These days, a House investigating committee is asking many of the same questions to members of the Obama administration about who knew what, and when, about the attack on 9/11 on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya. At the time, the Watergate break-in was derided by Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, as a “third-rate burglary.
Like the Nixon White House, the Obama administration initially sought, unsuccessfully, to minimize the seriousness of the Benghazi incident. It denied clear indications that it was a carefully planned terrorist attack. For political reasons, the Obama administration sought to pass off the Benghazi attack as nothing more than an anti-US Muslim protest that had gotten out of hand. The White House apparently hoped to prevent the Benghazi attack from becoming an issue in the president’s re-election campaign. That effort has also now failed.
By the time the Watergate scandal had run its course, Nixon was forced to resign in disgrace rather than face the indignity of impeachment.
The exposure of the clumsy White House coverup of the Benghazi attack has now blemished Obama’s record on foreign policy and national security. It won’t lead to impeachment, but it could threaten his re-election.
According to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the Benghazi attack was more serious than Watergate. “No one died at Watergate! The Obama lies about Benghazi and Biden’s deliberate lies [in the vice presidential debate] should be a bigger scandal than Nixon,” Gingrich declared.
“It is clear the Obama team decided to have the vice president lie about an event that killed four Americans, including an ambassador. [We have] now had over a month of dishonesty and cover-up from the Obama team about Benghazi. Getting to truth should be the number one goal in the next debates.”
The attack in Benghazi killed US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, an American computer operator working in the consulate, and two former US Navy SEALS, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
FIRST QUESTION IN THE BIDEN-RYAN DEBATE
The attack became the subject of the first question last week’s nationally televised debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Romney’s running mate, Congressman Paul Ryan, and immediately put Biden on the defensive.
Biden, in the debate, blamed faulty information from US intelligence officials for the administration’s constantly shifting account of what actually happened at the Benghazi consulate.
Ryan said that it was clear from the start that the Benghazi consulate was the target of a carefully planned a terrorist attack. He asked Biden why the White House has stuck so long to the ridiculous claim that the incident at the consulate arose from a spontaneous Islamic protest to an obscure anti-Muslim video made in the US that had gotten out of hand.
Ryan rejected Biden’s effort to blame the White House misstatements on faulty intelligence, since during that time the media was filled with accurate details of the attack based upon the same US intelligence information the White House was receiving.
“It took the president two weeks to acknowledge this was a terrorist attack,” Ryan said. “In his speech at the UN [on Sept. 25] six times he talked about the You Tube video. Look, if we are hit by terrorists, we are going to call it for what it is: a terrorist attack.”
Biden also denied that the White House was aware that repeated requests by Ambassador Stevens and other US officials in Libya for more security help from Washington had been turned down.
On Monday, Secretary of State Clinton said in an interview in Lima, Peru, that she took personal responsibility for the decision to deny the requests from Ambassador US diplomatic personnel in Libya for more security. In a later interview, she also said that Obama and Biden were likely unaware that the security request had ever been made.
EARLY EVIDENCE OF A PLANNED TERRORIST RAID
Media reports the day after the attack, subsequently confirmed by testimony before the House committee, established that while the White House was still pushing its video protest story, US intelligence had delivered convincing evidence that the assault on the Benghazi consulate was carefully planned and carried out by a Libyan terrorist group named Ansar al Sharia affiliated with al Qaeda, with assistance from Iran and other al Qaeda terrorists operating out of Egypt.
Within hours of the attack, US intelligence agencies had detailed information on the identity and location of some of the attackers. Senior State Department officials were in contact with security agents on the ground in Benghazi while the attacks were taking place, who told them that before the attack there had been no protests of any kind against the anti-Muslim video, meaning that the White House version was a lie from the very beginning.
On September 12, the day after the attack, a New York Times report quoted US and European officials as saying that “the assailants seemed organized, well trained and heavily armed, and they appeared to have at least some level of advance planning.”
That same day, Congressman Mike Rogers, the GOP chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said that he was certain that the attack on the Benghazi consulate “was a coordinated, military-style, commando-type raid.”
NOT THE WORK OF A MOB
Democrat Congressman Adam Smith, a member of the House Armed Services Committee agreed with Rogers. He said: “This was not just a mob that got out of hand. Mobs don’t come in and attack, guns blazing. I think that there is a growing consensus it was preplanned.”
So did Democrat Senator Carl Levin. Following a briefing with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta that day, he agreed that there was evidence that the attack was “planned and premeditated.”
