What We Learned About Benghazi: Incompetence, but No Cover-Up

Moving hearings on Capitol Hill don't turn up any evidence that the Obama Administration deliberately misled Congress or the nation.
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Mark Thompson, Gregory Hicks, and Eric Nordstrom are sworn in before a House hearing on Benghazi. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

There was tragic incompetence, plainly, in the Obama Administration's handling of the Benghazi attacks, and even possibly some political calculation. It is a record that may well come to haunt Hillary Clinton, the first Secretary of State to lose an ambassador in the field in more than three decades, if she runs for president in 2016.

But the obvious Republican effort to turn this inquiry into the Democratic (Obama) version of the Iraq intelligence scandal that has tarred the GOP since the George W. Bush years -- led by that least-credible of champions, the almost-always-wrong Darrell Issa -- is just not going to amount to much.

The testimony Wednesday by three highly credible witnesses before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee added to the serious questions that have been raised for months about Benghazi. Last December, Clinton's own "Accountability Review Board" -- chaired by two major national-security figures, retired Amb. Thomas R. Pickering and Adm. Michael Mullen -- detailed a broad failure of U.S. intelligence and policy-making over the deaths of Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

Statements and testimony in recent days from the three State Department officials, led by Stevens' former deputy in Libya, Gregory Hicks, only appeared to underline the administration's failure to take action, futile though it might have been, to save the lives of its emissaries. Hicks, in prepared testimony, said the U.S. military turned down his request for help during the attack, both special operations troops and F-16 fighters. Another witness, Mark Thompson, the deputy coordinator for operations at the State Department, was expected to say that Hillary Clinton sought to cut her department's counterterrorism bureau out of the chain of decision-making, suggesting that she was downplaying the rise of terrorism in keeping with the administration's political line during the 2012 presidential campaign (which Clinton has already denied). The last witness, Eric Nordstrom, the diplomatic outpost's former chief security officer, has said that the Benghazi compound failed to meet security standards despite serious security threats.

The most moving -- if still-not-quite scandalous -- testimony came from Hicks, who described how he virtually begged for help as Stevens and his colleagues were being killed that night of Sept. 11, 2012. The help never came. The administration's response has been that Hicks, a diplomat, is no expert in military capabilities, and his allegations have already been directly rebutted by both Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, and former Defense Sec. Leon Panetta. Dempsey testified in February that it would have taken "up to 20 hours or so" to get F-16s to the site, and he called them "the wrong tool for the job." Panetta testified that "the bottom line" is that "we were not dealing with a prolonged or continuous assault, which could have been brought to an end by a U.S. military response, very simply, although we had forces deployed to the region. Time, distance, the lack of an adequate warning, events that moved very quickly on the ground prevented a more immediate response."

The military may yet have more to answer for as it conducts its own internal followup. And, without question, all of these statements Wednesday tend to bolster the critique of last year's State Department report, which concluded that the administration had failed to appreciate the growing Islamist threat in Libya. As the report put it, "there was little understanding of militias in Benghazi and the threat they posed to U.S. interests."

What there is still no evidence of, however, all these months later, is a deliberate cover-up by Obama, Clinton or other senior officials concerning what they knew about the attack and when. As occurred last fall, in the heat of the presidential campaign, much of the questioning on Wednesday focused on why four days after the attacks, on Sept. 15, intel briefers sent U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice off to tape the Sunday talk shows with talking points that suggested Stevens' death was the result of "spontaneous" protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo against a short film made in California lampooning the Prophet Mohammad. According to Hicks, in a phone call after Rice's appearance he specifically asked Beth Jones, the acting assistant secretary of State for the region, "why the ambassador had said there was a demonstration when the embassy had reported only an attack." Hicks had said previously he thought what happened was "a terrorist attack from the get-go."

Hicks' testimony appeared to lend credence to longstanding GOP charges that the administration was deliberately hiding evidence that new al-Qaida-linked terrorist groups were at work killing Americans, since one of the president's big talking points in the election was that he had decimated al Qaida.

In fact, however, even today it is not clear exactly what happened to precipitate the Benghazi attack, and Libya remains somewhat in a "fog of war" situation just as it was during the Benghazi attacks. It was only a week ago that the FBI posted images of three suspects captured by surveillance cameras the night of the attack, asking the public's help in identifying them. Just two weeks ago the French embassy in Tripoli was hit by a mysterious car bomb, injuring two guards.

Intelligence officials say it took a week or so after Rice's TV appearances to clarify, for certain, that there had been no protest before the assault on the compound -- and that, as the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement on Sept. 28, two weeks after Rice spoke, that "it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists."

The intelligence community continues to maintain the same defense: that at the time of Rice's appearance it simply did not have a good grasp of what had happened, and in some cases could not divulge classified information that was coming in about the attack. "The [talking] points were not edited to minimize the role of extremists, diminish terrorist affiliations, or play down that this was an attack," a U.S. official told National Journal on Wednesday. "It is important not to overlook that there are legitimate intelligence and legal issues to consider, as is almost always the case when explaining classified assessments publicly. First, the information about individuals linked to al-Qaeda was derived from classified sources. Second, when early links are tenuous it makes sense to be cautious before pointing fingers to avoid setting off a chain of circular and self-reinforcing assumptions and reporting. Finally, it is important to be careful not to prejudice a criminal investigation in its early stages." And Rice, to her credit, did say that Sunday that her statement was "based on the best information we have to date." She also referred to "extremist elements, individuals, [who] joined in ..."

All this will no doubt come back to haunt Hillary Clinton should she decide to run for president; in some cases, she appeared to have been too removed from the events in Benghazi. Hicks at one point testified that that he personally spoke to Clinton at 2 a.m. on the night of the attacks, which makes the administration's vague description in subsequent days even more suspicious.

But that hardly adds up to a cover-up. In the end, Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the committee, may find himself digging yet another dry well, as he has done so many times. Even before he took over the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, with zero evidence in hand, Issa called Obama "one of the most corrupt presidents in modern times." In his relentless search for evidence (and headlines) since, he has found nothing to back up that statement, including his highly publicized and largely fruitless hearings last June into the the Justice Department's botched "Fast and Furious" gun-tracking program.

Benghazi was a tragedy. It will, almost certainly, remain a political issue. What it is not - by a long shot -- is a scandal yet.

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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