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Bill Clinton’s strained comparison of diplomatic deaths in different administrations



“When ten different instances occurred when President Bush was in office where American diplomatic personnel were killed around the world, how many outraged Republican members of Congress were there? Zero.”

–Former president Bill Clinton, interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” June 29, 2014

Republicans have held numerous hearings over the 2012 attacks on a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, which left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador. Former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton has been a frequent target of those hearings, and her husband clearly is irritated by the attention.

What’s he talking about when he refers to “ten different instances”—and is this a relevant comparison?

The Facts

The former president relied on the list of names on the memorial plaques maintained on the first floor of the State Department by the American Foreign Service Organization. There are 10 names from the period of George W. Bush’s presidency:

1. Barbara Green, an employee at the U.S. Embassy in Islamabad, killed in a hand grenade attack on a church, 2002.

2. Laurence Foley, a U.S. Agency for International Development official, shot dead outside his home in Amman, Jordan, 2002.

3. Edward Seitz, diplomatic security officer, killed in a rocket attack on a U.S. military base near the Baghdad airport, 2004

4. Jim Mollen, the U.S. Embassy’s consultant to Iraq’s education ministry, shot dead while driving in Baghdad, 2004.

5. Barbara Heald, an Army civilian, killed in Iraq during a rocket attack on the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, 2005.

6. Keith Taylor, a Navy commander, killed in the same rocket attack as Heald, 2005.

7. Stephen E. Sullivan, a diplomatic security agent, killed in a bomb explosion in Mosul, Iraq, 2005.

8. David Foy, facilities maintenance officer at the U.S. Consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, killed in a suicide bomb attack in his car near the consulate, 2006.

9. Steven Stefani IV, Forest Service employee, killed in bomb explosion in Afghanistan, 2007.

10. John Granville, a USAID official, shot dead in his car while returning from a New Year’s Eve party at the British Embassy in Khartoum, Sudan, 2008.

Going down the list, one can see that three of the victims are not actually “diplomatic personnel,” but worked for the Army, Navy or the Forest Service. But they are on the AFSA plaque so perhaps that’s a debatable point. Two of the deaths resulted from the same attack, so the number of “instances” total nine, not 10.

But that’s obviously a bit nitpicky. There are two larger questions to consider: Were there actually “zero” Republicans who expressed outrage? And is this even a relevant comparison?

We reviewed the news clips concerning these deaths. As mostly one-off incidents, they generally did not inspire much commentary beyond homage for the dead.

But Green’s death in a Pakistani church did prompt a congressional investigation and also resulted in a Government Accountability Office report that said the State Department had inadequate safeguards to protect officials when they were outside the embassy perimeter, such as in houses of worship.  “Despite recommendations by several panels since the late 1980’s, programs to enhance security outside the embassy walls remain a porous patchwork,” said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), who presided over the hearing into the matter.

So Clinton is clearly wrong when he claims that “zero” Republicans were outraged about the attacks during the Bush presidency.

The other question is whether Clinton is comparing apples and oranges. He compares Benghazi to “ten different instances” during Bush’s presidency. Benghazi was a single event—an attack on a diplomatic post in which four Americans died. Most of the deaths during Bush’s presidency took place away from the embassy grounds.

Moreover, to make an apples-to-apples comparison, one must look at all deaths from attacks during Obama’s presidency. Besides the four killed in Benghazi (Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith, CIA operatives Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods), these are names on the memorial plaque who did not die overseas from natural causes (heart attack) or events such as an earthquake or car accident:

5. Terrence Barnich, deputy director of the State Department office that oversees U.S. reconstruction projects, killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq, 2009. (A Defense Department official working in the U.S. Embassy was also killed in the same attack, but there is no name on the plaque.)

6. Brian Daniel Adkins, Foreign Service officer, murdered in his home, Ethiopia, 2009.

7. Ragaei Abdelfattah, USAID officer, killed in suicide bomb attack in Afghanistan, 2012

8. Anne T. Smedinghoff, State Department official, killed in terrorist attack in Afghanistan, 2013

So that adds up to at least eight dead in five instances. At this point in Bush’s presidency, there was also eight dead, in seven different instances, as two of the deaths took place in the later half of Bush’s second term.

Matt McKenna, a spokesman for the former president, issued the following statement: “What’s most important is we learn from these losses rather than use them to score cheap political points or as a vehicle for gotcha journalism, as you’re doing today.”

The Pinocchio Test

In service of a dubious comparison, Clinton exaggerated when he claimed that there was “zero” Republican outrage about the deaths of Americans under Bush’s watch.

At least one of the deaths led to congressional hearings and a government report. That’s not the same level of attention as the myriad Benghazi probes, but it is more than zero. Moreover, in making his claim, Clinton ignores the similar one-off attacks that have killed diplomatic personnel during Obama’s presidency, making it an unbalanced comparison.

Two Pinocchios


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Glenn Kessler has reported on domestic and foreign policy for more than three decades. He would like your help in keeping an eye on public figures. Send him statements to fact check by emailing him, tweeting at him, or sending him a message on Facebook.

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