Watergate defines the vocabulary for American political scandals, and so it was no surprise that former Obama-administration communications operative Anita Dunn took to the airwaves yesterday morning to pour derision upon the notion that a “smoking gun” has been uncovered in the form of recently released e-mails documenting the White House’s disinformation campaign following the Benghazi attack. A dozen Democrats have asked, “Where’s the scandal?” But the question here is not whether the administration’s misleading statements in the wake of the attacks on U.S. installations in Egypt and Libya are a political scandal in the style of President Nixon’s infamous burglary; they aren’t. But that the administration’s misdeeds here seem to fall short of felony burglary hardly makes the matter a less serious one: The White House misled the American public about a critical matter of national interest, and it continues to practice deceit as the facts of the case are sorted out. That, to answer Hillary Clinton’s callous question, is what difference it makes.
The Benghazi dishonesty did not end with Susan Rice’s now-infamous 2012 Sunday-show storytelling circuit, in which she blamed the attack on an Internet video that Muslims found insulting but that in fact had nothing to do with what was an organized jihadist attack. Last week, press secretary Jay Carney managed to annoy the usually pliant White House press corps with his embarrassing attempt to explain away the withholding of documents sought by Congress, saying that the e-mails in question were not about Benghazi, despite the fact that there is a section thereof titled “Benghazi.” He has labeled investigation into the matter evidence of a “conspiracy theory.” It is nothing of the sort, and getting a picture of the administration’s failures and dishonesty in the matter requires no leap of logic or supposition of unknown forces at work.
There were coordinated attacks against American diplomatic facilities abroad, carried out by terrorists affiliated with al-Qaeda, scheduled for the anniversary of the September 11 hijackings and announced by a series of threats from Islamist organizations that were reported, among other places, in the Egyptian newspapers the day before the attack. The Obama administration took insufficient precautionary measures. In Cairo, the U.S. embassy was overrun and the American flag hauled down while the black banner of al-Qaeda was raised. In the Libyan city of Benghazi, there was disciplined and organized assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in which Ambassador Christopher Stevens and another diplomat were murdered; a few hours later, a similar assault was carried out on a CIA installation about a mile away, in which two security personnel were killed.
Faced with this dramatic evidence of its incompetence six weeks before an election, the Obama administration distorted a kernel of truth — Cairo’s grand mufti had in fact denounced the video — and told the public a story in which the attacks were not acts of jihadist terrorism organized with malice aforethought by al-Qaeda partisans but rather were riots resulting from spontaneous protests by Muslims angered by an obscure YouTube video that was disrespectful of their faith and their prophet. The video was at most a minor factor in the Cairo riots, which were orchestrated by Mohammed al-Zawahiri, brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The video was not a significant factor in any way in Benghazi, but the administration insisted on its own version of events, downplaying the role of Islamic extremism and removing references to specific jihadist organizations from CIA-provided materials. The deputy director of the CIA, Michael Morell, told Congress that the video was “not something the analysts have attributed this attack to,” but the Obama administration was less interested in intelligence than in politics: Victoria Nuland of the State Department warned that acknowledging the role of organized terrorist groups might encourage members of Congress to “beat the State Department for not paying attention to Agency warnings.” The purpose of the video-protest narrative was to convince the American public that the bloodshed in the Middle East was the result of protests sparked by boobish Christians, and not a broader failure of policy. We know that because President Obama’s deputy national-security adviser, Ben Rhodes, helpfully put those precise words into an e-mail, describing U.N. ambassador Susan Rice’s storytelling session on the Sunday talk shows as intended “to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”