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Fact-checking the Benghazi attacks

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) is leading the House committee investigating the 2012 attacks in Benghazi. Here are some of Gowdy's most memorable comments on the aftermath of the attacks. (Video: Jackie Kucinich/TWP)

“Your viewers would still have the same unanswered questions as we have. Why our security profile was so low on the anniversary 9/11? Why we didn’t have any assets moving during the siege itself and why the government can’t be trusted to answer your questions completely and accurately in the aftermath?”

— Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), Fox News interview, May 5, 2013

In the National Journal recently, columnist Ron Fournier put it bluntly: “Everyone’s Lying to You About Benghazi.” He said Americans were faced with a choice of two evils — White House spin and GOP conspiracy theories. Having examined this issue repeatedly since it first burst into the news, The Fact Checker could not agree more. Neither side has covered itself with glory here.

With all due respect to Rep. Gowdy, the chairman of the new select House committee on the Benghazi attacks, many of the questions he posed have already been answered — and fact-checked. Meanwhile, the White House has done itself no favors with aggressive spin on the issue.

As a reader service, we present in chronological order all 14 fact checks we have done on the 2012 tragedy in Libya, in which four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, were killed on and just after the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. We have completed five fact checks of Republican statements, four fact checks of Democratic claims and five neutral or analytic examinations of the issue.

Partisans on both sides will find something they like — or dislike. The Fact Checker drew immediate attention to the factual lapses in Susan Rice’s now-controversial appearance on the Sunday talk shows immediately after the attacks. We also compiled an extensive timeline of administration statements that demonstrated how long the White House, in the midst of a campaign season, tried to avoid calling the attacks terrorism. We also pounced on many unsubstantiated claims by Republicans, including the statements that Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had thwarted the movement of Defense Department assets or had denied security for the Benghazi facility.

Reviewing these columns, the pattern is fairly clear: rhetorical overreach by Republicans; give-no-quarter spin from Democrats. As always, The Fact Checker welcomes suggestions from readers for additional Benghazi claims to fact-check.

Click on the headline to read the full column.

The Romney campaign’s repeated errors on the Cairo embassy statement

Sept. 13, 2012: Few may remember but the initial controversy about Benghazi was a tweet issued by the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. The Mitt Romney campaign seized on the tweet as an apparent apology to extremists before all the facts were known about what had happened in Libya. In its rush to jump on the fast-moving story, the Romney campaign badly conflated the two things — and then made itself the focus of attention, instead of the administration’s policies or its handling of the crisis. The Romney campaign earned Three Pinocchios.

Was the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya planned?

Sept. 17, 2012: Then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice earned an instant Two Pinocchios for her statements on the Sunday news shows, arguing that “extremist elements” had joined in what she called a demonstration that began “spontaneously” in response to another demonstration in Cairo “sparked by this hateful video.” As we put it: “The administration obviously wants to play down the possibility of a planned attack because that would raise broader questions about whether U.S. intelligence and embassy security in Libya were adequate. But Rice’s comments strain credulity, especially after Libya’s president declared without a doubt that the attack was planned.” Administration officials sharply disputed these conclusions, especially the awarding of any Pinocchios. But the gap between Rice’s statements and other information publicly available at the time made a Pinocchio rating appropriate. Over time, Rice’s remarks that Sunday, five days after the attack, would come back to haunt the administration.

From video to terrorist attack: a definitive timeline of administration statements on the Libya attack

Sept. 27, 2012:  The Fact Checker compiled the first detailed timeline showing how administration statements had evolved on the Benghazi incident. For political reasons, it was in the White House’s interest to not portray the attacks as a terrorist incident, especially one that took place on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Instead, the administration kept the focus on what was ultimately proved to be a political red herring — anger in the Arab world over an anti-Muslim video posted on YouTube. With key phrases and message discipline, the administration was able to conflate an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Egypt — which apparently was prompted by the video — with the deadly assault in Benghazi.

The Obama-Romney clash over Libya

Oct. 17, 2012: The Benghazi tragedy led to one of the most memorable moments of the Obama-Romney debates. Here, we untangled their dispute over whether Obama had quickly called it a “terrorist attack.” Obama was correct that, in the day or two after the attacks, he did use phrasing such as “act of terror,” though it was vaguer than he implied in the debate. Moreover, he then dropped the phrase and for at least a week the administration pushed a narrative that characterized the attacks as a spontaneous reaction to the video, rather than terrorism. Romney, meanwhile, was correct that it took at least two weeks for Obama to forthrightly call it a terrorist attack.

McCain’s claims about Susan Rice’s comments on the Libya attack

Nov. 14, 2012: Susan Rice’s appearance on the Sunday shows began to torpedo her chances of becoming secretary of state. Here, we looked at how Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) mischaracterized Rice’s words and then assumed she should have had all the information that by November was known about the Benghazi attacks. We contrasted how McCain treated Susan Rice compared to Condoleezza Rice, whom he had defended against charges of lying about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. He earned Two Pinocchios.

