problem for the administration, I think, since the get-go.
The problem, Brooks must know, is that there are no such people around. President Obama deliberately chose not to have any independently, highly respected senior advisers in his second term. Hence we got a dullard at the Pentagon (Chuck Hagel), a political ally running the CIA (John Brennan), a political fixer at Treasury (Jack Lew) and so on. The administration is out of “senior older people,” and it is “hyper-political.” This is why the administration is in a tailspin, overrun by scandal and tone deaf on policy.
We make a mistake in thinking there has to be only one culprit in the Benghazi fiasco. Certainly the CIA from the get-go was in damage-control mode. (As Brooks said, “[A] very terrible event happened at a CIA — basically a CIA facility. They went into intense blame-shifting mood, trying to shift responsibility onto the State Department, onto anywhere else.”) But there are many cooks in this kitchen, and many players whose competency and honesty are in doubt. A talking-points document doesn’t merely get “reduced to mush and then politics was inserted into it.” Individuals have to agree to do so — in this case, many individuals.
We start with the president, who in a presidential debate said on Sept. 12 he’d identified the attack as terrorism in the Rose Garden, but who in the weeks following the attack repeated again and again the spontaneous demonstration/video fable. In September it was convenient to lay this off on an aberrant demonstration; in retrospect it was silly to claim as he did to Steve Kroft on “60 Minutes,” in a Univision interview and again at the United Nations that this incident stemmed from a video.
Moreover, neither the president nor his secretary of state nor his then anti-terrorism adviser, John Brennan, had bothered to keep track of events in Benghazi. Caught entirely unprepared by the resurgence of al-Qaeda elements, Obama was unwilling to concede that his “al-Qaeda is on its heels” was his “Mission Accomplished” moment. He went into damage control at the expense of candor. The smokescreen was useful because, for the time being, it concealed gross incompetence and a misguided “lead from behind” approach to national security.
Hillary Clinton knew better than what she was saying. Her entire building recognized by Sept. 12 that the attack was terrorism. But she, too, went into “the video made them do it” mode at the casket ceremony on Sept. 14. And thereafter Clinton’s chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, was out shushing up Gregory Hicks. Her fault appears to be in carrying the CIA-White House water, which nicely obscured (for the time being) her own failure to pay attention to what was occurring in Benghazi and the State Department’s role in insufficient security (although this was primarily a CIA facility and hence a CIA responsibility). Even worse, it appeared that late Ambassador Chris Stevens was in Benghazi in the first place in a State Department effort to transition that installation into a permanent consulate. The State Department put him there; the CIA failed to vet his local security detail.
Moreover, many at the White House (including, at least, Brennan, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, national security adviser Tom Donilon, and chief of staff Denis McDonough) had to have known from the original talking points and from common sense that this was terrorism, plain and simple. Yet they, too, all went into spin mode. None of them kept track of the escalating situation in Libya either. All of them had taken a victory lap on killing Osama bin Laden. The video tale worked from their perspective as well.
And press secretary Jay Carney, who so vigorously on Sept. 14 and thereafter carried the “no terrorism here” and “it’s nothing to do with the U.S.” hooey? He either knew what he was saying was false or was so out of the loop that he was used to relate a patently untrue message to the American people.
Pete Wehner observed that last Friday Carney kept insisting he’d never misled the press, by, among other things, saying the talking-points changes were stylistic:
Mr. Carney obviously misled the public in November; the only question is whether he did so willfully. Yet rather than admit to his multiple misleading statements in the past, Carney blamed Mitt Romney and Republicans. The spin Carney used was transparently dishonest. He constructed a false reality to defend himself and the administration. In the process, he has merely further damaged his credibility. Once upon a time, Jay Carney was a journalist who wanted to search for truth. Now he is an Obama White House official awkwardly attempting to hide it. He is now part of a cover-up. . . . He is now part of a cover-up.
He’s also lost even a patina of credibility. He or his bosses might find someone else to be the face of the administration — that is, if the administration wants to recover from this debacle. His squirrely presence is a constant reminder of the evasion, falsities and word parsing that got the administration into this mess.
Slowly, the role of the CIA and the State Department are becoming clear. If everyone did his or her job, there would have been no need to finger-point; since no one did it became a career rescue operation for the political appointees. But the White House role is still murky because its officials have never been forced to explain their conduct. Who did what, and why? Who knew what they were collectively telling the public was bunk?
It’s time to fess up, and it is time for the president to answer every question the American people and media now have. If he can’t do so because the answers are more embarrassing than the evasiveness, then we understand just how rudderless this ship of state has been.
This is not a “Who done it?” but a “How did an entire administration become this incompetent and politicized?” It’s trite but true: It starts at the top.