The Benghazi “scandal” — a word that already minimizes the significance of what happened there — is “falling apart,” we are told, by everyone from Talking Points Memo to Mother Jones to the Washington Post. The scandal is disappearing, they say, in the wake of admittedly troubling reports that Republican sources in Congress oversold tendentious paraphrases of administration e-mails as verbatim quotes, coloring with editorial prejudice the account of how the administration crafted its Benghazi talking points.
If it’s true, as it appears to be, that congressional sources were feeding reporters prejudiced and inaccurate quotes about the talking-points process, that’s bad. But it doesn’t change anything we learned about Benghazi before the e-mails were even a story, and it shouldn’t discourage Congress from pursuing this investigation to its conclusion.
Because the news about the paraphrased quotes is “the latest on the scandal,” and because we are cognitively disposed to give greater weight to more recent information, it might feel like the whole affair has been doctored, and that’s certainly the narrative that the port side of the media is pushing. But when you throw out the less accurate picture of the talking-points process suggested by the dubious paraphrases and objectively read everything else we know about the attacks and their aftermath, is there really no scandal there? Hardly.
If one were to summarize what we’ve learned about Benghazi, and attempt to do so in language as neutral as the facts allow, here’s what one might say:
There was internal disagreement over how much security the American facility needed, and push and pull between the need to secure the compound and the desire to project an open and peaceful American presence to the locals and to the world. In the end, the security professionals were overruled by the diplomats (maybe) and the political brass (definitely); and defenses were weakened, against State Department guidelines and conventions, even as the situation on the ground destabilized. During the attack, no attempt was made to relieve or rescue the Americans in Benghazi, and indeed Deputy Chief of Mission Greg Hicks’s request that Special Forces move in from Tripoli was overruled. This despite the fact that nobody knew how long the attack would last.
In the days after the attack, the process for deciding what information to share with the public and their representatives in Congress was guided by political appointees in the White House and especially the State Department, although with major input from other political appointees and career civil servants, including those in the FBI and the CIA. The director of the CIA deemed the final product largely useless. It nevertheless became the basis for Ambassador Susan Rice’s Sunday-show tour, and for various statements made by other members of the administration over the course of the next two weeks or so.
The earliest and most direct reports, from Americans on the ground in Libya during the attacks, was that they were perpetrated by Ansar al-Sharia, a jihadist group with ties to al-Qaeda. There were no reports that the attacks were the result of a demonstration gone wrong, nor reports of any demonstration in Benghazi at all. Despite this, the iterations of the talking points gradually migrated away from these on-the-ground reports, and the administration consensus for days and weeks after 9/11/12 was that an amateur YouTube video insulting to Islam had provoked a spontaneous attack. This ran counter not only to the observations and judgment of Hicks, the No. 1 diplomat on the ground after Ambassador Stevens’s death, but also to the statements of the Libyan government, which early recognized the attack as an act of terror. The Libyan government was confounded by the administration’s mischaracterization, Hicks said in his sworn testimony last week. Worse, it had the effect of impeding the FBI investigation. “I definitely believe that it negatively affected our ability to get the FBI team quickly to Benghazi,” Hicks said. The scene of the attack was left unsecured for 18 days.
The Accountability Review Board convened by State to investigate the attacks saw no need to interview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; nor did it choose to interview the State Department’s head of counterterrorism, or a number of security personnel who “were involved in key decisions” about “how [the Benghazi mission buildings] were staffed and constructed and in variance with existing standards.” Cheryl Mills, characterized as Hillary Clinton’s “right-hand woman” by many insiders, ordered Hicks, against State Department protocol, not to talk with a member of the United States Congress unless department lawyers — who lacked the requisite security clearance — were also present. Mills sternly rebuked Hicks when he violated this directive.
This is all the stuff we know — or if you want to get scholastic about it, stuff we “know” insofar as we can know anything at all — through the sworn testimony, documentary evidence, and background facts that all parties would (I presume) admit as established. And it’s all still true even in light of the unfortunate business with the paraphrases. If there’s no “scandal” here anymore, than maybe we ought to revise our definition of that word.