In a tense press briefing in the White House East Room on Monday, President Obama cleared his throat before addressing the subject on everyone's mind: last fall's attack on an American facility in Benghazi, Libya. Obama led with the basics: "Americans died in Benghazi.... Clearly, they were not in a position where they were adequately protected."
Questioning how to change that truth is worth America's time. As a former State Department official who worked with Ambassador Chris Stevens in the months before his murder in Benghazi, I feel that inquiry's urgency. But the congressional hearings that have dominated the last week of headlines -- with more promised by House Republicans -- are not that inquiry. Congress could have focused on three time periods during their investigation: before, during, and after the attack. In all but exclusively focusing on what Administration officials said after Stevens's death, Congress isn't just wasting America's time -- it's squandering a chance to save lives in the future.
This focus on the aftermath continues to yield few meaningful lessons. Last week's major story was that Hillary Clinton's Deputy Cheryl Mills -- to whom I reported and whom I know to be an individual of integrity -- called an American diplomat in Libya days after the attack, while a congressional delegation was visiting the country. The call apparently touched on concerns that Representative Jason Chaffetz, a leader of the Beghazi hearings, was denying State department legal and support staff access to his meetings with American officials in Libya. The diplomat testified that there was "clearly no direct criticism" in the call, but it has been painted by House Republicans as an attempt to intimidate him. I have worked at conflict zone Embassies during visits from congressional Delegations, which can be intrusive and fraught. The presence of numerous officials -- sometimes including legal advisors -- is not unusual. Cheryl Mills calling for an update would be similarly unsurprising. But even if one were to accept the most fanciful Republican characterization of events -- that, as a Clinton loyalist, she was displeased with the potential for political exploitation -- the story is at worst one of an official being protective of her department.
The hearing also brought back to the headlines a set of talking points used by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice on talk shows less than a week after the attack. The infamous talking points omitted a then-unverified suggestion that organized terrorist elements were involved. Their significance, even to the question of administration transparency, is limited: within three days of Rice's interviews, President Obama's top officials were explicitly describing Benghazi as a terrorist attack, to Congress and to the public. The White House quickly shared its entire archive of emails related to the taking points with congressional intelligence committees. On Wednesday of this week, it released the same emails to the public. The chain of custody of the talking points -- which were edited by CIA and State Department officials, with the White House performing its standard role mediating those edits -- is on full display for anyone interested. The larger point is this: the details Susan Rice mentioned in that first round of interviews changed nothing. No lives were lost, and none stood to be saved, by her talk-show appearance.
More appropriate is the attention that has been paid to the decisions made during the September 11, 2012 attack. That night, military and civilian officials in Africa and Washington responded to a difficult, violent, and rapidly changing situation, struggling to save lives. But here too, the focus has been on the wrong factors. It is easy to second-guess tactical calls made in the heat of the moment -- particularly for those with a political axe to grind -- but far more important and helpful to ask whether that night's decision-makers were equipped to confront their moment of crisis, and what can be done to ensure they are in the future.
Which brings me to the third timeframe, virtually unaddressed during the circus of the recent Benghazi hearings. The conditions under which that night's decisions were made were set in stone in Washington, long before militants arrived at the compound.
Security at the Benghazi compound was, according to the independent panel commissioned to investigate the attack, "grossly inadequate." There were no Marine guards. Security was provided through a little-known British firm called Blue Mountain Group, which hired about 20 untrained, inexperienced Libyan men. "I've never held a gun in my life," one said. At the time of the attack, they were armed only with batons and flashlights. The cost of the security contract for Benghazi -- $783,284 -- amounts to little more than a rounding error. The diplomatic security agent in charge of Libya was repeatedly denied additional security support he requested from Washington in the months preceding the attack.