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.”