Truth has been the watchword of the Benghazi controversy. "The goal here is to get to the truth," said House Speaker John Boehner said at a Thursday press conference. "Four Americans lost their lives. Their families want to know the truth. The American people want to know the truth. And I believe it is Congress’ obligation to get to the truth." The truth may indeed be out there, but where it lies depends on who you ask.
For more mainstream Republicans and commentators, the Benghazi controversy is as obvious — the Obama Administration spun the attacks on Sunday talk shows in a way that would minimize political fallout in the middle of a presidential election — as it is tedious. With the release of all 12 drafts of talking points used for those Sunday shows (you can view how they evolved here), the heart of the scandal is whether bureaucrats talked about a tragedy properly. Did the State Department use the word "terrorists" behind the scenes? Is the word "extremists" close enough?
But for Benghazi truthers, the scandal is much, much more interesting. There are actually two camps: regular old Benghazi truthers believe that the CIA was arming Syrian rebels out of the Benghazi annex, while the ultra truthers believe the Obama administration colluded with terrorists to stage the kidnapping of Ambassador Chris Stevens in order to set up a prisoner exchange that would made President Obama look like a tough peace negotiator right before the election. Some people with surprisingly solid credentials buy these theories. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has hinted he's a Benghazi truther, floating the idea that the CIA annex was attacked because it was part of a secret gun-running operation. Retired Admiral James Lyons, who commanded the U.S. Pacific Fleet in the 1980s, is a Benghazi ultra truther. The Atlantic Wire spoke to Lyons to better understand his theory.
As we have noted, what happened in Benghazi is a gripping, tragic story — a deadly attack by shadowy terrorists we still haven't fully identified. But what most Republicans are hoping will become a major scandal is not about that. It should not be surprising that The White House played politics with Benghazi (or that House Republicans are playing politics with Benghazi now) since that's what politicians do. But if you're going referee this particular game, anyone watching the politics play out last fall has to conclude that while Obama's team handled the politics deftly, the Republican presidentail campaign's attempts to play politics with Benghazi was a miserable failure. Hours after the attack, Mitt Romney issued a statement saying President Obama was "sympathizing with those who waged the attacks," which made him look like a jerk, and also neglected to include the more important talking point, which was that Obama was incompetent on national security. The Romney campaign's clumsiness turned what, by cynical rules of D.C. politics should have been a layup — a terrorist attack on the anniversary of 9/11 happens right when a Republican challenger is accusing the sitting Democratic president of being soft on terrorism — into a win for Obama who looked better able to handle crises abroad and avoided the usual media freakout in the wake of a terrorist attack. A Romney aide's new tell-all ebook says the off-key response "left the candidate naked, embarrassed, and disarmed." And it wasn't the last time on this very issue.
Six weeks later, Romney looked stupid again when he insisted Obama had not called Benghazi a terrorist attack, and Obama cooly responded that the debate moderator should "check the transcript." (He had.) Republicans are furious about this. The Republican National Committee released its never-released Benghazi election ad on Thursday. American Crossroads followed suit on Friday. And so Republicans are letting their slip show a teeny bit as they analyze word-by-word all the emails between bureaucrats to see exactly how the Obama campaign managed this public relations feat. They want a Benghazi do-over, and, with the flailing Romney response receding into ancient political history, they just might get it.
But in the meantime, the people breathing on the Benghazi scandal embers have been up in arms about much more interesting claims. On a radio show in March, Sen. Rand Paul floated the idea that the Obama administration was covering up a lot more than a terror attack on 9/11 in an election year. "What are they covering up?" Paul asked. He continued:
I have a feeling that it had something to do with the CIA annex. You know, a week before the ambassador was killed in Libya, a ship left Libya and docked in Turkey and it actually interviewed the captain of that ship who said there were arms on board and that he actually witnessed the rebels taking the arms and disputing over who got what. That there were grenade launchers; that there were significant arms being transferred...
Now that doesn’t say the CIA was involved, but that begs the question (what) was the CIA annex there.
Others have picked this idea up. Townhall's Katie Kieffer wrote last week that Obama, Hillary Clinton, and David Pretraeus "were likely behind a mishandled gun-trafficking program that ended up arming the radical jihadist rebels who stormed the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi, Libya on that fateful day." She pointed to Clinton's support for arming Syrian rebels last summer, omitting that Clinton was rebuffed by the White House. (According to The Washington Post, the administration will soon decide whether to arm the rebels.) But Paul pushed this theory again this week on CNN. "I’ve actually always suspected that, although I have no evidence, that maybe we were facilitating arms leaving Libya going through Turkey into Syria," Paul said. What did that have to do with Susan Rice's talking points on Sunday talk shows after the attack? "I don't know," he said. "Were they trying to obscure that there was an arms operation going on at the CIA annex?"
