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."

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Michael Hirsh is chief correspondent for National Journal.

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