Like Fred Krueger, Jason or Rasputin, Benghazi keeps crawling back to terrorize us. Yesterday’s hearings marked the ninth time Congress has held hearings on Benghazi. The public reaction was, again, a yawn. Jon Stewart, as usual, got to the heart of why this nation-wide apathy.
It doesn’t matter. That’s what Secretary Clinton said about it when asked, and she’s right. It doesn’t matter. What? Outrageous! Four brave patriotic Americans died! How can that not matter? So let’s be clear about what matters and what doesn’t.
Four men died. A US ambassador, a lifelong diplomat, Chris Stevens, died. That’s a terrible tragedy, and it deserves to be thoroughly investigated. And I think pretty well everyone agrees what the focus of that investigation should be. We want to know exactly what happened. We want to know who-dun-it, and how to catch them. We want to know what specific, concrete steps can be undertaken to increase embassy security. We want, maybe, to look at possible military responses to a US mission under siege. Relevant questions might be ‘is the US Diplomatic Security Service properly funded and trained?’ Or, ‘why doesn’t the Africa sub-command have a on-call Marine detachment that can be quickly flown to trouble spots?’ Or my favorite, ‘why didn’t the safe room in the Benghazi compound come equipped with gas masks?’
Serious errors were made. Those errors may be correctable. Security experts should investigate.
And in fact, that’s happened. Benghazi has been thoroughly investigated. The Accountability Review Board Report is available on-line. It’s hardly a whitewash.
Systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department (the “Department”) resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.
The full report is available on-line, and it’s scathing. Serious mistakes were made. Security was inadequate.
So yesterday, Gregory Hicks testified before Darrel Issa’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. He essentially corroborated the ARBR report, adding extra, painful details. He argued, for example, that additional Special Forces could have supplemented the forces that did show up, from Tripoli. I watched Hicks’ testimony. Powerful stuff. It added a little to our understanding of the event. I was struck, yet again, at what a miserable screw-up the whole thing was.
But not a conspiracy. Not a cover-up. Not (get real) impeachable.
The focus of House Republicans has consistently been misplaced. On the Sunday talk shows, a few days after the Benghazi attacks, Susan Rice said that a terrorist attack rose spontaneously from a protest over the anti-Islamic video on Youtube. She was simply reflecting the talking points prepared for her, but those talking points were incorrect. The video had nothing to do with Benghazi. It was a carefully planned terrorist attack. Everyone agrees on that point.
But my gosh, the outrage! The talking points have become the entire narrative for conservatives. It’s a cover-up! Worse than Watergate! It’s really remarkable.
Let’s be clear: the incorrect talking points had no real-world impact on events. Ambassador Rice said a few things wrong to George Stephanopolous. It meant that people who watch This Week were slightly less informed for a day or two. No terrorists went free. No other embassies were attacked. It meant nothing. It’s completely unimportant.
Today, the news is all about a ‘smoking gun’ email, apparently, that shows that the White House National Security office was involved in editing the talking points. They replaced ‘terrorist’ with ‘extremist,’ for example. So this feeds into the whole ‘cover-up’ narrative.
See, what’s supposed to have happened is that the White House was afraid that a highly public terrorist attack would hurt President Obama’s election chances. It would make him look weak on terror. It would undercut a Democratic argument: ‘President Obama had Osama bin Laden killed, and therefore made American safer.’ It would show that Al Qaeda was still an active threat. So the talking points were softened, for political reasons.
And I suppose all that is possible, though there’s no evidence that either President Obama or Secretary Clinton was involved. (‘Plausible deniability!’) So here’s why I think that argument is honestly kind of silly.
First of all, the politics of it don’t make sense. If President Obama was afraid to talk about resurgent terrorism, then why did he use the ‘T’ word in his own remarks the day after the attacks? Generally, when Americans are attacked by terrorists, the President’s approval numbers go up. It’s pretty much always a plus for sitting presidents. A guy standing up resolutely against terrorists is the kind of image voters love. In his Rose Garden remarks, the President looked, well, Presidential.
More to the point, we need to see the entire event in context. Conservatives love to mock the ‘video protest’ argument, but the reality is, there was a video, it was preposterously offensive, and there were riots in Egypt over it. Those riots spread to Tunisia, to Tripoli, and throughout the region. That’s why the talking points talked about video protests. The State Department had been on alert for days precisely over video protests elsewhere.
It’s basic human nature to focus on one emergency at a time. We all do it. So, for example, in the coverage of the Boston bombings, we kept hearing about how another bomb had also gone off in the Kennedy Library. It turned out that a fire alarm had gone off there, but it wasn’t connected to the bombings in any way, and wasn’t actually any big deal. But with everyone focused on bombings during the Boston Marathon, it makes sense that a report of an incident elsewhere would be conflated with the thing we were all worried about.
At State, whether or not Benghazi had anything to do with video protests, the emergency caused by the protest was still on-going at the time that the talking points were being prepared. State was trying to calm things down. ‘Extremist’ is a softer word than ‘terrorist.’ Softening the talking points for diplomatic reasons makes much more sense than altering them for political reasons.
In any event, it still doesn’t matter. Secretary Clinton’s testimony remains the best and final word on the talking points aspect of the controversy. Getting the story straight for a TV show was almost certainly everyone’s lowest priority. And anyway, what does it matter? What matters is catching bad guys, and improving embassy security going forward. These recent House Benghazi hearings will do nothing to accomplish either objective.