Politics & Policy

Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Defense: It Depends on What the Meaning of ‘Lied’ Is

Clinton testifies on Capitol Hill, October 22, 2015. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty)

Bill Clinton’s famous defense, “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” was not a Heideggerian musing. It was the most obvious example of the linguistic trapdoors that the Clintons regularly install to slither out of countless corners. Now, following Marco Rubio’s charge during last week’s Republican debate that Hillary Clinton lied about the Benghazi attacks, Clinton’s defenders are highlighting those escape hatches — and using them as evidence of her honesty.

“Last week, Hillary Clinton went before a committee,” Rubio said at the debate:

She admitted she had sent e-mails to her family saying, “Hey, this attack at Benghazi was caused by al-Qaeda-like elements.” She spent over a week telling the families of those victims and the American people that it was because of a video. And yet the mainstream media is going around saying it was the greatest week in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It was the week she got exposed as a liar.

The next morning Rubio faced a testy Charlie Rose, who goggled at the charge (“You called Hillary Clinton a liar, senator.”), then tried to shift the blame to fluid CIA intelligence. Rubio stood by his comments and added: “There was never, ever any evidence that [the attack] had anything to do with a video.”

EDITORIAL: What Hillary Knew

Taking these claims together, Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler gave Rubio two Pinocchios out of four:

Can Rubio really attribute this to a “lie” rather than the fog of war? A “lie” suggests a deliberate effort to deceive, while the documentary evidence suggests there were few hard answers available then to policymakers. . . . Rubio is certainly within his rights to point out Clinton’s contradictory statements — and the remarks of the family members give us pause — but he does not have enough evidence to label Clinton a liar.

As Mark Hemingway points out at The Weekly Standard, Kessler makes the fog of war cloudier than it actually was. The House Intelligence Committee report that he cites against Rubio (and which Rubio signed) is, in fact, explicit: “No witness has reported believing at any point that the attacks were anything but terrorist acts.” What was unclear was which terrorist groups, precisely, were involved.

Yet Kessler’s assessment — “Looking at Clinton’s public statements, it is clear she was very careful to keep the attacks separate from the video; the two incidents do not appear in the same sentence (unlike the controversial televised remarks by then–U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice)” — mirrors that of Will Saletan, writing at Slate, who declares: “Clinton chose her words carefully because, although some reporting suggested a connection between the video and the attack, the exact relationship wasn’t clear.”

RELATED: The Benghazi Hearings Confirm Yet Again What a Brazen Liar Hillary Is 

In fact, the relationship — or lack thereof — was clear. Within 24 hours of the attack, Clinton had rung up Egyptian prime minister Hisham Kandil to tell him: “We know the attack had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack, not a protest.” And, of course, the administration had ample warning that an attack would be coming. Al-Qaeda had spent the months leading up to September 11, 2012, threatening attacks on American embassies in the Middle East and North Africa.

#share#Saletan’s “debunking” is an exercise in cherry-picked facts and interpretations. He puts enormous stock in Clinton’s initial statement on the evening of the attacks, contending that she distances herself from blaming the video when she writes, “Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet.” But there are, in fact, two weasel-words here: “Some” and “justify.” No, Clinton may not be “justifying” the behavior as a response to the video; but she may well be explaining it that way. This less generous reading is supported by the next sentence, which Saletan omits: “The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.” Without saying so explicitly, Clinton is clearly tying the attack to the anti-Islam video.

She does the same two days later in her remarks opening the U.S.–Morocco Strategic Dialogue:

I also want to take a moment to address the video circulating on the Internet that has led to these protests in a number of countries. . . . To us, to me personally, this video is disgusting and reprehensible. It appears to have a deeply cynical purpose: to denigrate a great religion and to provoke rage. But as I said yesterday, there is no justification, none at all, for responding to this video with violence. We condemn the violence that has resulted in the strongest terms, and we greatly appreciate that many Muslims in the United States and around the world have spoken out on this issue.

Does that violence include Benghazi? “It is especially wrong for violence to be directed against diplomatic missions,” she continues. “All governments have a responsibility to protect those spaces and people, because to attack an embassy is to attack the idea that we can work together to build understanding and a better future.”

RELATED: Hillary’s Breathtaking Mendacity

But Benghazi was not “embassy,” as Saletan points out while reading through Clinton’s remarks the next day at the transfer-of-remains ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base: “We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with.”

Since “our post in Benghazi” is not an “embassy,” she is discussing two different situations.

#related#But here is the central question: What listener would disambiguate? Kessler and Saletan and other Clinton defenders slide over that pesky question, because it makes plain that, if they are correct, it is strictly in a Jesuitical sense. Their interpretations assume that Clinton was parsing her words in an effort to give more-accurate information, in an attempt not to mislead — whereas her repeated condemnation of the video, and the proximity of that condemnation to her discussions of violence, suggest just the opposite, in the context of the White House’s blatantly political talking points: She tried her darnedest to mislead as much as she could without saying anything that could be explicitly disproven. Three decades of dissembling support that interpretation.

It’s the same old story. The Clintons never “lie.” They just never tell the truth.

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