Monday, July 11, 2016

The Right-Wing Benghazi Obsession: A Shameful, Irresponsible Waste of Time

[T]he eighth investigation into the Benghazi attacks has finally issued its report, the culmination of a massive wasted effort that can only be seen as a Republican political vendetta against Hillary Clinton  . . . In essence, the panel came to the same conclusion that the previous seven investigations had reached: that while there were serious security gaps at the American consulate in Benghazi and at a separate annex run by the CIA, American forces could not have reached Benghazi in time to save the Americans. – Carol Giacomo, The New York Times, June 29, 2016
Any review of what happened in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, must begin with an understanding of some basic facts. The U.S. government manages and oversees U.S. embassies, consulates, and diplomatic facilities in virtually every country around the world, employing thousands of diplomats, Foreign Service Officers, military and intelligence personnel, and others. Many of these facilities are located in dangerous and unstable places and sometimes bad things happen. The temporary mission facility in Benghazi was but one of over 300 trouble spots in which U.S. missions were located at the time of the attack in 2012. While it is incumbent upon the government to do everything it can to protect its people and property, there are limitations on how much protection can be provided and what events can be foreseen.

Not including Iraq and Afghanistan, in the past 15 years alone, there have been approximately 21 attacks on U.S. diplomatic missions abroad, including 13 such incidents during the Bush administration (e.g., the 2008 attack on the U.S. consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, in which three people died; the 2008 attack on the American embassy in Yemen in which 10 people died). Every such incident is painful and tragic. In most of these attacks, it is likely that more could have been done to prevent or respond to them. Inevitably, more such incidents will occur in the years ahead. They are the unfortunate cost of engaging diplomatically in a dangerous world and are part of the price of being a major world power. But they should never be turned into politically-generated scandals.

As someone who has spent 18 years as a federal prosecutor and the past ten years conducting internal investigations on behalf of a global investigations firm, I have followed with interest and dismay the investigations – nine in total – into the tragic events of Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012. That night, Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in a terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate facility, a temporary mission outpost, stationed there. I have always been convinced that Benghazi was a tragedy. It was not a scandal.

Soon after the attack, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appropriately convened an internal Accountability Review Board (ARB), chaired by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Mike Mullen, to review what happened the night of the attack and make findings and recommendations in the hope that such an event would never be repeated. The ARB interviewed over 100 witnesses, reviewed thousands of pages of documents and hours of security video, and did the same things my firm would have done had we been asked to conduct the review. The ARB’s report in December 2012 criticized the State Department for several security lapses it had failed to correct in advance of the attack. The report also recommended steps the Department should take to enhance security and to prevent such events from happening again.

In essence, the State Department did what any responsible organization should do following a critical incident. It conducted a thorough review, determined what went wrong, and recommended measures to decrease the likelihood of future occurrences. To her credit, Secretary Clinton accepted full responsibility for the lapse in security that occurred that night. The State Department implemented the recommended security enhancements. Indeed, the procedures put in place since the Benghazi attacks fundamentally changed the manner in which U.S. embassies and consulates operate abroad.

In normal circumstances, that would have been the end of it. But Fox News and congressional Republicans were feverish with conspiracy theories, smarting over President Obama’s re-election, and unwilling to let what was an attack on U.S. assets located in a dangerous part of the world be treated as anything other than a chance to make political waves.

It has always been difficult for me to comprehend precisely what it was about the Benghazi incident that got a certain element of the Republican Party and the right-wing media so up in arms. That they would try to exploit it during an election year – the attack occurred less than two months before the 2012 presidential election – is disappointing, though not surprising. But that it would drag on for nearly four more years and include eight separate congressional investigations is so beyond the pale that I am at a loss as to explain this obsession.

Benghazi quickly became a right-wing code word. Initially it was all about undermining the legitimacy of President Obama and his administration. When that failed, the onus of Republican attacks eventually shifted toward undermining Hillary Clinton’s presidential election chances. First it was suggested that then UN Ambassador Susan Rice, who went on the Sunday morning talk shows five days after the attack, had intentionally misled the public about the cause of the attack, allegedly downplaying the “terrorist” nature of it. Then it was suggested that U.S. officials had intelligence of the pre-planned attack and failed to share that with personnel in Benghazi. Another suspicion concerned the widely-held belief among the conspiracy buffs that President Obama or someone in the administration had ordered would-be rescuers to “stand down” rather than head to the facility to try to rescue Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues. Republicans claimed that the President or the Secretary or both had acted with indifference to the attack and failed to adequately respond; that they lied about the attack and tried to cover-up the administration’s response. None of the allegations turned out to be true, but despite multiple investigations refuting these sordid allegations, the shrill cries of “Benghazi” continued unabated.

