May 16, 2013

Michael Hirsh is the National Journal’s chief correspondent.

The events surrounding the deaths of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, look dramatically different depending on your politics. Republicans tend to see a cover-up and a scandal. Democrats see an attempt to damage President Obama and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. A Pew poll suggests that the public is divided as well, with 40 percent saying the administration has been dishonest, 37 percent saying it has told the truth, and 23 percent saying they’re not sure. Let’s assess what we do and don’t know.

1. U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice gave a deliberately false account of the attack.

This is ground zero in the alleged scandal. Conspiracy theorists contend the administration covered up evidence that Stevens was killed in an organized terrorist attack because Obama, during the 2012 campaign, claimed he had “decimated” al-Qaeda. On Sunday talk shows five days after the attack, Rice gave interviews based on talking points supplied by U.S. intelligence agencies; she suggested that Stevens’s death resulted from “spontaneous” protests that spread from the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, provoked by a movie trailer lampooning the prophet Muhammad.

In response to charges of a cover-up, the White House this past week released 100 pages of e-mails that show the State Department sought to remove references to possible links to Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist group tied to al-Qaeda, and to earlier CIA warnings of extremist threats in Benghazi and eastern Libya.

Was there a cover-up? It does appear White House spokesman Jay Carney wasn’t giving the full story when he said, at a Nov. 28 briefing, that the White House and State Department had made only a “single adjustment” to the talking points, changing the word “consulate” to “diplomatic facility.” It is also possible that State wanted to tone down or remove passages that might cast the department or Clinton in a bad light.

But the e-mails indicate as well that the White House and State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland were mainly concerned with prejudging an ongoing investigation by releasing classified information too soon. And there is little doubt that Rice’s taped remarks reflected the best intelligence assessment of the attacks at the time. As more information came in, intelligence officials changed that assessment publicly. If the talking points were extensively edited after an interagency consultation, that was fairly normal procedure, especially when it came to deleting classified portions referring to specific groups. Rice did allow, in her comments on TV, that “extremist elements” might have taken part in the attack.

Even now, the FBI and other agencies are not certain who the culprits were. In that light, the administration’s efforts to remove references to specific groups look more judicious than nefarious.

2. A faster military response would have saved at least some of the four Americans.

We will never know for sure. In congressional testimony, Stevens’s former deputy, Gregory Hicks, said his request that the military send in F-16s and Special Operations troops as the attack was underway was refused. The Obama administration has responded that Hicks, a career diplomat, was no military expert. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former defense secretary Leon Panetta testified this year that a military rescue mission would not have been practical. Dempsey said it would have taken “up to 20 hours or so” to get F-16s to the site, and he called them “the wrong tool for the job.”

Former defense secretary Robert Gates delivered perhaps the most persuasive rebuttal to this myth. On CBS’s “Face the Nation” on May 12, Gates said he probably would have made the same decisions. He also said Hicks’s notion that flying a fighter jet over the attackers might have dispersed them reflected “sort of a cartoonish impression of military capabilities,” ignoring the “number of surface-to-air missiles that have disappeared from [former Libyan leader Moammar] Gaddafi’s arsenals.”

3. Obama and Clinton should not be blamed.

This is the Democrats’ favorite myth. In December, Clinton’s own Accountability Review Board concluded that “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” might have contributed to the four deaths. But the report didn’t assign responsibility to any individual, and it confined blame for any mistakes to “two bureaus of the State Department.”

In fact, the Obama administration did appear to be playing down or ignoring security threats in Libya at the time. As the report said: “Simply put, in the months leading up to September 11, 2012, security in Benghazi was not recognized and implemented as a ‘shared responsibility’ in Washington, resulting in stove-piped discussions and decisions on policy and security.” The report also noted “known gaps” in the intelligence community’s assessments. And it’s the responsibility of those at the highest levels — the president and the secretary of state — to fill those gaps. In congressional testimony in January, Clinton said that she didn’t read an Aug. 16 cable from Stevens that raised questions about security and that she didn’t know about a decision to reject a request for more security. “I didn’t see those requests. They did not come to me. I did not approve them. I did not deny them,” she said. If so, it’s fair to ask: Why wasn’t Clinton involved?

4. The Benghazi attack could not have been predicted.

The administration’s argument is that there was no specific threat — and it will probably be Clinton’s, too, if she reemerges in public life ahead of 2016. The circumstances were unusual. Stevens was taking extraordinary risks in traveling to Benghazi, where he established contacts with anti-Gaddafi rebels during the uprising. Few U.S. ambassadors would ever be in a similar situation.

But these risks were known before the attack. As the Accountability Review Board report concluded, “At the time of the September attacks, Benghazi remained a lawless town nominally controlled by the Supreme Security Council (SSC) — a coalition of militia elements loosely cobbled into a single force to provide interim security — but in reality run by a diverse group of local Islamist militias.” Why was Stevens allowed to travel to such an unsecure place?

5. Benghazi is a pseudo-scandal manufactured by the GOP.

Republicans have blown Benghazi out of proportion. It doesn’t appear to have been a cover-up, but neither can it be dismissed. It represents a tragic failure of U.S. policy, one that should spark a larger discussion about whether the government has responded poorly to the Islamist threats that have emerged since the Arab Spring. It is reasonable to ask whether the Obama administration, starting with the president himself, created the conditions for Benghazi by being overconfident about the destruction of al-Qaeda and playing down the significance of extremist elements, possibly linked to al-Qaeda, that had emerged in Libya and elsewhere. Unless these threats are better understood, it is easy to imagine a similar disaster happening elsewhere.

Because Benghazi cost precious American lives, it should be investigated carefully rather than politicized endlessly.

mhirsh@nationaljournal.com

Read more from Outlook:

Five myths about the Arab Spring

How to prevent the next Benghazi

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