Remember the scandal of “the 16 words”? If you do, you’ve probably been inside the Beltway too long, literally or figuratively. If not, the quick version is this: A former ambassador named Joseph C. Wilson IV charged in 2003 that President George W. Bush had included in his State of the Union address a (16-word) allegation about Iraq that his top aides knew to be false — that Saddam Hussein had sought to purchase uranium from Niger. Wilson then amped up the ensuing partisan uproar by claiming there had been a White House conspiracy to punish him by deliberately blowing the cover of his CIA wife.

Most of what Wilson said was later proved to be grossly exaggerated, or simply false. But that didn’t stop Democrats and partisan media from devoting years to conspiracy-spinning and attempts to pin political and criminal responsibility on Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney or Karl Rove. Blustered Wilson: “It’s of keen interest to me to see whether or not we can get Karl Rove frog-marched out of the White House in handcuffs.”

A decade later, we have the right’s answer to Joe Wilson: Benghazi. Once again the obsessive focus is on a public statement — this time by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who appeared on news programs five days after the armed attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya last Sept. 11 and said that it had grown out of a demonstration against an anti-Muslim video. Again the theory is that this assertion was the product of a high-level conspiracy to twist the truth. Last week Republicans produced their own Wilsonesque figure: former Tripoli deputy chief of mission Gregory Hicks, who claimed he was punished after he questioned Rice’s words.

The common thread here is not just the climate of intense partisanship in which media and politicians from the left dismiss what the right insists is a scandal of historic proportions — or vice-versa. It is the diversion of what should be serious, bipartisan discussion about government failings. The Bush administration, after all, did wrongly conclude that Iraq was hiding chemical weapons and trying to revive its nuclear program. For its part the Obama administration didn’t provide enough security to the Libya mission or adequately prepare for an emergency in post-revolution North Africa.

Yet Wilson did not prompt a serious discussion of why U.S. intelligence about Iraq was wrong; instead, the debate was about those 16 words, whether Wilson was truthful in saying he had debunked them before they were spoken, and whether he and his wife were the victims of a vendetta. (He wasn’t and they weren’t, but that’s an old story). Now, instead of examining how the Obama administration handled post-revolution Libya, we are debating whether Rice, Hillary Clinton and President Obama deliberately lied about the nature of the “terror attack” in Benghazi.

Ann Telnaes animation: What’s really behind the Benghazi furor (Ann Telnaes/The Washington Post)

Some of those who denounced the Wilson-inspired witch hunt are now repeating its tactics. First they focused on Rice, who was a leading candidate to be secretary of state before 97 House Republicans released a letter asserting that she “willfully or incompetently misled the American public.” When it became irrefutable that Rice had simply delivered a consensus estimate prepared by the intelligence community, the scandal-mongers shifted to how her “talking points” had supposedly been doctored by Clinton or White House political henchmen.

An investigation by House Republicans and reports in the Weekly Standard and ABC News purport to show how the talking points were edited over several drafts to remove references to the extremist militia Ansar al-Sharia and previous attacks in Benghazi. But this was not a cover-up. Instead, the changes were mainly the product of interagency tensions: State thought the CIA, which was mainly responsible for the Benghazi mission, was preempting an FBI investigation and trying to shift blame for the fiasco.

Meanwhile, by the ABC account, every draft of the talking points says that the attacks “were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault . . .” That’s what Rice said. It might have been wrong, but it was the intelligence assessment at the time. So what, exactly, is the scandal?

To be fair, the House Republican investigation of Benghazi also addresses the more substantive issues of the State Department’s failure to adequately secure its Benghazi facilities and Obama’s lack of “a credible national security posture in the region.” Some of those same points were made by State’s independent review board; many Democrats might agree with them. A constructive discussion is there to be had. Instead, we have more bickering over words — and more dreams of frog-marching White House staffers in handcuffs.

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