Benghazi: From Scandal to Farce

This past Sunday, Bob Woodward made the talkshow rounds and, doing his level best to impersonate a reasonable person, he expressed a nuanced opinion of the eighth (!) congressional investigation into Benghazi. Woodward accepted the GOP’s position that there are “legitimate questions,” subject to the Democrat’s qualifier that there is no evidence of criminal wrongdoing. He said,

You have inconsistencies. This is a tragedy, and it should be investigated…. But there’s no crime here on [Hillary Clinton’s] part. And to try to criminalize it and suggest, as some people have said, ‘Oh, she’ll be in jail.’ There’s no evidence of a crime. There is evidence of inconsistency. I mean, my God, this is our business, our lives — people saying one thing privately and saying something different publicly.

The only problem with Woodward’s position is that there are no “inconsistencies” between the public and private statements of Hillary Clinton on the subject of Benghazi. Woodward’s fault is common among journalists: the fact that are two sides to any given story does not mean that both merit repeating.

Hillary Clinton’s public statements immediately after the attack on Benghazi continued the themes of a statement given just hours before the attack, by the US Embassy in Cairo, while it was dealing with a large protest over a video on the internet about the prophet Muhammad, which many Muslims found offensive:

The Embassy of the United States in Cairo condemns the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims – as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions…. Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others.

Clearly, the embassy was trying to defuse the situation, by expressing sympathy for people who had been offended. Secretary Clinton’s public statement later that same day, after the attack on Benghazi, picks up on the same themes:

Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.

as does her public statement the day after the attack:

Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our Embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the internet. America’s commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear – there is no justification for this, none. Violence like this is no way to honor religion or faith.

Before and after the Benghazi attack, the State Department and Secretary Clinton remained remarkably consistent: (1) recognizing the right to free speech; (2) but condemning the use of that speech to denigrate religion; (3) while reserving their strongest condemnation for those who commit acts of violence in the name of religion.

We have since learned that there was no protest at Benghazi, and that the attack was pre-planned and carried out by Islamist militants. Clinton suspected as much, writing just hours after the attack, in a private email to family members, that the attack was carried out by an “al-Qaeda-like group.” She also told Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil the following day, “We know that the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack—not a protest.”

The GOP has tried to turn this into a scandal – claiming that Clinton and others were publicly pushing the theory that the attack on Benghazi was a spontaneous protest over a video, in order to provide political cover for President Obama in the heat of his reelection campaign. They say that Clinton dishonestly espoused the spontaneous protest theory in public, revealing in private communications that she knew that the attack was planned beforehand, and carried out by Islamist militants – that it had nothing to do with the video.

But Clinton never asserted – publicly or privately – that the Benghazi attack developed spontaneously out of a protest over a video. She merely observed the fact that “Some… sought to justify…” the attack on Benghazi as a response to the video. That remark doesnt even bear upon who was behind the attacks, or what precipitated them – it merely condemns a particular reaction to the attack: those who would “justify” violence in the furtherance of religion.

Whence the notion that the Benghazi attack arose spontaneously out of a protest over a video? Was it cooked up in a back room of the State Department or the White House? Nope. The seventh (!) congressional investigation into Benghazi, undertaken by the House Intelligence Committee, asked this very question, and they found that the protest story originated in the CIA. For nearly two weeks after it happened, the CIA’s official assessment of the attack on Benghazi held that it emerged spontaneously from a protest over a video. While that theory ultimately proved incorrect, it was backed by a significant amount of intelligence.

The Field Guide’s analysis continues next week.


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