President Obama and Vice President Biden conferring with
national security team on the night of September 11, 2012
Only ten years before, it seemed that the nation behaved better. One year after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when nearly three thousand people died in Lower Manhattan, on a field in Pennsylvania, and along the banks of the Potomac River, President George W. Bush and both parties of Congress established an independent, bipartisan panel to examine the facts and circumstances surrounding the September 11 attacks. The 9/11 Commission reviewed more than 2.5 million pages of documents and interviewed more than 1,200 witnesses in ten countries. It held 19 days of hearings and took public testimony from 160 witnesses. The panel sought at all times to remain independent, impartial, and nonpartisan. The findings and recommendations of The 9/11 Commission Report were immediately accepted as a credible and unbiased effort to understand what happened and to safeguard the nation against future attacks.

Now consider how the Republican Congress handled the events of Benghazi. Ever since four Americans died in the attack on the temporary mission compound in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, there has been one congressional investigation after another and nearly four years of wild and unsubstantiated partisan accusations; millions of dollars wasted on what can only be considered a political witch hunt. And yet, the Republican-controlled investigations have mostly come to similar conclusions – that while there were shortcomings in the pre-attack intelligence and the security of the U.S. facility in Benghazi, there was no official wrongdoing, no stand down orders and no cover-up.  

The eighth and (hopefully) final congressional investigation into Benghazi lasted longer than the congressional inquiries into 9/11, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the attack on Pearl Harbor. And while those historical inquiries were conducted in a bipartisan and non-political manner, the most recent investigation, led by South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, was highlighted by the admission of Republican Kevin McCarthy that the whole point of the investigation was to bring down the poll numbers of Hillary Clinton [McCarthy on Fox News, September 2015: “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”] Thus, the 800-page report released by the Gowdy committee has no credibility.

So, what exactly are the Republican critiques with Benghazi? The one that is repeated over and over again, that seems to have the most lasting appeal, are the so-called “Susan Rice talking points.” Republicans contend that, on September 16, 2012, five days after the attack, when then UN Ambassador Susan Rice appeared on the Sunday talk shows, she deliberately downplayed the involvement of al-Qaeda and suggested that the attack was the result of a spontaneous protest in reaction to an anti-Islam video. The video at issue was a 14-minute movie trailer about a film called Innocence of Muslims produced by an Egyptian-born Coptic Christian living in the United States. The film included offensive depictions of the Prophet Muhammad and was posted on You Tube as early as July 2012. It was then dubbed in Arabic in early September 2012. Demonstrations and in some cases violent protests erupted throughout the Arab and Muslim world over the next two weeks, resulting in hundreds of injuries and more than 50 deaths.

Here is what Rice told Jake Tapper of ABC News on This Week with George Stephanopoulos on September 16, 2012:
Well, Jake, first of all, it's important to know that there's an FBI investigation that has begun and will take some time to be completed. That will tell us with certainty what transpired.  
But our current best assessment, based on the information that we have at present, is that, in fact, what this began as, it was a spontaneous -- not a premeditated -- response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated.  
We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people came to the embassy to -- or to the consulate, rather, to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that as you know in -- in the wake of the revolution in Libya are -- are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there.  
We'll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms, but that's the best information we have at present.
Rice made similar statements on the other Sunday talk shows that morning as well. The Republicans have always been apoplectic that Rice allegedly blamed the attack on spontaneous protests in response to the anti-Islam video, even though some in the intelligence community suspected even then that the attack was carried out by mostly al-Qaeda affiliated terrorists. First, note what Rice said: “it's important to know that there's an FBI investigation that has begun and will take some time to be completed. That will tell us with certainty what transpired.” And then again: “We'll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms, but that's the best information we have at present.” Rice stated clearly that she did not have all of the facts and that more was likely to come out.

