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.”
President Obama’s failures of policy here are considerable, and they run from the specific to the general. U.S. diplomatic facilities in the Middle East should enjoy extraordinary security measures at all times, but they should be fortresses when September 11 comes around on the calendar. And the usual high level of security that should mark that day should have been intensified by the presence of specific threats against our embassies. The events of September 11, 2012, are ipso facto evidence of a catastrophic failure to protect American facilities abroad, and that this happened despite the warnings of our intelligence agencies compounds the failure. That is one part of the “broader failure of policy” that the video narrative was intended to obscure. Another part is the administration’s lack of coherent policy in Egypt, Libya, and the greater Middle East, which has left our allies wary and our enemies encouraged.
It is easy to understand why an administration inclined toward bending the truth would choose to do so at that moment: Americans were murdered by jihadists on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and the Obama administration did not have its pants cinched firmly at the waist. But why this particular, peculiar version of events? The answer, again, is election-year politics. The progressive mind is arrested by a persecution fantasy involving a network of Christian fundamentalists — dare we call it a “vast, right-wing conspiracy”? — something rather like the Taliban. And, no surprise, as soon as Ambassador Rice began retailing her story about the Christian provocateur with a YouTube account, the media and the institutional Left fell into line: “Deadly Riots in Libya: Right-Wing Christian Group Behind Anti-Muslim Film” wrote Max Blumenthal of Media Matters and the Daily Beast; “Anti-Muslim Christian Activists Responsible For Inflammatory Innocence of Muslims Film” reported the Anti-Defamation League; “Behind the inflammatory video, a vast right-wing network,” wrote Susan Webb; Hillary Clinton declared that “the United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others,” Ed Husain of the Council on Foreign Relations characterized the film as the work of a “right-wing fellow,” Uprising Radio hyperventilated over the “right-wing Islamophobia industry,” and, thus, as the Christian Post put it: “‘Anti-Islam’ Filmmaker Blamed for Benghazi Attacks.” Though the substitutionary magic of political theater, the bloodshed in Benghazi became not a blunder by the Obama administration but the fault of its critics.
There is much to be learned still about what happened at Benghazi and how to be better on guard against such events in the future. But about what happened in Washington regarding Benghazi there is no doubt: The Obama administration intentionally misled the American public for political purposes, shamefully distorting the facts about an attack in which American citizens and public servants were murdered, for its own narrow political ends. One needn’t think that Benghazi is the next Watergate to be disturbed by the administration’s behavior, and by its continued resistance to providing a full and honest accounting of its actions that day.