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Libyagate: Lessons from Past Scandals


In several insomniac posts on Twitter in the small hours, I pointed out that the Libyagate scandal is metastasizing in ways that echo three previous scandals. The first scandal from the past is Watergate where the echoes are those bouncing back from the Benghazi cover-up. What did the president know and when did he know it? Did the president order that help be sent to the embattled Americans or not? He says he did. In that case, to whom did he give that order — the defense secretary? The secretary of state? His national-security adviser? Why wasn’t it carried out? Who was to blame for that? And if none of the above was to blame, then the questions return like a boomerang to the president “personally.” And as the questions multiply, so do the leaks, prompting still more questions.

President Obama explains the administration’s unwillingness to answer such questions as one effect of the “fog of war.” He wants to get full information before leveling with the American people. That explanation is not very persuasive about the events in Benghazi about which we know a great deal, all of it to the credit of American troops. But it is an utterly implausible, even absurd, response when we ask what happened in the White House. The president must know about that since he was there (until he left for Las Vegas). Why can’t he or some of the other senior officials present tell us what happened and why? Their silence suggests that they have something to hide. And that in turn prompts everyone else to greater suspicions. The Watergate parallels are uncanny as Libyagate careens towards its denouement.

The second scandal is the anti-Kerry video put out by the Swift Boat veterans. As during the Swift Boat ads, the establishment media has done its best to ignore or even repress news about the developing scandal of Libyagate. The New York Times has distinguished itself by its dignified silence on both occasions. It eventually broke that silence over the Swift Boaters with a front-page story that assured readers there was nothing in it. That was difficult to believe about the allegations of Kerry’s former shipmates; it was impossible to believe about the second Swift Boat advertisement which consisted of a long extract of Kerry’s own congressional testimony about U.S. war crimes. Kerry’s attempt to present himself as a war hero was undercut completely by his own earlier appearances as an anti-war hero. The self-contradiction destroyed the desired “narrative” of his campaign, slowed him down, and ultimately weakened him terminally.

But this spectacular self-implosion would have influenced nothing if voters were relying on the establishment press to report it. The story made its way into the public mind first through the insurgent blogosphere and conservative opinion journals, and second, when the blogosphere’s own critical minds had dissected and confirmed it, via an initially reluctant Fox News, against a background of clucking disapproval from the guardians of journalistic orthodoxy. It hardly needs arguing that exactly the same thing is now happening over Libyagate — with these three differences: The story is more important and better-sourced, Fox News has been aggressively pursuing it from the start, and the blogosphere, opinion journals, and social media are no longer insurgent but widely seen as collectively trustworthy and self-critical news providers.

As a result, a cover-up, even one protected by the New York Times, cannot enjoy a long life. If there is any truth at all in a scandal, it will inevitably come out. It is merely a matter of time.

And that brings me to the third scandal echoing from the past: namely, Irangate. How so? Well, what could be the motive for an administration cover-up of Benghazi? What is the something that the administration might wish to hide? There are several possible answers to that question, alas. But the most creditable one is that the CIA and/or the State Department were running guns from Qaddafi’s old armory in Benghazi through southern Turkey to the Syrian Free Army and that they were cooperating in this enterprise with “friendly” jihadist factions. That would not necessarily be dishonorable, but as it would violate international law and would undercut the president’s own general stance on foreign policy, it is certainly something that the administration would like to remain secret, and it would explain the long delays before anything got done. Rumors along these lines have been around from the immediate aftermath of the consulate’s seizure, but I’m indebted to Hugh Hewitt for directing me to a pretty full account of this theory in the form of an interview that a Jerusalem Post blogger conducted with Clare M. Lopez, a former CIA officer now working in the private sector but not lacking contact with her old colleagues (or so I would guess). The interview is here.

In the 1980s Irangate scandal, the aspect that the American public found most scandalous was Reagan’s willingness to deal with the Ayatollahs in Iran whom he had often denounced for their support of terrorism; if this interpretation of the administration’s failure to protect the four Americans in Benghazi is correct — and it is as yet informed speculation only — then the thing the White House feared most was being shown cooperating with jihadist terrorists, possibly with links to al-Qaeda. Andrew Sullivan might comfort himself with the thought, however, that it is yet more evidence that Obama is the Democrats’ Reagan.

Is Libyagate an amalgam of all three previous scandals, then? Not in all respects, of course; but how each one played out probably has lessons for us today. What makes Libyagate worse than either Irangate or the Swift Boat saga, and arguably worse than Watergate too, is the apparent listlessness of the main government players towards threats to Americans in a foreseeable crisis. When the 3:00 a.m. telephone call predicted by Mrs. Clinton in her Democratic primary advertisements actually came, the Obama administration took the phone off the hook.


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