The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Hillary Clinton a ‘liar’ on Benghazi?

Sen. Marco Rubio attacked the media, suggesting it had covered up the fact that the Benghazi hearings had unmasked Hillary Clinton as a “liar.” (Video: CNBC)

“Last week, Hillary Clinton went before a committee. She admitted she had sent e-mails to her family saying, ‘Hey, this attack at Benghazi was caused by Al Qaida-like elements.’ She spent over a week telling the families of those victims and the American people that it was because of a video. And yet the mainstream media is going around saying it was the greatest week in Hillary Clinton’s campaign.  It was the week she got exposed as a liar.”

— Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), remarks at the GOP presidential debate hosted by CNBC, Oct. 28. 2015

These were pretty strong words uttered by Rubio at the third GOP debate, and they give us an opportunity to explore what was said by then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in the week after the 2012 attacks in Benghazi that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador.

Republicans have charged that, because of the pending 2012 election, the Obama administration deliberately played down the possibility of a terrorist attack, emphasizing instead that the incident started as a protest against an anti-Muslim video posted on You Tube. In our timeline on the administration’s statements, we found that in particular President Obama appeared reluctant to use the phrase “terrorist attack.”

New e-mails disclosed by the House Select Committee on Benghazi were among the most newsworthy elements at the 11-hour hearing on Oct. 22 featuring Clinton. But a review of Clinton’s public statements indicates that she was generally careful to separate remarks about the attack and the protests. However, there may have been a different story concerning her private remarks to the families of the victims, according to recent interviews.

In her testimony, Clinton attributed any shifting emphasis on to what might be called the “fog of war”— information was fragmentary and disjointed, changing hour by hour.

The House Intelligence Committee, in its 2014 report on the incident, said “there was a stream of contradictory and conflicting intelligence that came in after the attacks.”

The CIA’s deputy director, Michael Morell, testified that the first time he learned there had not been a protest at the diplomatic facility was after receiving an e-mail from the Libya station chief on Sept. 15, three days after the attack. (An intelligence report from the Tripoli station making a similar observation arrived on Sept. 14.) Morell said the assessment “jumped out” at him because it contradicted the views of CIA analysts in Washington that the attacks were inspired by the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo (which had been spurred by the video).

(Morell’s testimony contradicts Rubio’s claim on CNN on Oct. 29, the morning after the debate, that “there was never a shred of evidence presented to anyone that this was spontaneous. And the CIA understood that.” On CBS, Rubio also claimed that it was “not accurate” that the CIA changed its assessment, which is also wrong.)

Ironically, the CIA’s initial Sept. 12 executive update stated that “this was an intentional assault and not the escalation of a peaceful protest.” But because the report had no intelligence to support it, that language was dropped as analysts developed a theory about a protest, the House panel report said.

In all, CIA analysts received 21 reports that a protest occurred in Benghazi, both from the media and inside the intelligence community. The Washington Post even had a front-page story on Sept. 12 about a protest preceding the attack, quoting among others, the Libyan deputy interior minister.

Amazingly, the CIA analysts did not gain access to eyewitness accounts until Sept. 22, when the FBI first published an intelligence report on its interviews.

The intelligence community “only changed its initial assessment about a protest on September 24, 2012, when closed caption television footage became available on September 18, 2012 (two days after Ambassador Susan Rice spoke), and after the FBI began publishing its interviews with U.S. officials on the ground on September 22, 2012,” the House report said.

A similar conclusion was reached by the Senate Intelligence Committee (of which Rubio is a member) in its report on Benghazi: “Intelligence analysts inaccurately referred to the presence of a protest at the Mission facility before the attack based on open source information and limited intelligence, without sufficient intelligence or eyewitness statements to corroborate that assertion. The IC took too long to correct these erroneous reports, which caused confusion and influenced the public statements.”

In an article published in Politico in 2015, Morell wrote:

“We believe that in Benghazi—over six hundred miles away—extremists heard about the successful assault on our embassy in Egypt and decided to make some trouble of their own, although we still do not know their motivations with certainty. Most likely they were inspired by the prospect of doing in Benghazi what their ‘brothers’ had done in Cairo. . . . Still others might have been motivated by the video—although I should note that our analysts never said the video was a factor in the Benghazi attacks. Abu Khattala, a terrorist leader and possibly one of the ring leaders of the attacks, said that he was in fact motivated by the video.”

Hillary Clinton’s statements

10:08 p.m., Sept. 11, press statement:

“I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today. As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack.
“Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”

11:12 p.m., Sept. 11, e-mail to her daughter, Chelsea Clinton:

“Two of our officers were killed in Benghazi by an al Qaeda-like group. . . . Very hard day and I fear more of the same.”

Sept. 12, e-mail recounting phone conversation with Egyptian foreign minister:

“We know that the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack—not a protest. . . . Based on the information we saw today we believe the group that claimed responsibility for this was affiliated with al Qaeda.”

