Politics & Policy

The October Surprise May Be Libya

Lt. Col. Andrew Wood testifies before Congress on Benghazi, October 10, 2012.
Team Obama claims the Middle East as a singular success. Will the media go along?

What if we’ve already had an October surprise in this campaign, in September, and the mainstream media are failing to follow up? An issue becomes a real issue only if enough people give it the attention it’s due.

Many people in the diplomatic and intelligence communities say that the Obama administration, behind the scenes, is in complete disarray in the aftermath of al-Qaeda’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. That tension burst into the open during last Thursday’s debate, when Vice President Joe Biden said the administration “did not know” that U.S. personnel in Libya had made repeated requests for more security before the September 11 attack. “We did not know they wanted more security there,” Biden claimed.

That directly contradicted sworn testimony given by several officials just the day before, during a House Oversight Committee hearing. Lt. Colonel Andrew Wood, who led a 16-member security team in Libya for six months, testified: “We felt great frustration that those requests were ignored or just never met.” Wood’s team was ordered by the State Department to leave Libya in August, about a month before the terrorist assault.

After the debate, Obama-administration officials knew that Biden’s statement was untenable, so they explained that by “we” — the “we” who were in the dark about security concerns — Biden meant only two people: himself and President Obama. It’s a parsing of words worthy of Bill Clinton’s famous “it all depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

#ad#It’s not the first time that the intelligence community has been thrown under the bus by an administration trying to paper over a foreign-policy failure, but Biden’s move was breathtaking in its brazenness. In front of tens of millions, he squarely blamed the intelligence officials for the administration’s pathetic, erroneous claim that an anti-Islam video had sparked spontaneous protests that later turned violent at the Libyan consulate.

“The intelligence community told us that,” Biden said during the debate. “As they learned more facts about exactly what happened, they changed their assessment.”

But a former senior intelligence official scoffed at that assertion. “The administration designated Benghazi as a terrorist attack within 24 hours while at the same time declaring the attack was a ‘spontaneous protest’ that ‘spun out of control,’” he told me. “They can’t get their story straight, so the cover-up is deepening.” Even some Democratic senators have been pressing for immediate hearings on Libya, but Majority Leader Harry Reid has blocked them, the official added. Is the need to discover problems with U.S. security taking a back seat to electoral politics?

On CBS’s Face the Nation on Sunday, Republican senator Lindsay Graham of South Carolina said he knows for a fact that the administration was told within 24 hours of the incident that it was al-Qaeda operatives who carried it out. “They’re trying to sell a narrative, quite frankly, that the Mideast, the wars are receding, and al-Qaeda’s been dismantled,” Graham said. “And to admit that our embassy was attacked by al-Qaeda operatives and [that] Libya ‘leading from behind’ didn’t work, I think undercuts that narrative. They never believed the media would investigate. Congress was out of session, and this caught up with them.”

John Batchelor, a syndicated radio talk-show host who often features intelligence analysts on his program, reported only two days after the attack that Ambassador Stevens was probably lured by al-Qaeda to Benghazi, where he was then assassinated. This massive security failure has prompted the administration to order a rather inartful cover-up, Batchelor contends. “These are the responses of marketers, not policymakers, the reactions of electioneering and not national security,” he told me. “The White House appears to be in disarray in running its permanent-campaign model. All decisions are being made on the run and without strategic planning. It may now be unraveling.”

Obama officials may have made a key mistake when, in their panic, they attempted to lay blame for the Libyan fiasco solely on others. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters that responsibility for Libya lay with the State Department, not the White House. Ed Klein, a former New York Times editor who has authored recent biographies of both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, says his sources tell him that Bill Clinton is already pulling together an informal legal team to create a defense in case Obama officials continue to point the finger in Hillary’s direction.

“If she is left with this stain on her reputation, it could seriously damage her chances for election” as president in 2016, Klein told the Daily Caller.

Michael Baker, a former covert CIA officer who now runs a division of the Diligence intelligence company, says that most career agency professionals will keep their mouths shut between now and Election Day. “But you can bet some of the more political people in the administration will tell their side of the story,” he told me. “We could soon learn a lot more.”

So if the Libyan attack turns into a full-fledged scandal, will it become an issue in the campaign, or will it be even noticed?

This all recalls the last month of the 1996 presidential campaign, when the Clinton administration was trying to run out the clock on the John Huang fundraising scandal. A former Commerce Department official, Huang was a top fundraiser who scooped up suspect foreign cash for Team Clinton. Throughout October 1996, Huang dodged subpoenas and reporters. The dimensions of the scandal became clear only after the election, when reporters uncovered ties between Huang associates and the Communist regime in Beijing.

Even so, the Huang scandal had an impact on the election; it may have helped Bob Dole tighten up the race at the last minute (he wound up losing by only eight points). In her book on the campaign, journalist Elizabeth Drew quoted Bill Clinton as saying that negative coverage of the Huang fundraising scandal allowed Republicans to keep the House in the 1996 election.

It’s no surprise that everyone in and around the Obama administration is trying to keep the lid on the Libyan scandal. It’s also not surprising that the media — so far — haven’t been asking nearly enough questions about the administration’s conduct in the scandal. Up until now the White House has been touting the Middle East as a singular success. Many reporters seem willing to go along with that storyline. But there is still time for the media to redeem themselves.

— John Fund is national-affairs columnist for NRO.

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