Politics & Policy

The Bottom of Benghazi

Between reverences to the majesty of abortion, the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte regularly collapsed into displays of facile jingoism that would have sent liberals for their fainting couches had the streamers in the hall been red instead of blue, or had they occurred in, oh, say, 2004. Opaque and vaguely sinister phrases like “economic patriotism” were bandied about freely, and the laudable extirpation of Osama bin Laden was milked for all it was worth. The frenzy reached its climax with Vice President Biden’s sloganeered boast that “bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!”

Less than a week later, four Americans were dead in Libya and al-Qaeda flags flew over our diplomatic missions in Benghazi and Cairo on the anniversary of 9/11. The juxtaposition of the campaign brag with the video of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens’s body being dragged through the streets was politically unfortunate for the president — especially given his earlier boast that anti-Americanism would wane under his administration. This perhaps explains, though can never justify, what is now clear about the administration’s persistent denial that the attack was preplanned. Namely, that the White House either was deliberately less than truthful, was cataclysmically incompetent, or both.

From a handful of investigative reports and a few intrepid whistleblowers who came forward to Representative Darrell Issa’s House Oversight Committee, we now know that before Benghazi — before Charlotte — the U.S. intelligence community was well aware that al-Qaeda was in an “expansion phase” in Libya. Indeed, anti-Western attacks, including RPG and IED attacks on the Benghazi consulate, had been ramping up since as early as April, and by June Libyan militants were openly discussing targeting Ambassador Stevens on social networks. We also know that despite all this, repeated requests for additional security from U.S. mission staff in Libya were denied.

Within 24 hours of the Benghazi attack that killed Stevens and three others, U.S. intelligence had “very good information” that the strike was preplanned and perpetrated by al-Qaeda-connected militants. And yet on September 13, Jay Carney was saying they were “not directly in reaction to . . . the government of the United States or the people of the United States.” And as late as September 16, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice was flooding the Sunday chat shows with the same message: “We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.”

It wasn’t until more than a week later that administration officials admitted Benghazi was a terrorist hit, and it wasn’t until nearly two weeks later that the president yielded as much. This long after the intelligence community — not to mention the Libyan government, Senator John McCain, House Select Committee on Intelligence chairman Mike Rogers, a number of reporters and pundits, and anyone with a handful of functioning neurons and an Internet connection — had reached the same conclusion. In the interim, the yawning gap between the administration’s official line and the dictates of common sense raised the critical question: Was the White House wishfully guessing because it actually didn’t know or care about the conditions on the ground in a state in which it had intervened with precision-guided munitions to create, or was it telling tales as part of a shortsighted political calculation to keep the first assassination of a U.S. ambassador in 30 years from becoming a campaign issue down the home stretch? If it’s the former, it suggests a startling and dangerous disconnect between the administration’s diplomatic, intelligence, and political chains of command in a region critical to the national security of the United States. If it’s the latter, it reveals something just as dangerous: an administration willing to suppress the truth about the murder of Americans to protect its short-term political interests.

In light of these alternatives, Secretary Clinton’s recent announcement — that her State Department will not have definitive answers about what happened in the lead-up to and aftermath of Benghazi until (what are the odds?) some time between November and January — is unacceptable. A few weeks ago, we wouldn’t blame the administration’s spinners for assuming that a somnambulant media would let them get away with silence and obfuscation through the election. After all, it has until now only been able to whip itself into froth over Mitt Romney’s (thoroughly redeemed) early take on the eruption of violence, and not on real, proximate causes or the administration’s response.

But that might be changing. If the mounting evidence of malfeasance isn’t a smoking gun, it is at least one still warm to the touch, and at this point even CNN has called the administration’s behavior indicative of a “cover-up.” We hope the rest of the mainstream media can be persuaded — or shamed — into putting aside horserace politics to get to the bottom of Benghazi, and that the moderators at the October 16 and October 22 foreign-policy debates will zero in on Benghazi in their questions to Mssrs. Romney and Obama. The American people deserve to hear the truth from the president, in prime time. And the president’s foreign policy deserves a reckoning.


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