Sept. 13, public remarks with Moroccan foreign minister on Sept. 13, in which the attack in Benghazi is also briefly mentioned:

“I also want to take a moment to address the video circulating on the Internet that has led to these protests in a number of countries. Let me state very clearly – and I hope it is obvious – that the United States Government had absolutely nothing to do with this video. We absolutely reject its content and message.   America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. And as you know, we are home to people of all religions, many of whom came to this country seeking the right to exercise their own religion, including, of course, millions of Muslims. And we have the greatest respect for people of faith.”

Sept. 14, remarks at transfer of remains ceremony:

“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.”

Looking at Clinton’s public statements, it is clear she was very careful to keep the attacks separate from the video; the two incidents do not appear in the same sentence (unlike the controversial televised remarks by then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice).

For instance, in her Sept. 14 remarks, Clinton devotes one sentence to the “heavy assault” in Benghazi and then another sentence about the “rage and violence” over the “awful Internet video.” She does not say they are connected, although listeners may have gotten that impression.

Speaking before the Benghazi committee, Clinton explained that her private remarks reflected the fragmentary information that was available at the time. “We were not making up the intelligence,” she said. “We were trying to get it, make sense of it, and then to share it.”

She added: “When I was speaking to the Egyptian prime minister or in the other two examples you showed, we had been told by Ansar al-Sharia that they took credit for it. It wasn’t until about 24 or more hours later, that they retracted taking credit for it.”

Clinton also said she was reacting to the continuing turmoil in the region over the video, which resulted in 40 protests around the globe. “I needed to be talking about the video, because I needed to put other governments and other people on notice that we were not going to let them get away with attacking us, as they did in Tunis, is they did in Khartoum,” she said.

(Update: John Nolte of Breitbart faulted The Fact Checker for not including a reference to Clinton’s conversation with Libyan president and a State Department notice that Ansar al-Sharia had claimed credit, both of which took place before the issuance of the 10:08 statement. We are not sure what this adds to the picture. Ansar al-Sharia within 24 hours withdrew its claim of credit. Meanwhile, State could not ignore the fact that the video had generated an attack of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.)

(Mark Hemingway of the Weekly Standard offered another critique of this fact check.)

However, Rubio also said that Clinton spoke about the video to the families of the victims. Several family members have asserted this is true.

Charles Woods, the father of Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, told Fox News: “I gave Hillary a hug and shook her hand and she said, ‘We are going to have the filmmaker arrested who was responsible for the death of your son,'” Woods said, reading the account from his journal.

Kate Quigley, sister of Glen Doherty, told CNN:

“I met her when we were at Andrews Air Force base. She spoke to my family about how sad we should feel for the Libyan people because they are uneducated, and that breeds fear, which breeds violence, and leads to a protest. . . . When I think back now to that day and what she knew, you know,  it shows me a lot about her character that she would choose in that moment to basically perpetuate what she knew was untrue.”

It’s hard to reconcile these statements by the relatives with the careful phrasing Clinton used in public. (Update: Please read our follow-up column in which we interviewed more family members about what they heard from Clinton.)

The Rubio campaign did not respond to a query. Josh Schwerin, a Clinton spokesman, said, “Rubio’s statement that she ever said the video was the cause is false.”

The Pinocchio Test

Focusing just on the public statements made by Clinton — as opposed to the rest of the administration — one find little support for Rubio’s claim that Clinton told the American people that the attacks were because of a video. She certainly spoke about the video, but always in the context of the protests that were occurring across the Middle East.

As the nation’s chief diplomat, Clinton had a responsibility to be precise and careful in her public statements. One could imagine she would be less guarded in private, referring to claims by an al-Qaeda group even before an official CIA assessment. Rubio is wrong when he says the CIA assessment did not change, given that a Senate report he signed documented that the CIA assessment changed several times and was not set in stone until more than 10 days after the attacks.

Yet family members say that Clinton, when meeting with them in private, emphasized the role of the video when they met her at the transfer of remains ceremony. This was on Sept. 14, after Ansar al-Sharia retracted taking credit for the attack and before the officials at CIA headquarters had analyzed the report from the Tripoli mission chief that there was no protest at the diplomatic compound.

Can Rubio really attribute this to a “lie” rather than the fog of war? A “lie” suggests a deliberate effort to deceive, while the documentary evidence suggests there were few hard answers available then to policymakers. Even the Senate report signed by Rubio says the reports from the intelligence community “caused confusion and influenced the public statements” of policymakers.

Rubio is certainly within his rights to point out Clinton’s contradictory statements — and the remarks of the family members give us pause — but he does not have enough evidence to label Clinton a liar.

Two Pinocchios

(About our rating scale)

Send us facts to check by filling out this form

Follow The Fact Checker on Twitter and friend us on Facebook

The Benghazi hearing’s eight most heated exchanges

WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 22: Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and Co Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-MD) argue while former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC Thursday October 22, 2015. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)