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Benghazi, Twisting Slowly, Slowly in the Wind

by William Boardman, published
Photo: Official White House Photo // Pete Souza

Two of the prime terrorist suspects in the Benghazi attack have been captured (one is dead), dozens more have been arrested in Libya, and the suspect group is dispersed and hunted, with its Benghazi headquarters dismantled.

“This issue of Benghazi is really bubbling up,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin, said on Fox News October 28, echoing a talking point repeated on other networks and elsewhere by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Reince Priebus, Carly Fiorina, Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, among others. During the next 24 hours, rightwing blogs were alive with the new meme of a “Benghazi Blackout.”

The essentials of the Benghazi attack on September 11 have been known and unchanging since the day after, as timelines by the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press attest: about 20 jihadists in a local militia, taking advantage of growing anger over an internet video, launched an organized attack on the consulate that killed two Americans and several Libyans in the course of about two hours (9:30-11:30 pm). A quick reaction force from the CIA annex nearby came to the consulate and took the American survivors back to the annex. While they, and Libyan forces, were preparing to evacuate the diplomatic personnel, there was a brief mortar attack (about 4 am) on the annex, killing two American SEALS.

All this was clear, in broad outline, from the original reporting. Three State Department emails leaked on October 24 told the same story.

McCain’s Talking Point: “Massive Cover-Up” 

On CBS, Sen. McCain responded to a question about Hurricane Sandy by pivoting into an answer about Benghazi: “This tragedy turned into a debacle and massive cover-up or massive incompetence in Libya is having an effect on the voter because of their view of the commander in chief. And it is now the worst cover-up or incompetence that I have ever observed in my life.”

Asked to explain what he meant, Sen. McCain, failed to explain what he thought believed was potentially being covered up.

In mid-September, Sen. McCain took Sean Hannity, and Fox News in general, to task for bad reporting on Libya: “It was you and people on Fox that said in Libya, ‘We didn’t know who they were and let’s not help these people...’ They had an election and they elected moderates. They rejected Islamists. And yes, there are al-Qaida factors and there are extremists in Libya today, but the Libyan people are friends of ours, and they support us, and they support democracy. So you were wrong about — so you were wrong about Libya.”

The negative reaction to the handling of the Benghazi attack began on September 11, when Mitt Romney misrepresented the American response in Egypt to local unrest there due to the 14-minute Islamophobic video that had been translated into Arabic and shown on Egyptian television. Partisan Republicans have tried to make a political issue of the Benghazi attack ever since.

How Is Benghazi Worse Than Watergate? 

One line of attack has been to portray the Obama administration’s curiously inconsistent statements about Benghazi as a cover-up, with some characterizing it as worse than Watergate. Sean Hannity launched the cover-up meme on September 20 on Fox News, without explaining exactly what was being covered up or why, just that it would somehow help the president’s re-election, presumably the way the Watergate cover-up helped Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972.

No one has explained the Watergate meme coherently since it began, including Sen. McCain on CBS, who said, “You know, somebody the other day said to me this is as bad as Watergate. Well, nobody died in Watergate. But this is either a massive cover-up or incompetence that is not acceptable service to the American people.”

Another line of assertion by the administration's opposition said that the U.S. could have made an effective military response to the Benghazi attack while it was happening, but chose for some unexplained reason not to do so.

The charge is not credible for several reasons, including:

  • Libyan reinforcements arrived during the early fighting;
  • The first fight lasted about two hours, too brief for the nearest American forces to arrive;
  • American reinforcements arrived from Tripoli around 1 am and were at the consulate annex when it suffered a mortar attack between 2 and 4;
  • The American reinforcements enabled the remaining American diplomatic personnel to leave Benghazi safely.
The Pentagon Tries to Deal in Military Realities

At a multi-topic news briefing on October 25, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta responded to questions that included Benghazi. One questioner asked, “Why there was no military support earlier on the attack," which ignored available information on the length of the attack and the amount of military support that did respond during, and after, the two hour attack on the consulate.

Sec. Panetta described the forces available in the region, and then explained:

"But -- but the basic principle here -- basic principle is that you don't deploy forces into harm's way without knowing what's going on; without having some real-time information about what's taking place. And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, General Ham, General Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation...This -- this happened within a few hours and it was really over before, you know, we had the opportunity to really know what was happening."

In his CBS appearance on October 28, Sen. McCain indirectly supported the Pentagon explanation when he said, “obviously there was no military either capability or orders to intervene in a seven-hour fight.” Even though McCain claims the fight was much longer than its actual length, he concludes there was no capability for any more military support than was provided

Fox’s Claim from an Anonymous Source

On October 26, Fox News cited anonymous sources to support a claim “that an urgent request from the CIA annex for military back-up during the attack on the US consulate and subsequent attack several hours later on the annex itself was denied by the CIA chain of command.” According to Fox, the request was made after midnight from the CIA annex in Benghazi and asked for a Spectre gunship that was based 480 miles away in Italy. Fox stated falsely that “fighting at the CIA annex went on for more than four hours.”

The CIA, the Pentagon, and the White House all denied the Fox story.

On October 28, Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume complained that mainstream media were more or less ignoring the Benghazi story, saying, “One of the problems we’re having here is, that it has fallen to this news organization, Fox News and a couple others, to do all the heavy lifting on this story.”

He didn’t say what wasn’t covered, but went on to say, “Normally, the big news organizations would have this thing out there. And we would know a lot more than we do about — about what the president did, what he knew, when he knew it, and what when he made what order he made and on what basis.”

If the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack is a cover-up more significant than Watergate, then what is being covered up? Based on the available evidence, it seems unlikely the administration is hiding a significant amount of information or a severe mishandling of the situation. Libya's future will be the only testament to the success or failure of the administration's foreign policies there.

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