George Stephanopoulos: “Another challenge you could face in this campaign, a majority of Americans question your honesty. Some GOP rivals and family members of the Benghazi victims are saying you lied to them in that hearing…. The family members, as you know, say you told them it was by a filmmaker, you’d go after the filmmaker…. Did you tell them it was not the film? And what’s your response?”
Hillary Clinton: “No. You know, look I understand the continuing grief at the loss that parents experienced with the loss of these four brave Americans. And I did testify, as you know, for 11 hours. And I answered all of these questions.”
— exchange on ABC’s “This Week,” Dec. 6, 2015
Conway (N.H.) Daily Sun columnist Tom McLaughlin: “Somebody is lying. Who is it?”
Clinton: “Not me, that’s all I can tell you…. I can’t recite for you everything that was in a conversation where people were sobbing, where people were distraught, the president and the vice president, we were all making the rounds talking to people, listening to people. I was in a very difficult position because we have not yet said two of the four dead were CIA…. This was a part of the fog of war.”
— exchange at editorial board interview, Dec. 29
The Fact Checker previously looked into allegations that Hillary Clinton had told two stories after the 2012 Benghazi attacks that left four Americans dead — a private one that it was a terrorist attack and the public one that blamed Muslim outrage over a YouTube video. The evidence was mixed, open to interpretation, but we concluded that there was not enough for GOP rivals to make definitive judgments that she lied.
The Clinton campaign at the time declined to discuss Clinton’s statements to family members at the transfer of remains ceremony held at Joint Base Andrews on Sept. 14, 2012. But on Dec. 6, George Stephanopoulus directly asked the question. Clinton rejected the claim of some family members that she had blamed the video in private conversations. Then, she did so again in an interview with the editorial board of the Conway Daily News a few weeks later.
Many readers asked that we take a look again at the evidence. The debate is sure to become even more heated with the release in January of a major Hollywood film, “13 Hours,” that recounts the Benghazi attacks.
This is obviously a difficult issue to fact check. The conversations were not recorded — and took place more than three years ago. Memories, especially of conversations, have a way of shifting over time. Few people ever agree exactly what was said — or even who said what.
Although the families of the victims have been bound in grief, there are also tensions among them. Some vehemently dispute what others have said publicly — and accuse them of helping to politicize the tragedy. Yet even some who say a video was not discussed are disturbed by information that has been uncovered by congressional investigators, such as Clinton’s email to her daughter on the night of the attack that “an al-Qaeda-like group” was responsible for the attacks.
So we decided to review as many transcripts of interviews as we could find and to track down as many family members as possible to answer a simple question: What exactly did Hillary Clinton — and other administration officials — say that day at Joint Base Andrews?
(Not every family member agreed to be interviewed. The Clinton campaign declined to comment.)
To set the stage, let’s first recall what Clinton said in her public remarks at the solemn ceremony with four flag-draped caskets:
“This has been a difficult week for the State Department and for our country. We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with. It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless, and it is totally unacceptable.”
Note that Clinton devotes one sentence to the “heavy assault” in Benghazi and then another sentence about the “rage and violence” over the “awful Internet video.” (The video resulted in 40 protests around the world.) She does not say they are connected, although we agree that listeners may have gotten that impression.
But what’s really in dispute is what was said behind closed doors, in a private reception held in a comfortable room. Family members, huddled in four groups, were not told they would have a private session with administration officials until suddenly President Obama appeared.
“In walked President Obama,” said Barbara Doherty, the mother of former Navy SEAL Glen Doherty. “I was overwhelmed he was there, and I started to cry.”
The surviving family members basically fall into three camps: Clinton talked about the video; Clinton said something odd; Clinton never mentioned the video.
By contrast, in interviews, family members generally are consistent about other administration officials. Obama is depicted as somber and somewhat awkward. Vice President Biden is seen as empathetic, referencing his own loss of a wife and child, and also a jokester who lightened the mood and made people laugh.
