Editorial: Benghazi: What the report reveals about Hillary Clinton
Two years in the making, 800 pages long, gripping in tone, the report of the U.S. House Select Committee on Benghazi — released Tuesday — is the definitive account of the Sept. 11, 2012, Libya attacks that killed four Americans: Ambassador Chris Stevens, foreign service officer Sean Smith and CIA contractors Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
Parts read like a Tom Clancy thriller, but it's the sections that mirror "House of Cards" — you know, the behind-the-scenes political stuff — that give "Benghazi" its immediate significance. That's because in this drama the role of secretary of state was performed by Hillary Clinton, the now-presumptive Democratic nominee for president. So the voting public wants to know how Clinton fares: Does the report cast her as a villain or a more nuanced character?
Probably you thought you knew a little, or a lot, about this document. In some ways it's a sequel, or even a reboot, given the fact that there already have been multiple, narrower investigations. A preliminary Select Committee report was published a year ago. Last October Clinton testified in public for 11 hours. Many Democrats have viewed all of this as a Republican-led attempt to undercut her campaign.
But when packaged as a complete volume, the report delivers on its promise to analyze the entire debacle so the risk of a future disaster is reduced. On the question of how Clinton and the Obama administration reacted, we see more than enough evidence to reaffirm our opinion that the secretary of state failed a crucial chance to show decisive, principled leadership.
The crux of it is that during and well after the chaos of the attacks on the State Department's outpost and nearby CIA annex in Benghazi, Clinton and the Obama administration promoted a false narrative for public consumption: that the violence came from a spontaneous outburst of mob anger. Although Clinton confided to her daughter, Chelsea, in an email that night that an al-Qaida faction was responsible, for two weeks she let fester the story that mob action, not a planned assault her department might have anticipated, killed her employees.
The supposition Clinton and others held to was that the attacks were related in nature to political protests the same day outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Those demonstrators were angry about an anti-Islam video. With the Benghazi attacks still unfolding, Clinton released the administration's only statement on the evening of Sept. 11, and she focused on the video. But the next day, Clinton told Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Kandil, "We know that the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack — not a protest."
What she told Kandil was true, the report confirms: The Americans came under sudden attack at their compound by a force of about 70 heavily armed men. The only warning: the sudden disappearance of a Libyan police vehicle. Attackers approached the building, invaded and set fire to it.
Stevens and Smith died in the fire. Doherty and Woods were killed in a subsequent attack on the CIA annex.
As hours and days passed, the report shows, inaccurate accounts of the Benghazi timeline inexplicably endured. On Sept. 14, White House spokesman Jay Carney said: "We have no information to suggest that it was a preplanned attack. The unrest we've seen around the region has been in reaction to a video that Muslims, many Muslims find offensive
The administration looked for an official to go on the Sunday morning talk shows Sept. 16. Ben Rhodes, President Barack Obama's deputy national security adviser, sent a request to Clinton but never heard back. The thankless job fell to Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Rice had little knowledge of the events. She relied in part on background information from Rhodes.
Here the report gets at the politics of Benghazi, because it shows that among Rhodes' talking points to Rice was this specific goal to communicate to the viewing public: "To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy."
In other words: In mid-September 2012, in the wake of a terrorist attack in Libya, with Obama up for re-election in two months and Clinton's own presidential aspirations at risk, the White House sent a lesser representative in front of the cameras. Armed with bad information, she insisted that four Americans died as the result of a spontaneous protest — not because of Washington's failure to anticipate a terrorist attack on an isolated U.S. compound in unstable Libya on the anniversary of 9/11.