Second, the White House talking points upon which Rice based her comments were consistent with the talking points that had been provided by the CIA. As typically occurs in all rapidly moving crises, American intelligence officials were sifting through conflicting information to determine what had happened four to five days earlier. CIA analysts had written a report stating that the evidence suggested the Benghazi attack grew spontaneously out of the protests. Later, a senior CIA editor with no direct knowledge of the Benghazi events but who knew about military weaponry added a sentence noting that the weapons possessed by the attackers suggested the attack was planned. Secretary Clinton received one report that Ansar al-Sharia was involved. Then that group disavowed any role in the attack. On September 13, 2012, a CIA report entitled, “Extremists Capitalized on Benghazi Protests” assessed that the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi “began spontaneously following the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo.” 

In fact, protests had erupted in many parts of the Arab world as a result of the anti-Islam video, with the largest and most notorious protest occurring in Cairo. Other conflicting accounts concerning involvement by al-Qaeda and alleged connections or lack thereof between al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia continued to come in. As is often true in response to fast-moving events, much of the early information was not entirely accurate or consistent. (See House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence report, November 21, 2014: “Much of the early intelligence was conflicting, and two years later, intelligence gaps remain.”)

The intelligence community assembled the information into talking points for Rice to use on the Sunday morning talk shows. Her statements that morning were consistent with those talking points. Were the talking points edited by State Department officials? Of course, but this is standard operating procedure for government officials in both major parties. But as an intelligence official explained to one congressional panel, "The points were not, as has been insinuated by some, edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations, or play down that this was an attack." This official noted that there were "legitimate intelligence and legal issues to consider, as is almost always the case when explaining classified assessments publicly.”

To this day, as noted by the House Select Committee minority report on June 27, 2016, “it remains unclear precisely what motivated all of the individuals in Benghazi on the night of the attacks.” Former CIA Director David Petraeus testified, “I’m still not absolutely certain what absolutely took place . . . and to be candid with you, I am not sure that the amount of scrutiny spent on this has been in the least bit worth it.” Former CIA acting director Mike Morrell testified that the CIA chief of station in Libya believed at the time that the anti-Muslim video might have motivated the attackers. As the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence reported on January 15, 2014:
It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attacks or whether extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. Some intelligence suggests the attacks were likely put together in short order, following that day's violent protests in Cairo against an inflammatory video, suggesting that these and other terrorist groups could conduct similar attacks with little advance warning.
A lengthy and detailed New York Times investigation published in six parts in 2014 concluded, based on extensive interviews and reviews of official documents: “The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.” However, it was “fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating [Muslims].” Indeed, Ahmed Abu Khattala, who was captured in June 2014 by the U.S. military in connection with his role as a suspected ringleader of the Benghazi attack, "told fellow Islamist fighters" on the night of the attack "and others that the assault was retaliation for the same insulting video" mocking Islam that inspired demonstrations in Cairo.

Much has also been made of certain emails showing that then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and others seemed to have come to different conclusions about the nature of the attack than was stated in some of their public statements. But Clinton has explained that she personally changed views several times in the week following the attack about the possible motivations of the attackers, including about whether there was a protest and whether the attacks were preplanned. Here, I find Clinton’s own statements, made in her book Hard Choices, reflective of common sense and the reality described above:
In the heat of the crisis we had no way of knowing for sure what combination of factors motivated the assault or whether and how long it had been planned. I was clear about this in my remarks the next morning, and in the days that followed administration officials continued to tell the American people that we had incomplete information and were still looking for answers. There were many theories-- but still little evidence. I myself went back and forth on what likely happened, who did it, and what mix of factors--like the video--played a part. But it was unquestionably inciting the region and triggering protests all over, so it would have been strange not to consider, as days of protests unfolded, that it might have had the same effect here, too. That's just common sense. Later investigation and reporting confirmed that the video was indeed a factor. All we knew at that time with complete certainty was that Americans had been killed and others were still in danger.
Finally, although there is less consistency and a great deal of partisanship in some of the congressional reports on this issue, multiple congressional investigations concluded that, while the talking points may have been flawed in underplaying some of the intelligence about the involvement of terrorist groups in the attack, they were not significantly edited or altered from the original CIA talking points. See Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report, January 2014 (The “CIA talking points were flawed but . . . painted a mostly accurate picture of the [intelligence community's] analysis of the Benghazi attacks at that time."); House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Report, November 2014 (concludes that the CIA, which was dealing with conflicting intelligence reports from multiple sources, was primarily responsible for editing Rice's talking points and using what the report called "imprecise language" to describe the incident.). But see House Foreign Affairs Committee Report, February 2014 (criticized "the extent to which senior State Department officials repeatedly objected to the inclusion of any information that might cast the Department in an unflattering light.")

