“What difference, at this point, does it make?”
That was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s angry response to a question about the State Department’s account of the attack on the Benghazi consulate where Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were murdered on Sept. 11, 2012.
Her response was cheered by leftist commentators on MSNBC. Righteous indignation is so attractive.
But of course it makes a difference. Clinton is leading in polls for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination and general election. It’s always legitimate to examine the performance of a front-runner for the presidency. And of the president himself.
Democrats complain that this is a partisan effort. Sure, but Democrats are free to present their own view of the facts. My sense is that they would rather squelch critical examination of Benghazi and the Obama administration’s response, as they did with the help of most of the press during the 2012 presidential campaign.
The interim report sets out copious evidence of the rash of security threats in Libya during 2012. There were more than 200 “security incidents” between June 2011 and July 2012 in Libya, 50 of them in Benghazi, it reports.
Britain and international agencies withdrew personnel from Benghazi. The United States reduced security forces despite a plea for increases from then-Ambassador Gene Cretz in March 2012.
“In a cable signed by Secretary Clinton in April 2012,” the Interim Report reads, “the State Department settled on a plan to scale back security assets in the U.S. Mission in Libya, including Benghazi.”
Later requests from Stevens after he replaced Cretz in May were also denied.
That contradicts Clinton’s testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in January. She said the cable traffic never made its way to her.
If so, why was her name appended to a response? Maybe there’s an explanation in the internal processes of the State Department. And, it should be said, high officials often make decisions that with hindsight seem obvious mistakes. But she has given us just an exclamation, not an explanation.
And, as the Interim Report goes on to explain, the accounts given by the Obama administration at the time were misleading — deliberately so.
It noted that State immediately reported the attack to the White House Situation Room and two hours later noted an al-Qaeda affiliate’s claim of responsibility. There was no mention of a spontaneous protest of an anti-Muslim video.
Yet President Barack Obama, Clinton and press secretary Jay Carney spoke repeatedly for days later of a video and a protest. Clinton assured one victim’s family member that the video-maker was being prosecuted.
In the meantime, a CIA draft of talking points for the House intelligence committee was edited at the behest of State Department officials. Omitted were references to previous Benghazi attacks, the al-Qaeda affiliate in Benghazi and intelligence estimates of threats in Libya. Also struck, the Interim Report says, were “any and all suggestions that the State Department had been previously warned of threats in the region.”
These changes were made, the chairmen conclude, not to protect classified information — reviews of the draft were circulated on unsecure email systems — and not to protect the investigation by the FBI.
“This process to alter the talking points,” the Interim Report concludes, “can only be construed as a deliberate effort to mislead the American people.”
The resulting talking points were delivered to Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice for her five Sunday talk show appearances on Sept. 16, in which she denounced the “hateful video.”
Who might have ordered this “deliberate effort”? The Interim Report mentions Obama only twice as recipient of letters of inquiry, but this comment seems aimed clearly at him and his first secretary of state.
We know that Obama was informed of the attack while it was occurring, that he ordered Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to respond to it (as he was already doing) and did not confer later with officials that evening. The next morning he jetted off to Las Vegas for a campaign event.
Benghazi threatened to undermine a central element of Obama’s appeal, that his presidency would reduce the threat of Islamist terrorism. He managed to obfuscate that during the rest of the campaign. But maybe not forever.
— Michael Barone is a senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. Click here to contact him, follow him on Twitter: @MichaelBarone, or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.