Yet the White House was still trying hard to convince the public that there was no evidence of terrorist involvement. Five days after the attack, after much of the truth about the attack had appeared in media reports, the White House dispatched US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice to appear on five television news interview program and continue to attribute the attack to a local protest which never took place against the anti-Muslim video. She then claimed that the Benghazi terrorists had “hijacked” what started out as a peaceful protest.
ROMNEY’S INITIAL REACTION VINDICATED
The White House and the Obama campaign have been jousting over the Muslim issue since protesters tried to attack the US embassy in Cairo earlier on 9/11. To mollify the demonstrators, the Cairo embassy issued a statement apologizing to Muslims for the US policy of defending freedom of speech for its citizens, including the privately produced video criticizing the Islamic religion. Romney then issued a statement blasting the Obama administration for the Cairo embassy statement meant to appease Muslim extremists. All this took place before the trouble started in Benghazi.
The White House was quick to accuse Romney of reacting too hastily and trying to politicize the anti-US demonstrations taking place around the Muslim world that day.
Later, the White House cautiously backed away from the Cairo embassy statement.
At the same time, it clouded the facts about the attack in Benghazi. It described it as an outgrowth of a protest against the anti-Muslim video when it knew that no such protest took place in Benghazi.
As more details about the terrorist attack began to emerge in the media, the White House launched its coverup to cast false doubts on the terrorist involvement. Angry lower level US intelligence officials who were forced to participate in the White House coverup blew the whistle by supplying the media with more details about the attack that the administration was withholding.
Among other things, they revealed that US intelligence had intercepted phone calls between the terrorists planning the attack. They also overheard a call from a terrorist leader to an officer in the local Libyan militia guarding the consulate warning him to keep his men home on September 11 because an attack was coming.
HOW THE ATTACK UNFOLDED
All was peaceful around the consulate at 8:30 p.m. on the night of 9/11, when Ambassador Stevens said goodnight to a visiting Turkish diplomat. The gunfire and explosions began at 9:40 p.m. and continued intermittently over a period of several hours. Another Libyan militia member who was present told reporters that the attack was carried out by large numbers of fighters using their mortars, RPG’s and AK-47 assault rifles with great precision. Doherty and Woods were killed at 4 a.m. by mortar rounds which landed on the roof of an annex building outside the consulate’s main compound, where survivors from the initial attack had gathered. Security reinforcements arrived by charter air flight from Benghazi, but they were also ambushed by the terrorists. The survivors were left with no choice but to evacuate to the Benghazi airport, from where they were airlifted to the US embassy in Tripoli.
WHITE HOUSE DISINFORMATION
After these reports were published, members of the House and Senate demanded a comprehensive administration intelligence briefing. It turned out to be a joke.
Emerging from the briefing with Secretary of State Clinton and senior Defense Department and intelligence officials, frustrated Republican Senators told reporters that they had not gotten any information beyond what had already appeared in the media. They were even angrier the next day, when some of the answers which they couldn’t get at their “high level” briefing were published in the New York Times.
The administration’s disinformation campaign pushing the myth of a protest demonstration in Benghazi before the attack finally concluded on September 28. A spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper issued a carefully worded statement saying, “In the immediate aftermath [of the attack], there was information that led us to assess that the attack began spontaneously following protests earlier that day at our embassy in Cairo. . . . As we learned more about the attack, we revised our initial assessment to reflect new information indicating it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.” The statement did not say exactly when the “new information” was received, and when the White House was informed about the new assessment.
US AMBASSADOR’S CALL FOR MORE US SECURITY HELP WAS REFUSED
The most disturbing of the revelations in the media was the fact that US security officials in Libya and Ambassador Stevens were well aware of the growing danger, and repeatedly asked Washington for more robust security, but their requests were denied.
Several days after the attack, a CNN reporter discovered Ambassador Stevens’ personal diary in the ruins of the consulate. It included a chilling entry in which Stevens expressed fears for his own safety due to a possible terrorist attack.
There is also evidence that the administration deliberately slowed down the official US investigation into the Benghazi attack.
Now that the administration has finally admitted that terrorists had planned the attack, it is promising to bring them to justice. But the FBI was only dispatched to the scene more than a month after the attack, and is first now reviewing the consulate’s security camera videos in an effort to identify those responsible.
