‘What difference, at this point, does it make?”
That was then–Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s angry response to a question about the State Department’s account of the attack on the Benghazi consulate in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were murdered on September 11, 2012.
Her response was cheered by leftist commentators on MSNBC. Righteous indignation is so attractive.
But of course it makes a difference. Hillary 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.
You can find such an examination in the Interim Progress Report that five House Republican committee chairmen released last Wednesday.
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, it states, and 50 of them were in Benghazi.
Britain, the U.N., and the Red Cross withdrew their personnel from Benghazi that spring. The United States, meanwhile, 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 says, “the State Department settled on a plan to scale back security assets for the U.S. Mission in Libya, including Benghazi.”
Later requests from Stevens after he replaced Cretz in June were also denied.
That contradicts Clinton’s testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee in January 2013. She said the cable traffic never made its way to her.
If so, why was her name appended to the 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 Clinton 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.
The report notes that the State Department immediately reported the attack to the White House Situation Room and two hours later reported an al-Qaeda affiliate’s claim of responsibility. There was no mention of a spontaneous protest against an anti-Muslim video.
Yet President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Press Secretary Jay Carney spoke repeatedly for days following the attack of the video and a protest. Clinton assured a relative of one of the victims 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. Removed 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 Interim Report found, not to protect classified information — reviews of the draft were circulated on unsecure e-mail 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 Congress and the American people.”
The resulting talking points were delivered to U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice for her five Sunday talk-show appearances on September 16, in which she denounced the “hateful video.”
Who might have ordered this “deliberate effort”? The Interim Report mentions Barack Obama only twice as the 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 that he did not confer with officials later 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, senior political analyst for The Washington Examiner, is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a Fox News Channel contributor, and a co-author of The Almanac of American Politics. © 2013 The Washington Examiner