So it appears that the Susan Rice talking points were not that far off the mark. But even if Rice overstated the spontaneous nature of the attack, or downplayed the pre-planned nature of it, she made clear it was a fluid situation and that a lot more needed to be sorted out before final conclusions could be drawn. This was hardly the stuff of national scandal.

That the administration somehow tried to make people believe the Benghazi attack was not a terrorist act in an effort to help Obama get re-elected has never made much sense to me. After all, Obama was the President and a U.S. diplomatic mission was attacked under his watch, resulting in four American deaths. He would be held responsible regardless of the precise cause of the attack. Was there something magical about the word “terrorism”? Was the presidential election really going to be decided on whether a violent attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi resulted from a terrorist attack vs. an out-of-control protest scenario or, as Susan Rice actually said on September 16, 2012, “individual clusters of extremists” armed with heavy weaponry? As Secretary Clinton said at a subsequent congressional hearing:
With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again. Senator, now honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information.
She was absolutely right. Really, what difference did it make in those first few days whether it was a pre-planned or spontaneous attack? As Ambassador Stevens’s sister, Dr. Anne Stevens, said in an interview with The New Yorker published on June 28, 2016, “it doesn’t matter” what the initial thinking was “about why the attack occurred. It’s irrelevant to bring that up again and again. It is done for purely political reasons.” (“Chris Stevens’s Family: Don’t Blame Hillary Clinton for Benghazi” by Robin Wright, The New Yorker, June 28, 2016).

But according to the Fox News spin doctors, the president refused to say that the attackers were “terrorists” because to do so would undermine his chances for re-election. In fact, three times in the two days following the attack, the President called it “an act of terror.” Within eight days of the attack, on September 19, 2012, Matt Olsen, the then Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, testified before a congressional hearing that the Benghazi incident was a “terrorist attack.” Two days later, so did Secretary Clinton (speaking to reporters before a meeting with Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar): “Yesterday afternoon when I briefed the Congress, I made it clear that keeping our people everywhere in the world safe is our top priority. What happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and we will not rest until we have tracked down and brought to justice the terrorists who murdered four Americans.” Some cover-up.

Those obsessed with Benghazi are also convinced to this day that someone in the administration ordered U.S. military forces to stand down from any effort to rescue Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues. They also believe that U.S. officials concealed intelligence information about a pre-planned attack with personnel in Benghazi. As noted below, even the Republican controlled inquiries have consistently refuted these false allegations.

Were would-be rescuers ordered to stand down rather than head to the facility to try to rescue Ambassador Stevens and his colleagues? Fox News, among others, repeatedly advanced the myth that someone in the Obama administration ordered CIA and American military personnel to “stand down” thus hindering their ability to save the Americans in the diplomatic mission in Benghazi. The evidence clearly shows otherwise:
  • House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Report, November 2014 (“Appropriate U.S. personnel made reasonable tactical decisions that night, and the committee found no evidence that there was either a stand-down order or a denial of available air support.")
  • House Republican Conference Progress Report, April 2013 ("The progress report finds that officials at the Defense Department were monitoring the situation throughout and kept the forces that were initially deployed flowing into the region. No evidence has been provided to suggest these officials refused to deploy resources.")
  • House Armed Services Committee Report, February 2014 ("There was no 'stand down' order issued to U.S. military personnel in Tripoli who sought to join the fight in Benghazi.")
  • Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report, January 2014 (“There were no U.S. military resources in a position to intervene in short order in Benghazi to help defend the Temporary Mission Facility and its Annex on September 11 and 12, 2012. . . . The Committee has reviewed the allegations that U.S. personnel, including in the [Intelligence Community] or [Department of Defense], prevented the mounting of any military relief effort during the attacks, but the Committee has not found any of these allegations to be substantiated.”)

