A standard defense for Hillary Rodham Clinton when facing questions about Benghazi, Libya, has been to cite her commissioning of a report from the State Department’s Accountability Review Board (ARB), which took a deep look at the attacks that claimed the lives of four U.S. personnel on Sept. 11, 2012. In testimony before Congress in January 2013, Clinton said: “I hurried to appoint the Accountability Review Board led by Ambassador Pickering and Admiral Mullen so we could more fully understand from objective, independent examination, what went wrong and how to fix it. I have accepted every one of their recommendations.”
In an interview with Clinton that aired last night on ABC News, anchor Diane Sawyer threw the ARB right back in the face of the former secretary of state. The two tangled over the preparedness of the U.S. diplomatic installation in Benghazi for a terrorist attack. In defending her work on this front, Clinton stressed that she had delegated the particulars of security to the experts in the field. “I’m not equipped to sit and look at blueprints to determine where the blast walls need to be, where the reinforcements need to be. That’s why we hire people who have that expertise,” said Clinton, who did the interview as part of the tour for her book “Hard Choices.”
Sensing an opening, Sawyer cited the document that Clinton herself has so often cited: “This is the ARB: the mission was far short of standards; weak perimeter; incomplete fence; video surveillance needed repair. They said it’s a systemic failure.”
Clinton replied, “Well, it was with respect to that compound.”
The anchor continued pressing, asking Clinton whether the people might be seeking from her a “sentence that begins from you ‘I should have…’?” Clinton sort of ducked that one. The accountability-heavy moment came when Sawyer’s slow and steady line of questioning on Benghazi security prompted Clinton to utter this self-contradictory and sure-to-be-repeated statement: “I take responsibility, but I was not making security decisions.”
For the record, possible-presidential-candidates-in-abeyance should never attach conjunctions to their declarations of responsibility-taking.
Another telling moment came when Sawyer placed before Clinton all the warnings that bad things were afoot in Benghazi. “Did you miss it? Did you miss the moment to prevent this from happening?” Sawyer asked. Clinton’s response started with these two words: “No, but …”
The fantastic grilling served up by Sawyer wasn’t exceptional just because of its smartness, its civility or its persistence. It was exceptional for the way in which it upended the emphases of Benghazi “scandal” coverage. Ever since the issue roared to life amid the 2012 presidential campaign, media fixation has attached to how the Obama White House managed the post-attack phase. The allegation here is that Obama’s advisers attempted to frame the events as a random spasm of violence in reaction to an anti-Islam video, as opposed to admitting right away that the United States had been victimized again by terrorism.
Instead of obsessing over that phase of Benghazi, Sawyer went heavy on the security questions: They came first, they dominated the nearly 10-minute Benghazi discussion and they may well fuel a new round of questions for the former secretary. Fox News, which interviews Clinton on June 17, might consider giving her a chance to clarify just what taking responsibility means.
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