This post has been updated.
Sometimes a dastardly conspiracy is just a dastardly conspiracy. Indeed the Benghazi episode, at least the response to the attack, is beginning to look more and more like the work of a partisan cabal afraid of upsetting the president’s reelection prospects, exactly as conservative critics have been saying for two months.
House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) is providing a glimpse of what occurred in hearings today in which former CIA director David Petraeus testified: Fox News reports:
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., who spoke to reporters after Petraeus testified before the House Intelligence Committee, indicated he and other lawmakers still have plenty of questions about the aftermath of the attack.
“No one knows yet exactly who came up with the final version of the talking points,” he said.
Petraeus was heading next to the Senate Intelligence Committee to testify. At the same time, lawmakers unexpectedly convened a briefing with top members of various committees to examine a Sept. 25 letter to President Obama that asked a series of classified questions on Benghazi.
Petraeus’ testimony both challenges the Obama administration’s repeated claims that the attack was a “spontaneous” protest over an anti-Islam video, and according to King conflicts with his own briefing to lawmakers on Sept. 14. Sources have said Petraeus, in that briefing, also described the attack as a protest that spun out of control.
“His testimony today was that from the start, he had told us that this was a terrorist attack,” King said, adding that he told Petraeus he had a “different recollection.”
Still, the claim that the CIA’s original talking points were changed is sure to stoke controversy on the Hill.
“The original talking points were much more specific about Al Qaeda involvement. And yet the final ones just said indications of extremists,” King said, adding that the final version was the product of a vague “inter-agency process.”
Further, King said a CIA analyst specifically told lawmakers that the Al Qaeda affiliates line “was taken out.”
Watergate had the tape with the 18 1/2-minute gap, and now we have the mystery of the talking points. This raises a slew of questions including these:
* If they were changed, who changed them?
* Why were they changed?
* Did the president know or approve of the changes?
* If Petraeus saw that they were changed, why did he not come forward sooner?
* If other senior officials were aware of the change in story, why didn’t they alert others, Congress or the American people?
* What was national security adviser Thomas Donilon’s role in this?
* Did U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice have access to the original talking points and/or was she aware they had been changed?
* If she didn’t know anything other than the talking points and had no operational responsibility for Benghazi, what was she doing on the talk-show circuit on Sept. 16?
* What information did the secretary of state have and when did she have it. If she, like Petraeus, knew what the real origin of the attack was, why weren’t she and her press staff being more forthright with the public?
* Fox reports that Petraeus’s agency “determined immediately that ‘Al Qaeda involvement’ was suspected.” If the CIA knew immediately that it was a terrorist attack, why did the White House press secretary insist on Sept. 14 it was all about the anti-Muslim video? Why did the president take the same approach in interviews with Univision and “60 Minutes”?
Keep in mind the aftermath of Benghazi is only one aspect of the Benghazi debacle. Other important areas to explore are why the White House was seemingly unaware of the deteriorating security situation in Libya and whether our “delay and then lead-from-behind” strategy left us without accurate intelligence and allowed jihadists a running start in Libya (not to mention Syria, Mali, Yemen and elsewhere).
Frankly until Congress gets to the bottom of this, no one in the administration should be slotted into any new senior national security office. Maybe Rice was an innocent dupe, but we dare not reward her for insufficient curiosity or elevate any other officials if they were involved in misdeeds or demonstrated gross incompetence. And if White House officials are implicated in intentional dishonesty (or just plain cluelessness), they should step down as well.
The good news for the president is that all the current national security slots are filled (albeit the CIA’s by an acting chief). Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has generously agreed to stay on, which she should, until a replacement can be found. In this case, that should follow a full accounting of the Benghazi fiasco.