Does Benghazi Rise To The Level Of A “Scandal?”
To listen to conservatives, yesterday’s testimony before the House Government Oversight Committee on the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi last September was the beginning of the major unraveling of a scandal that they have been asserting existing virtually since the moment we heard about the attack. Now, they say, we have proof that the Obama Administration perpetuated a false narrative about the motivation for the attack, blaming it on demonstrations related to an obscure YouTube video rather than the work of an organized terrorist group as embassy employees on the ground, and the government of Libya, recognized it to be. They failed to adequately secure the consulate beforehand, and then failed to send in the forces necessary to defend both it and the CIA annex when the attack happened. All of this happened, the narrative contends, because of a conscious effort on the part of the White House to ensure that the attack didn’t disrupt the narrative of the Obama re-election campaign regarding the President’s success against al Qaeda.
So far, though, Republicans have had trouble making this narrative stick anywhere outside their own echo chambers. The Romney campaign made a mostly half-hearted attempted to bring it up during the campaign and it went nowhere. The House and Senate both held hearings on the matter earlier this year before Hillary Clinton left office as Secretary of State and it failed to generate any real new information. Indeed, yesterday’s hearings didn’t seem to generate much new information either despite all of the insistence from conservatives that it did. Instead, as Mark Ambinder notes, we’ve got a situation where there’s a story without a scandal:
One of the reasons why Americans aren’t outraged about Benghazi is that the event is a series of tragedies in search of a unifying explanation, and one that “Obama is evil” doesn’t cover. Because really, to suggest that the Pentagon or the White House would deliberately — and yes, this is EXACTLY what Republicans are suggesting — prevent special operations forces from rescuing American diplomats BECAUSE they worried about the potential political blowback because they KNEW exactly who was behind it (al Qaeda) is —well, it is to suggest that Barack Obama is simply and utterly evil.
The umbrage that State Department officials who were in Libya take at the response of the bureaucracy is well-grounded. But I wonder what it feels like to have their understandable ire, their mourning and grief and anger, be harnessed to a partisan political gladiator fight that’s aimed at a person who isn’t even running for president yet.
So here’s another absurdity. There is no way on God’s warming earth that the White House could have possibly “covered up” the fact of al Qaeda involvement had it been established early on and presented as a fact by the intelligence community. Republicans got briefings, classified briefings, attesting to the evidence that al Qeada-linked militants were ready to strike. The sources for that intelligence were sensitive at the time. But no matter: The briefings were accurate. Republicans knew. And indeed, they began to speak out almost immediately. And the White House, whatever it did and didn’t do, was forced to clarify very quickly what it was able to say about the incident. Where is the means and opportunity for a cover-up?
This is really where the “Bengahzi as scandal” meme falls apart for me. At most, the concentration on the idea that the attack was the result of a demonstration about a film that got out of control was only part of the “official” narrative for about a week in September, if that. Fairly soon after that, the White House clarified it’s position and the intelligence communities interpretation, which blamed the attack on one or more of the al Qaeda linked and/or inspired militias that dominate the area in and around Benghazi. This same information was shared with the bipartisan heads of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees as required by law and, presumably, was included in the daily intelligence briefings that Mitt Romney began getting shortly after officially winning the Republican nomination. More importantly, what exactly would the Obama Administration have had to gain by not doing everything possible to stop the attack on September 11, 2012 while it was still going on? Indeed, not acting would have been the greater electoral risk given how close we were to the election. Moreover, the whole idea that action was not taken when it should have been runs headlong into the fat that the closest American assets were, according to the testimony of Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey, some twenty hours away. Indeed, yesterday, there were many Congressman yesterday concentrating on the supposed availability of F-16’s at Avigno Air Force Base in Sicily. The only problem? F-16’s are air superiority fighters, and don’t have any capability to make ground strikes. Thus they would have been largely unable to do anything to effect the situation on the ground in Benghazi. This is the thing about conspiracy theories. In order to believe in them, you have to believe that people would act in completely illogical and nefarious ways and that they’d be able to keep all of it a secret in today’s hyperpartisan environment where leaks flow as freely in Washington, D.C. as the Potomac River.
As James Joyner noted this morning, the more plausible explanation for what happened in Benghazi is one that focuses on incompetence rather than evil doing. Through a combination of bad security, the probably unwise decision to keep the Benghazi consulate open notwithstanding the deteriorating security situation in the city, and possibly missed opportunities on the day of the attack itself, a tragedy occurred. After the event, the Administration seemed confused about what it’s message was in the early stages. The CIA and the State Department continued to pursue the argument that the attack was the result of an action by an active Benghazi terrorist cell and yet, somehow, the nonsense about the YouTube video got stuck into official talking points some five days after the attack. Those constitute mistakes, though, not malfeasance, and trying to find a political scandal where none exists is really just going to be a waste of time.
There are, as I’ve said repeatedly, legitimate questions that are raised by the events that ought to be answered. As for the Administration’s initial insistence on tying the Benghazi attack to that YouTube video, it’s really quite baffling. It was quite clear at the time that American authorities were still gathering intelligence on the attack, so I don’t see why anyone allowed Susan Rice to do a Full Ginsburg the following Sunday and repeat that line over and over again on national television. It would have made much more sense to just say that we’re investigating the matter and will seek out and find the people responsible. That’s a communications failure no doubt, but as scandals go it just doesn’t seem like very much to me. It certainly doesn’t rise to the level of Watergate, and it also doesn’t come close to Iran/Contra. Conservatives are looking at Benghazi as a partisan tool that they can use to either bring down Barack Obama or poison the well for a potentially Hillary Clinton candidacy in 2016, but the evidence for a scandal just isn’t there. Bad decision making? Perhaps. Bad messaging? Certainly. But those things happen in Washington all the time without much consequences (indeed, Reagan was barely harmed by Iran/Contra). It’s becoming pretty clear to me that they’re going to be pretty disappointed when this doesn’t pan out the way they want it to.