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.