There's the sense among some conservatives that Benghazi is one of the greatest scandals the country has ever seen. Rush Limbaugh said Wednesday, "And it isn't Watergate. Nobody died in Watergate. Four people died in Benghazi. Nobody died in Watergate." But for that comparison to be perfect, you'd have to assume that Obama ordered the attack on Benghazi, or at least, that his reelection campaign did so on his behalf. It turns out some people think that's what happened.
Retired Admiral James Lyons takes the CIA-was-arming-Syrian-rebels theory and pushes it a step further. In November, just after the election, Lyons was asked to speculate what he thought was behind the attack on Fox Business News' Lou Dobbs Tonight. He said:
"I speculate that Ambassador Stevens was supposed to be kidnapped, held hostage, in exchange for the release of the Blind Sheikh that we're currently holding in prison. That's the only thing that makes sense to me."
This theory had been circulating since October. Ultra-truthers believe the Benghazi attack was orchestrated by the Obama administration in cooperation with terrorists — that's why there wasn't enough security at the consulate. The terrorists would kidnap Ambassador Chris Stevens, and then set up a prisoner exchange, in which Obama would get Stevens back in exchange for the Blind Sheikh, Omar Abdel Rahman, who was convicted of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. "The plan was to make Obama look like 'a badass' and a to have him revel in this through October and into the November election," Kevin DuJan wrote on HillBuzz.org on October 8. Some sites claim to have real evidence this happened. "What is most shocking, however, is that a source within the White House states that it was arranged as an October surprise by Barack Obama," Kris Zane wrote at The Western Center for Journalism on October 20. They've kept up the fight. In January, Western Journalism's Floyd and Mary Beth Brown wrote, "Some will say that Admiral Lyons’ accusation is not a smoking gun. We agree; that’s exactly why Congress must investigate Benghazi-gate." The Lonely Conservative picked it up in February.
When we spoke to Admiral Lyons we asked if he still thinks it was a conspiracy to kidnap the ambassador? Lyons would not rule it out. "I was asked to speculate by Lou Dobbs what did I think happened during that raid?" he said. "I think it was an attack that went terribly wrong... I would have suspected that they wanted to take Ambassador Stevens hostage and hold him in exchange for the release of the Blind Sheik. Nothing else seemed to make a lot of sense to me, since Ambassador Stevens was one of the great faciliators in the arming of the rebels in the takeover of Libya... Why kill the golden goose?"
The kidnapping theory holds that the terrorists did not expect the resistance they met when the six-man security team was sent from Tripoli, so they killed Stevens. Or something like that. "If they meant to kill him right out," Lyons says, "why bother taking him to the hospital that Ansar al — the terror group that conducted the attack — controlled? They controlled that hospital. If they wanted to kill him, why take him to the hospital?" From there, we worked through the theory. I asked why, after killing Stevens, the terrorists attacked the CIA annex several hours later. He responded, "They [the terrorists] planned to do this the whole time. This wasn't just a pickup fight."
Why not just give up once Stevens was dead?
"Those are questions that will have to come out. What else was going on at that annex? I think obviously the terrorists had a pretty good idea," Lyons said, alluding to earlier in our conversation, when he floated the idea that the CIA was arming Syrian rebels out of the annex.
Did that mean the Libyan terrorists were mad the CIA was arming Syrian rebels, because they preferred Bashar al Asad's regime?
"I dont know why they attacked the annex. I think some of their testimony might give us some insight to that."
The only answer, he says, is to ask more questions at hearings. On this, the ultras and the mainstreamers certainly agree. Lyons wants a select committee to investigate — "we gotta get people in there under oath and ask them." But House Speaker John Boehner won't convene one, and there's a conspiracy for that, too. The folks at Benghazi-truth.blogspot.com explain:
This kind of fawning, sycophantic behavior toward Obama on Boehner's part has had GOP tongues wagging for months creating speculation of the motivation of Boehner protecting Obama from Boehner being threatened by Obama to being mentally ill (Benghazi-Truth's opinion based on Boehner's repeated uncontrollable public sobbing over the slimmest of reasons is that he is mentally ill, and Obama's people have experts in psychology guiding Obama on how to manipulate a person in Boehner's particular psychological state, which basically would wrap it all up these questions in one jigsaw puzzle completed).
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.