But the portrait of Clinton is sharply divided.
Clinton spoke about the video
The two family members who say that Clinton spoke about a video are Patricia Smith, the mother of State Department information specialist Sean Smith, and Charles Woods, the father of former Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods. They have appeared often on conservative-leaning radio shows and televisions programs, with Smith even saying, “I believe that Obama murdered my son.” (She said that “reporting by Fox News is the basis for much of her belief that Obama is ultimately responsible for her son’s death,” the San Diego Union-Tribune reported.)
In October 2012, Smith told CNN that then-U.N. ambassador Susan Rice said at the private meeting that the attack took place because of a video. “She talked to me personally and she said, she said, this is the way it was. It was — it was because of this film that came out,” she said. She also mentioned Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. “He said, ‘Trust me. I will tell you what happened.’ And so far, he’s told me nothing. Nothing at all,” she said.
In 2013, in testimony to the House Government Affairs Committee, Smith said every prominent administration official at the event blamed the attack on a video: “Obama and Hillary and Panetta and Biden and Susan all came up to me at the casket ceremony. Every one of them came up to me, gave me a big hug and I asked them what happened, please tell me. And every one of them said, it was the video. And we all know that it wasn’t the video, even at that time they knew it wasn’t the video. So they all lied to me.”
In an interview with The Fact Checker, Smith reiterated her statement that every administration official made this comment. “I’d ask, tell me what happened, and they all said it was the video, including Obama. I had never seen this video. All they said was it was the video that did this. I was walking from one to another, and they all said the same thing.”
In contrast, Woods has pinned the video reference entirely on Clinton — and says he has the notes to prove it. He said that after he returned to his hotel room at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, he pulled out his pocket-sized at-a-glance calendar and jotted down the following sentence: “I gave Hillary a hug and shook her hand, and she said we are going to have the film maker arrested who was responsible for the death of my son.”
A photograph is below:
He said the entry is written on Sept. 15 because the day above it has other notes, including phone numbers of other family members that he did not want displayed. He said one notation reads: “6 am: Ty killed in Benghazi working for the State Dept.”
“Obama just said I’m sorry,” Woods recalled. “Joe Biden, he mentioned he went through something similar.” (Later, he said, Biden called out in a booming voice, “I heard your son always had balls the size of cue balls.”)
But Clinton, he said, did not offer any type of condolence but instead straight-up referenced the video. He said he wrote down the statement because he thought it was so strange that she would immediately talk about taking legal action, before the facts were apparent.
(Note: Mark Basseley Youssef, the filmmaker behind “Innocence of Muslims,” in 2012 was sentenced to a year in prison for violating the terms of his release from an earlier conviction.)
“I guess she thought it was going to make me feel better,” he said. “It offended me. This is not the way an attorney ethically is supposed to act…. I had never heard about a video in Libya. Did I even know what they are referring to? I don’t recall.”
Woods first publicly described this encounter with Clinton on the Lars Larson Show on Oct. 23, 2012, when he called in to the conservative-leaning radio program upset over Fox News reporting that suggested that White House officials had watched the attack unfold in real time through drone videos. (That turned out to be incorrect.)
The host brought up the video, asserting that Clinton in her public remarks blamed the video as being responsible for Tyrone Woods’s death.
Woods replied: “Well, this is what Hillary did. She came over and, you know, she did the same thing. You know, separately came over and talked with me. I gave her a hug, shook her hand. And she did not appear to be one bit sincere at all, and, you know, she mentioned that thing about, ‘We’re going to have that person arrested and prosecuted that did the video.’ That was the first time I had even heard anything like that.”
At another point in the interview, Woods recounted the conversation this way: “Hillary said, ‘We’re going to go, and we’re going to take care of these people that were responsible for your son’s death.’”
Two days later, on Glenn Beck’s “The Blaze,” Woods quoted Clinton as saying: “We will make sure that the person who made that film is arrested and prosecuted.”