In fact, CIA operatives arrived on the scene in less than 30 minutes and rescue efforts helped save the lives of several personnel at the compound that night. Even the Gowdy Report acknowledged that President Obama and then Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta gave clear orders that night to deploy all available military assets. Any military assets that failed to arrive on the scene were due to military command decisions and logistical deployment capabilities, not to administration orders. Whatever one thinks of the response time of U.S. forces, the surviving Americans were evacuated from the consulate facility and, along with the CIA Station Chief, flown to safety.

Did U.S. officials have intelligence that predicted the attack and did they fail to share such information with personnel in Benghazi? This allegation has also been repeatedly proven false.
  • Senate Select Committee on Intelligence Report, January 2014 ("There was no singular 'tactical warning' in the intelligence reporting leading up to the events on September 11, 2012, predicting an attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi on the 9/11 anniversary.")
  • House Armed Services Committee Report, February 2014 ("The majority members note the absence of an imminent threat in Benghazi.... In Benghazi, U.S. forces were confronted with the unexpected.")

Was it known that Benghazi was a dangerous place with a lot of risk? Of course. Did the administration have advanced warning of the attack and then do nothing to prepare? No.

It is true that nearly all the investigative reports have been critical of the State Department's pre-attack planning and security. But in this respect the congressional investigations only confirmed what the ARB had found within three months of the attack. In response to the ARB report, the State Department took responsibility for the security lapses and implemented recommendations to improve security and reduce the chances that such an attack would happen again. Why we needed eight more investigations to come to this same conclusion is beyond me.

Finally, it is worth comparing the congressional reaction to Benghazi to the congressional response three decades before when a series of far more tragic events occurred during the administration of Ronald Reagan.

On October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with explosives into a U.S. Marine compound, killing 241 American servicemen (13 more later died of injuries). The Beirut bombing was the single deadliest attack on U.S. Marines since the Battle of Iwo Jima. The suicide bomber easily entered the compound because a vehicle gate was left wide open and the U.S. military command had ordered the soldiers on guard to keep their weapons unloaded. To make matters worse, the attack occurred only six months after terrorists had bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including seven CIA officers and ten other Americans.

Unlike today’s Benghazi-crazed Congress, the Democratic controlled House of Representatives, led by Speaker Tip O’Neill, did not call for President Reagan’s impeachment or accuse members of his administration of nefarious conspiracies or wrongful actions. Instead, a bipartisan House committee was convened to conduct an investigation into what went wrong at the Marine barracks in Beirut. The investigation was completed in three months. Although the final report found “very serious errors of judgment” by officers on the ground and recommended better security measures against terrorism in U.S. facilities all over the world, that was the end of the congressional inquiries.

But the story did not end there. In March 1984, three months after the congressional report was released, militants kidnapped, tortured, and eventually murdered the CIA station chief in Beirut. And when, in September 1984, terrorists again bombed a U.S. government outpost in Beirut, President Reagan acknowledged that the security precautions previously recommended by Congress had not yet been implemented. “Anyone who’s ever had their kitchen done over,” remarked President Reagan, “knows that it never gets done as soon as you wish it would.” Now just imagine if President Obama or Secretary Clinton had said something like that. Yeah, precisely.

In 1984, the Democratic Congress did not play politics with tragic attacks on Americans in Lebanon. The Beirut bombings and the deaths of 254 Marines were not significant factors in the 1984 presidential elections, and there were no allegations of grand conspiracies and cover-ups. There was no Darrell Issa or Trey Gowdy falsely accusing the administration of stand down orders and neglect of Americans abroad. There was one congressional investigation, not eight. Official reactions to the far more tragic series of Beirut bombings were qualitatively and quantitatively different than the right-wing media and Republican response to Benghazi. In 1984, no one in Congress would have even contemplated multiple investigations – the last one at a cost of $7 million – convened because a small group of House Republicans were frustrated that prior investigations failed to damage the presumptive Democratic nominee for President. As noted by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker (“Ronald Reagan’s Benghazi,” May 5, 2014), if one compares the Reagan administration’s security lapses in Beirut to those in Benghazi, “it’s clear what has really deteriorated in the intervening three decades. It’s not the security of American government personnel working abroad. It’s the behavior of American congressmen at home.”

It is long past time for the Benghazi-related witch hunts to end.