Unnecessary Lies
On Benghazi, the administration misled not out of necessity but out of habit.


Kevin D. Williamson

The Obama administration’s blunders leading up to the events of September 11, 2012, were real, and they were catastrophic. If my colleague Andrew C. McCarthy is correct — and I believe he is — then the story is even worse than it seems at first blush: We all know that the tale of spontaneous demonstrations culminating in a riot was completely untrue in the case of Benghazi, but there is reason to believe that the events in Cairo that day were something other than what has been portrayed. Mr. McCarthy argues convincingly that the plan for Cairo probably was a hostage-taking operation in the mode of Tehran in 1979, the goal of which was to secure the release of Omar Abdel-Rahman, the infamous “Blind Sheikh,” who, thanks to Mr. McCarthy’s efforts during his time at the Justice Department, is currently serving a life sentence for orchestrating the 1993 World Trade Center attack.

Which is to say, the fact that the U.S. embassy was merely overrun and put to the torch while the black banner of al-Qaeda was raised over it fell far short of the worst-case scenario. Trouble was expected that day — as trouble should be expected every day for American facilities in the Islamic world, but particularly on September 11 — and threats had been issued publicly by jihadist organizations and reported in the region’s newspapers. The failure to adequately secure those facilities, and the questions related to who did what and when in response to the calls for help from Benghazi, may or may not produce a scandal in the common sense of that word. But embarrassing the opposition is not the only — or even the main — reason for investigation. Answering substantive questions about what went wrong that day and why is paramount.

It should go without saying that the Obama administration should have been forthright about what happened that day rather than try to deflect blame on to a “right-wing Christian” filmmaker and his alleged provocations. Beyond that, even with an election on the near horizon, the Obama administration probably did not really politically need to mislead the public about those events. Having our embassy in Cairo overrun was humiliating, and the deaths in Benghazi were shocking, but Americans are by this point used to seeing their countrymen killed in lands where Islam predominates, and they have suffered enough humiliations that one more was not going to cost anybody an election.

The Obama administration’s wider policy failures in the Middle East are significant, and they are partly the product of wishful thinking, partly the product of its narrow ideology, and partly the product of the fact that the American public to which he ultimately answers is itself incoherent on the question of what we should be doing there and how we should be doing it. But, even disinclined as I am toward being overly generous to President Obama, he is not the first president to underestimate the dangers and difficulties of the Middle East. The idea that the deaths in Benghazi, horrible though they were, would have been his undoing in the election if not for his administration’s disinformation campaign is probably wishful thinking. But for politicians of President Obama’s genus, truth is simply another multiple-choice proposition, and he and his people chose the version that best suited their immediate needs. One of the many problems with having a government dominated by law-school graduates is that lawyers suffer from a collective delusion that clever argument has a truth of its own, a unique moral weight independent of the facts. Recall that in the 1990s Bill Clinton was openly admired by Democrats for his deft touch with a lie: If you are winning, this line of thinking goes, then at some level you are also right.

In other words, the Obama administration did not mislead the American public about Benghazi out of political necessity; it misled the American public out of habit. And why wouldn’t it? From the economic effects of the stimulus bill to the GM bailout to blaming last quarter’s poor economic numbers on the fact that it is cold during the winter, the Obama administration has an excellent record for wholesaling fiction to the American electorate, which keeps enduring it. There is apparently enough collective intelligence in the Obama administration to hold in general contempt the wit and attention span of an American public that has elected it twice. Or perhaps the administration is fooling itself, too. A good huckster knows that he is a huckster, but a great huckster comes to sincerely believe in his own shtick, and perhaps somebody at the White House has read Good to Great.

If Americans have grown tired of being lied to, they are not showing much sign of it. The House, thankfully, has self-interested motives, which are the most reliable kind, for moving forward. A select committee to investigate Benghazi has been empaneled under the leadership of Representative Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.), a former prosecutor. The Obama administration, which is populated with people who apparently have only the very slightest regard for the truth, should be reminded that while it might not be a crime to lie to the American public, it is a crime to lie to Congress and to obstruct its investigations.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.