Clinton said something odd
Kate Quigley, the sister of Glen Doherty, said that in her conversation with Clinton, the then-secretary of state made no mention of a video, but did refer to a “spontaneous protest.”
“She said we had to be sorry for the Libyan people because they are uneducated, and that breeds fear, which breeds violence, and leads to spontaneous protests and acts of violence,” Quigley said in an interview with The Fact Checker. “The point was that it was not a planned thing; it just happened.”
Quigley said that “it seemed strange to tell us to have sympathy for the Libyan people. It really struck me as my heart was breaking.”
There was another moment at the reception that Quigley remembered with clarity. Ali Aujali, the Libyan ambassador, “leaned into me and said, ‘We are going to get the people responsible for this attack.’ It was the first time anyone had said that to me. I so needed to hear that. Nobody else took that line at all. It was so refreshing at that moment, so much what I wanted to hear.”
(Woods, in his Lars Larson interview, also mentioned that he had met a Libyan official: “I’m not mad at anyone, so it’s not a matter of revenge or anything like that. You know, Hillary said, ‘We’re going to go, and we’re going to take care of these people that were responsible for your son’s death.’ You know, like I told the Libyan — I think it was the president that was there in the hangar — total forgiveness.” )
Clinton did not mention a video
None of the other family members who agreed to be interviewed said Clinton made any reference to a video. Indeed, other family members have been puzzled by the confident assertions of Woods and Smith.
“It was absolutely never mentioned, and it is totally new to me,” said Jan Stevens, the father of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens. “She gave us her sympathy. We had a great deal of talk about the problems of the world, the college her daughter attended. It was very small talk, nothing substantive.”
Barbara Doherty, the mother of Glen Doherty, recalled that Clinton “was very sincere, I remember her crying.” Clinton spoke to family members individually, she said. “She had just come back from Africa and talked about the women there and the conditions they were under,” Doherty said. “It was not political at all. That would have been totally inappropriate. That did not happen.” (Clinton had spent 11 days in Africa just four weeks before the attacks.)
Cheryl Croft Bennett, Tyrone Woods’s mother, told The Fact Checker that Clinton did not mention a video in her conversation with her. Bennett referred to comments that she had previously posted on Facebook about the event 16 days after the attacks, recounting how administration officials were “extremely compassionate and genuinely sad for my loss, as I fought back tears and tried to project an image of strength to honor my SEAL son:”
“While squeezing Secretary Clinton’s hand and choking back tears, I told her that what worried me was that my son died possibly thinking that he had failed in the mission he was to carry out, that of protecting Ambassador Stevens and the people in the compound.
“Looking me firmly in the eye, she told me that my son did not fail. She called him a hero and that if not for him, the 30 people inside the consulate would not have made it out. He was doing his job, fighting for his life, putting others ahead of his own safety, but then that was his job, which he did well.”
The Pinocchio Test
Every person we interviewed appeared sincere about recounting what they remember they had heard.
Even with the sharply different versions, one can see that elements of the recollections overlap. Someone — the Libyan ambassador or Clinton or both — said the people responsible would be prosecuted. Clinton spoke about conditions in Africa, but in one instance the memory is more directly related to the attack.
Clinton says that in speaking with the families, she did not blame the Benghazi attacks on the video. Most participants we interviewed (four out of six) back up her version, saying they do not recall her mentioning a video.
Perhaps it all started with a comment made by Rice (who two days later would famously go on national television and make a direct link between the video and the attack, thus spoiling her chance to become secretary of state). Perhaps the question of who said what at what moment got jumbled over time. Or perhaps Clinton mentioned the video privately to just two people — and not to others.
Clearly we cannot come to a resolution that would be beyond dispute. Readers will have to come to their own conclusions based on the evidence we have assembled. (Any family members who could not be located are welcome to contact The Fact Checker, and we will update with their recollections.)
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