(Cliff Owen/AP)

“Where was Hillary Clinton in all of this? I mean the fact that she was unaware that her own ambassador was saying that the consulate couldn’t withstand a coordinated attack, that was never answered to a satisfactory answer.”

— Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), on “Fox and Friends,” April 9, 2013

The controversy continues over the deaths last year of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in an attack on a U.S. facility (a “special mission,” not technically a consulate) in Benghazi, Libya. Certainly there are outstanding questions, and Ayotte is among the lawmakers pushing for the establishment of a special investigative committee.

We take no position on that idea, but we were curious about her statement concerning former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, who by all accounts would be considered the top Democrat in the 2016 presidential race if she decided to run.

What is Ayotte talking about? Essentially, it’s a question of bureaucratic response — and inertia.

The Facts

There are two key elements here — what the ambassador supposedly said and what Clinton actually knew. In the case of Stevens, this is not something he really said but what is contained in a never-released classified cable. At this time, it is unclear if he actually wrote the cable.

The cable was first disclosed by Fox News. This is how Fox described the key section of the cable:

Summarizing an Aug. 15 emergency meeting convened by the U.S. Mission in Benghazi, the Aug. 16 cable marked “SECRET” said that the State Department’s senior security officer, also known as the RSO, did not believe the consulate could be protected.

“RSO (Regional Security Officer) expressed concerns with the ability to defend Post in the event of a coordinated attack due to limited manpower, security measures, weapons capabilities, host nation support, and the overall size of the compound,” the cable said.

Virtually every cable issued by an embassy is sent to Washington under the name of the U.S. ambassador, even though he or she did not actually write it. The voluminous documents released by the House Oversight Committee — which did not include the Aug. 16 cable — show that many of the Libya Embassy cables were not actually drafted by Stevens, including the famous “Guns of August” cable. And Fox News, which presumably saw the cable, did not specifically say that Stevens wrote or even signed it.

“Senator Ayotte has reviewed the classified cable, but she will not divulge classified information,” said Ayotte spokeswoman Liz Johnson. “However, she is confident in the accuracy of her statement. In addition, the fact that the Senior Republican on the Intelligence Committee [Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia] referred to the ‘August cable from Ambassador Stevens’ [at a February hearing] speaks volumes.”

The unclassified version of the State Department’s Accountability Review Board report on the incident makes no mention of the cable.

In any case, it is a bit of semantic distinction. Perhaps Stevens was relaying the thoughts of the regional security officer (RSO) — which would make Ayotte technically correct — but the crucial statement about “coordinated attack” appears to be clearly the opinion of the security officer.

And what did Clinton know about this concern? The fact is that only a handful of embassy cables are actually read by top officials at the State Department, even though technically each one is addressed to the secretary of state. The State Department, after all, is a vast organization of nearly 60,000 people located in 264 missions around the world.

Here’s how a former U.S. ambassador framed it after hundreds of cables were released by WikiLeaks:

Contrary to what [WikiLeaks founder] Julian Assange might tell you, most ambassadors do not worry that the wrong people will read their cables, but that the right people won’t. The U.S. State Department receives several million cables a year, and while most deal with mundane administrative matters, several hundred thousand report on political and economic developments. The secretary of state reads just a handful of these, and assistant secretaries read a small portion of the cables from their geographic regions. Even the desk officer might only have time to scan the post’s voluminous cable traffic.

Clinton made this point when she testified on the Benghazi attack in January, telling Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.): “Congressman, that cable did not come to my attention. I have made it very clear that the security cables did not come to my attention or above the assistant secretary level … 1.43 million cables a year come to the State Department. They are all addressed to me. They do not all come to me. They are reported through the bureaucracy.”

The Fact Checker spent nine years covering the State Department. It is a big place that moves slowly.

“The August 16th cable stated the security requests for Benghazi would be forthcoming,” Clinton told McCaul. “The RSO in Benghazi submitted to Tripoli a preliminary list of proposed security recommendations on August 23rd, but no requests were submitted to Washington before the attacks.”

Still, it turns out that one significant part of the high-level Washington bureaucracy apparently did know about the security concerns — top officials at the Defense Department. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified in February that he had heard about the concerns in the August cable via a weekly report sent to him by Gen. Carter Ham, head of U.S. Africa Command.

But, backing up the account of the slow-moving State Department bureaucracy, Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “we never received a request for support from the State Department, which would have allowed us to put forces on the ground.” He added: “General Ham actually called the embassy to see if they wanted to extend the special security team there and was told no.”

Dempsey added: “I think the internal deliberations in Tripoli were still ongoing. What I can tell you, with great confidence, is we didn’t get any request for additional security.”

At the hearing, Ayotte asked Dempsey and then Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta whether they had ever brought the cable to Clinton’s attention. Panetta suggested the cable might not have been out of the ordinary, noting that the National Counterterrorism Center “had identified almost 281 facilities that were under a threat of one kind or another. And to deal with that, I mean, that’s not our responsibility, that’s the State Department’s responsibility.”

In response to questions from Ayotte, both Panetta and Dempsey said they did not bring the cable either to the attention of Clinton or President Obama.

Still, Dempsey, under aggressive questioning from Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), conceded that “I would call myself surprised that she didn’t” know about it.

The Accountability Review Board placed the blame at levels below Clinton: “Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department (the “Department”) resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”

“Senator Ayotte was stating her opinion that Secretary Clinton’s explanation of why she didn’t know about the cable was unsatisfactory, given two previous attacks on the diplomatic facility in Benghazi, a rapidly deteriorating situation in eastern Libya, and the fact that the British and Red Cross had closed their facilities,” Johnson said. “Secretary Clinton’s testimony that she simply didn’t know about the cable was especially unsatisfactory, seeing as Secretary Panetta and Chairman Dempsey testified that they were aware of the August cable. “

The Pinocchio Test

Without access to the actual cable, it’s difficult to determine whether this was a routine reporting cable — which explains the sluggish State Department response — or if Stevens himself drafted the cable and expected more immediate action. From the testimony of both Clinton and Dempsey, it appears key decisions about what sort of additional security was needed were still pending in Tripoli — where Stevens was in charge.

Still, it is certainly interesting that defense officials say they appeared more aware of the security situation at U.S. diplomatic facilities than the secretary of state. That either says something about Clinton’s management style — or about more efficient communications within DOD.

In any case, we find ourselves checking an opinion. Ayotte does appear to be skating close to the edge in attributing what appear to be the comments of the regional security officer to the ambassador. But that’s not enough for a Pinocchio. So, for now, we will not issue a rating.

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