National Security & Defense

What We Do Know about the Benghazi Attack Demands a Reckoning

The compound in Benghazi, September 11, 2012. (Esam Al-Fetori/Reuters)

Nine months before a terrorist attack on U.S. government facilities in Benghazi, Libya, killed four American officials, including ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the State Department dispatched a security officer to assess the threat there. In an interview with the House Select Committee on Benghazi, the officer recounted his report to a superior at State, then under the direction of Secretary Hillary Clinton:

I told him that this was a suicide mission; that there was a very good chance that everybody here was going to die; that there was absolutely no ability here to prevent an attack whatever. . . . He said, “Everybody back here in D.C. knows that people are going to die in Benghazi and nobody is going to care until somebody does die.”

The Select Committee issued its long-awaited report on Tuesday. In many ways, it is a disappointment — an outcome guaranteed by Obama administration stonewalling, abetted by congressional Democrats’ tireless interference. The committee held few public hearings to hold officials accountable, and major questions it was created to examine remain unanswered: Why did the State Department and CIA have compounds in Benghazi, one of the most dangerous places in the world, particularly for Americans? What was President Obama doing during the hours of the siege, particularly once he knew our ambassador was missing? Why, despite the presence of military assets, was no rescue attempted? And why — when the threat was extraordinary, and after months of jihadist attacks on Western targets in the region — was no plan in place to extract the Americans from Benghazi?

Nevertheless, the report is a devastating account of staggering dereliction of duty and deception by the president and his top subordinates. Front and center in every phase of this disgraceful episode is Mrs. Clinton, whose appalling judgment and character flaws are amply illustrated in its pages.

The committee’s voluminous report is ably summarized in the concurrence appended by two Republican members, Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mike Pompeo of Kansas. The Benghazi terrorist attack occurred 56 days before the 2012 presidential election. In his campaign for reelection, President Obama repeatedly declared that the killing of Osama bin Laden signaled the defeat of al-Qaeda and its network of affiliates. In reality, the terror threat still remained grave, especially in a post-Qaddafi Libya that had collapsed into chaos and provided a refuge for terrorists, including groups tied to al-Qaeda and ISIS.

Jihadist strongholds flourished especially in eastern Libya, and Benghazi was the most prominent among them. Clinton saw the city as the centerpiece of the anti-Qaddafi resistance and envisioned establishing a permanent State Department mission there to memorialize her achievement. The reality, however, was that Benghazi ran rampant with anti-Western terrorists who carried out serial attacks during 2012. Realizing the peril, the U.N., Great Britain, and other nations pulled their people out. Clinton not only left ours there; she turned a deaf ear to pleas for better security. In fact, the Benghazi “facility” — not a consulate, much less an embassy — appears to have been designated “temporary” precisely to rationalize skirting the stringent security provisions the State Department requires for permanent outposts. Again, as Jordan and Pompeo observe, the committee never got an answer to the obvious question: “What was so important in Benghazi that it meant risking the lives of Americans in what many apparently considered a suicide mission?”

#share#The attack on the facility, which Obama was briefed on by top Defense Department officials shortly after it began, threatened to destroy the president’s campaign claims. He clearly distanced himself from the response — i.e., from the core responsibilities of his office — although State Department officials were made aware that the White House was very concerned about the politics. Clinton, already plotting her 2016 campaign, had similar worries, given her portrayal of post-Qaddafi Libya as an Arab Spring success story where a stable, representative government was taking shape.

Foreign-service and intelligence personnel were left in what State Department insiders knew was a death trap even as the threat to them increased.

Politics thus controlled the response to the attack — to the extent that there was a response. Shockingly, the world’s most powerful military was entirely unprepared to deploy military assets to attempt to rescue the dozens of Americans fighting for their lives. The administration has claimed that there was no time for a response, that the siege appeared to have terminated at the State Department compound — where Ambassador Stevens and State Department technician Sean Smith were attacked — before war planes or armed drones could have gotten there, and that it only later unexpectedly resumed at the nearby CIA compound. This misstates the facts. The siege never ended for those under attack. They faced hostile fire at the State compound, while moving between compounds, and at the final battle at the CIA site, where trained jihadi fighters deployed mortars that killed security officers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. But Obama and his subordinates never even tried to relieve the Americans under attack. It is not that rescue craft turned around once reports led them to believe it was too late to get to Benghazi; they never left the ground in the first place.

The spin, though, launched immediately. Even as jihadists continued firing at Americans and torching American facilities, even as Ambassador Stevens was missing and feared dead or abducted, Clinton and Obama went to work crafting a fictional account of events. Shortly after 10 p.m., Clinton issued a statement depicting the ongoing violence as an overwrought response provoked by an anti-Muslim video.

Key administration players knew from the first that this was a lie. Their best intelligence (including a last, desperate call from Stevens himself) was that the siege was a terrorist attack — coordinated by trained militants and obviously unrelated to violent, anti-American protests in Egypt earlier in the day. Clinton herself clearly knew it was a lie: As the committee report demonstrates, at the same time she was feeding the “blame the video” narrative to the pubic (and, execrably, to the parents of the fallen security officials at the solemn ceremony when their remains were returned), she was telling the truth to foreign officials and her daughter Chelsea. As she told the Egyptian prime minister in a phone call: “We know that the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack — not a protest.”

#related#The administration went into full damage-control mode, with White House apparatchik Ben Rhodes — who would later craft the false narratives that pushed Obama’s Iran deal over the goal line — counseling that the administration’s “goals” included “to underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”

The entire episode is shameful: Foreign-service and intelligence personnel were left in what State Department insiders knew was a death trap even as the threat to them increased. When the inevitable attack came, they were left on their own. And when it came time to explain themselves, administration officials lied: Obama, Clinton, Rice, Rhodes, Carney, and the rest — serially and systematically. That most of the Americans in Benghazi were saved owes to the incredible valor of security personnel on the scene, two of whom gave their lives while the government responsible for protecting them refused to give the time of day.

Four years later, we still do not have all the answers. But the answers we do have are a disgrace, and they demand a reckoning.

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The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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