Hillary Clinton and the Aug. 16 cable on Benghazi security

April 10, 2013: We dug deep into questions concerning Clinton’s knowledge of a cable relaying the concerns of the regional security officer that the diplomatic post could not be adequately defended. No Pinocchios were awarded.

Issa’s absurd claim that Clinton’s ‘signature’ means she personally approved it

April 26, 2013: Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, claimed that Clinton “outright denied security in her signature in a cable, April 2012.” Issa presented this as a “gotcha” moment, suggesting Clinton had perjured herself before Congress, but his claim relied on an absurd understanding of the word “signature.” Workers in the communications center put the secretary of state’s signature on every cable from Washington, even if the secretary happens to be on the other side of the world at the time. There is no evidence Clinton was aware of this request for additional security — or this cable. Issa earned Four Pinocchios.

The Benghazi hearings: What’s new and what’s not

May 9, 2013: We helped readers through some of the fog of charges and countercharges that emerged at the House hearings on the Benghazi incident, such as reports of a demonstration outside the diplomatic compound and what role, if any, the anti-Islam video played. A year later, it is interesting to see that one State Department e-mail written by Assistant Secretary Elizabeth Jones, which has attracted attention in recent weeks because it was released in response to a lawsuit by Judicial Watch, was read aloud at the hearing. No Pinocchios were awarded.

An alternative explanation for the Benghazi talking points: Bureaucratic knife fight

May 10, 2013: This analysis first suggested that the core reason for the evolution of the talking points was a bureaucratic battle between the CIA and the State Department. We informed readers that although the ambassador was killed, the Benghazi “consulate” was not a consulate at all but essentially a secret CIA operation which included an effort to round up shoulder-launched missiles. U.S. officials had been constrained in discussing that fact, as the administration could not publicly admit that most of the Americans in Benghazi were involved in a secret CIA effort that had not even been formally disclosed to the Libyan government. State Department officials objected to the talking points, initially drafted by the CIA, as an effort by the spy agency to pin the blame for the tragedy on the State Department. (Here’s a good explainer on the e-mails in question.)

Obama’s claim he called Benghazi an ‘act of terrorism’

May 14, 2013: The president tried to rewrite history by claiming “the day after it happened, I acknowledged that this was an act of terrorism.” But he had actually said “act of terror” in vague terms, usually wrapped in a patriotic fervor: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.” In fact, immediately after the Rose Garden statement the day after the attacks, Obama sat down with Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” and acknowledged that he had purposely avoided the using the word “terrorism.” (CBS did not release this clip until after the election.) There were other occasions when the president ducked questions about whether this was an act of terrorism. The president earned Four Pinocchios for his effort at revising history.

Barbara Boxer’s claim that GOP budgets hampered Benghazi security

May 16, 2013: Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) suggested there was not enough security in Benghazi because Republicans had cut the budget for embassy security funding. But this claim was not credible and highly partisan. Democrats had also short-changed the State Department budget (compared to presidential requests), but funding for embassy security generally had increased significantly in recent years. Moreover, over the course of many hearings into the matter, State Department officials had told Congress that a lack of funds was not an issue. Instead, security was hampered because of bureaucratic issues and management failures. In other words, given the internal failures, no amount of money for the State Department likely would have made a difference in this tragedy. Boxer earned Three Pinocchios.

The White House claim of ‘doctored e-mails … to smear the president’

May 21, 2013: White House communications chief Dan Pfeiffer claimed that Republicans “doctored” e-mails that were given to a reporter in an effort to “smear the president.” After a lengthy examination, The Fact Checker concluded that despite Pfeiffer’s claim of political skullduggery, there was little evidence that much was at play here besides imprecise wordsmithing or editing errors by journalists. Pfeiffer earned Three Pinocchios.

Has anyone been ‘fired’ because of the Benghazi attacks?

May 22, 2013: The Fact Checker looked into a claim by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that “no one had been fired” over the Benghazi affair. In December 2012, the State Department had announced that four top State Department officials were being dismissed from their posts. At the time of Paul’s remarks, the officials still were on administrative leave, a netherworld of professional limbo, as their cases were reviewed. We initially rated this as “verdict pending,” but then Paul was proved right when State announced in August (when most of Washington is away) that  the officials had been returned to active duty and would face no further disciplinary action. Paul thus ended up earning a coveted Geppetto Checkmark.

Issa’s ‘suspicions’ that Hillary Clinton told Panetta to ‘stand down’ on Benghazi

Feb. 21, 2014: During a fundraising dinner for Republicans in New Hampshire, Issa said he had “suspicions” that Secretary Clinton told Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to “stand down.” He also asked why “there was not one order given to turn on one Department of Defense asset.” But both a report by Republicans on the Armed Services Committee and a bipartisan Senate Intelligence report had found that no allegations of a “stand down” order could be substantiated. Moreover (take note, Rep. Gowdy), DOD assets were certainly moved per Panetta’s orders. One could argue the response was slow, bungled or poorly handled. But we determined Issa crossed a line when he claimed there was no response — or a deliberate effort to hinder it. Issa earned Four Pinocchios.

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