The beauty of all the coulds and maybes and mights swirling around the Benghazi scandal is that it means the scandal can be anything at all. In fact, there have been at least three distinct versions. In the first version, aired by the Romney campaign shortly after the attack on the American consulate last Sept. 11, the scandal was that President Obama and the State Department were wimpy blame-America-firsters who apologized to the terrorists who attacked American diplomatic compounds in Egypt and Libya. That one did not survive the week and was finished off in the second presidential debate. In the second version, aired by Republicans like Sens. Lindsey Graham and John McCain, the White House crafted misleading talking points about who attacked the compound — and why it wasn't better prepared — for Susan Rice to use on five Sunday talk shows days after the attacks. The first two have fizzled. But a third version, which has been around for months, is suddenly gaining steam after CNN's Jake Tapper reported on Thursday night that there were 21 CIA operatives in the diplomatic post the night of the attack, and that the CIA is polygraphing operatives working in Libya as often as once a month to stop them from leaking to the press or Congress. If the CIA wants to keep what it was doing in Benghazi a secret, the theory goes, then it must be hiding something the American people need to know. The speculation is that the secret is the CIA was shipping arms to Syrian rebels through Benghazi. But despite the story's three evolutions, the scandal has not moved beyond the modal verb phase — a lot of ifs and maybes and mights.
The Benghazi scandal seemed dead enough that White House press secretary Jay Carney identified it a "phony scandal" this week. But after the CNN report aired, Benghazi was back. Look how swiftly the blogger Allahpundit discards the Benghazi Version II for Benghazi Version III while writing about Tapper's scoop on the conservative site Hot Air:
Thirty-five Americans on the ground, 21 at the CIA annex. Maybe the skeletal security crew at the consulate wasn’t as skeletal as thought. Is that what happened here — not so much a security vacuum as a security presence so secret that it couldn’t be revealed publicly, despite the White House being pounded over its failures for months afterwards? …
But maybe that helps explain why the formal security presence wasn’t bigger: There was a lot of CIA in the area and maybe the White House didn’t want to attract attention to what they were doing there by inserting a squad of Marines to patrol the grounds.
Many people have picked up on CNN's new numbers on what personnel were in Benghazi: 21 CIA, 35 State. It looks like new evidence that the CIA's role was even bigger than we'd previously known. But CNN itself reported months ago, "About 30 people were evacuated from Benghazi the morning after the deadly attack last September 11; more than 20 of them were CIA employees." Which means CNN's latest report actually lowers the ratio of CIA to State workers.
CNN's story has also renewed the passion of Benghazi truthers. The conservative Twitter news blog Twitchy posted the headline, "'This is the one': Drudge editor’s CIA source raises key question about Benghazi bombshell" which highlighted Drudge Report editor Joseph Curl's tweet at right. It's a juicy tweet because, Twitchy says, in May "Curl tweeted that a CIA source said there was still one more Obama scandalpalooza shoe to drop. 'Yes, four shoes. Dead ambassador, tapped phones, IRS probes. Will it be worse? Can it be?!' he asked."
Twitchy cites this key paragraph from CNN:
Speculation on Capitol Hill has included the possibility the U.S. agencies operating in Benghazi were secretly helping to move surface-to-air missiles out of Libya, through Turkey, and into the hands of Syrian rebels.
The Atlantic Conor Friedersdorf also wants to know more. "If CNN's report is correct, the CIA is at minimum trying to hide something huge from Congress, something that CIA agents might otherwise want to reveal -- itself a reason for Congress to press hard for information," Friedersdorf wrote on Friday. "And if speculation about moving weapons is grounded in anything substantive, that would be an additional reason to investigate what the CIA is doing in Libya."
As curious people, we want to know what the CIA was up to, as well. But the thing is, this kind of speculation on Capitol Hill is not new, either. It doesn't even need to be anonymous! Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul speculated on CNN in May: "I’ve actually always suspected that, although I have no evidence, that maybe we were facilitating arms leaving Libya going through Turkey into Syria." Give Paul credit: he admits he has no evidence.
In an interview with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren on Thursday night, South Carolina Rep. Trey Gowdy said the CIA was sure acting like it was covering something up:
"Including changing names, creating aliases. Stop and think what things are most calculated to get at the truth? Talk to people with first-hand knowledge. What creates the appearance and perhaps the reality of a cover-up? Not letting us talk with people who have the most amount of information, dispersing them around the country and changing their names."
(emphasis added.) Perception or reality: who can tell the difference?
On Thursday night, The National Review's Jim Geraghty tweeted, "If indeed 35 CIA personnel were on the ground in Benghazi, they were likely trying to recover Stinger missiles," with a link to a post from May. But that post pointed to a story PJ Media's Roger L. Simon — sourced to two former diplomats who were colleagues of new whistleblowers who "will emerge shortly" — that claimed that Ambassador Chris Stevens' real mission in Benghazi was to take back Stinger missiles issued to al Qaeda-linked groups who had been armed by the State Department. The theory that State disarming rebels is sort of the opposite of Benghazi III, that the CIA was arming rebels. This is not to overplay a tweet. A tweet is not a grand statement of principle. But this is an example of a sense that there must be something to the Benghazi story, even if we can't decide what that something might be.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.