Meanwhile, the White House continues to issue misinformation in an effort to minimize public perceptions of the attack’s significance. Obama’s fear is that Republicans will use the attack as evidence that his Middle East policies, and his support for the Arab Spring revolts in Egypt and Libya, have been a disaster for US national interests. It has led to the takeover of formerly friendly governments in the region by Islamic extremists who are opening the way for al Qaeda.
White House acknowledgment that terrorists could stage a successful attack on a US consulate would also contradict Obama’s claim in his convention acceptance speech that he has put al Qaeda “on the path to defeat.”
In the vice presidential debate, Ryan also condemned Obama campaign spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter for saying that the “entire reason that [Libya] has become a political topic is because of Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan.”
“This is becoming more troubling by the day,” Ryan said at the debate. “They first blamed the YouTube video; now they’re trying to blame the Romney-Ryan ticket for making this an issue.”
On the campaign trail, Romney declared that the Benghazi attack was a valid political issue “because this is the first time in 33 years that a United States ambassador has been assassinated.”
THE LID COMES OFF
The lid finally fully came off the coverup at a hearing on the Benghazi attack held by GOP Congressman Daryl Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. Issa released the State Department cables in which Stevens requested that a Mobile Security Detachments [MSD] and Site Security Team [SST] stationed at the US embassy in Tripoli be allowed to stay in the country. The 16 US Special Forces troops in the two units were assigned to protect the US diplomatic posts in the country, including the consulate in Benghazi. The State Department rejected Stevens’ request and brought home the two units in August. They were replaced with poorly-trained, unarmed Libyan guards hired through a private British security firm, and members of a local Libyan militia.
Eric Nordstrom, the former regional security officer at the US Embassy in Libya, told Issa’s committee that security safeguards for American diplomats at the consulate in Benghazi were “inappropriately low.”
Nordstrom said, “The takeaway … for me and my staff, was abundantly clear – we were not going to get resources until the aftermath of an incident. And the question that we would ask is: how thin does the ice have to get before someone falls through?”
Biden’s debate statement that the White House was unaware of requests from US diplomats and Ambassador Stevens for more security contradicted the congressional testimony of both Nordstrom and Col. Andy Wood, the commander of the 16-person Special Forces team that was withdrawn in August.
After the vice presidential debate, other Republican leaders came forward to accuse the Obama administration of conducting a political coverup.
GRAHAM: THE WHITE HOUSE IS MISLEADING THE VOTERS
On Sunday, in a broadcast interview, Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a GOP member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he believes the White House knew within 24 hours of the Benghazi assault that it was a coordinated terrorist attack, completely unrelated to other anti-US protests across the Middle East. He accused the White House of deliberately trying to deceive voters so that they wouldn’t think that al-Qaeda remains a threat.
“They’re trying to sell a narrative, quite frankly, that (the) wars are receding and that al-Qaeda has been dismantled,” Graham said. “And to admit that our embassy was attacked by al-Qaeda operatives … I think undercuts that narrative.
Graham said that he had been told by US intelligence officials in Libya that “within 24 hours they communicated up to Washington that this was a terrorist attack.
“Either they’re misleading the American people or incredibly incompetent. There was no way with anybody looking at all that you could believe five days after the attack it was based on a riot that never occurred [referring to Rice’s UN statement].”
Democrats tried to shrug off Graham’s accusations.
“This conspiracy stuff is kind of ridiculous to be honest with you, and I’m kind of surprised that they’ve gone to these lengths. But you know that’s what they do,” said Congressman Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat member of Issa’s committee, which has been investigating the attack.
OBAMA LOSING THE NATIONAL SECURITY ISSUE
The terrorist nature of the attack on the Benghazi consulate was always a political problem for Obama. His success in the war against international terrorism by ordering the killing bin Laden was one of the few positive achievements about which Obama has been able to boast on the campaign trail. One of the most popular and effective phrases in the standard Obama-Biden stump speech has been “Osama bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive.”
When he first took office, there were serious doubts about Obama’s commitment to national security. But he quickly departed from much of his liberal 2008 campaign rhetoric against President Bush’s war on terrorism and quietly adopted many of his predecessor’s national security policies. These include the retention of the terrorist detention center at the Guantanamo Bay naval base, and the intensification of the covert drone air attacks on terrorists found hiding in sanctuaries in Pakistan and Yemen.
Obama has been boasting about his national security successes, stealing what is usually a winning Republican issue. Now that issue could turn against him. Because the administration had been forewarned of a possible terrorist attack on the US consulate in Benghazi and refused to take the security measures that probably would have saved Ambassador Stevens and the other three US citizens, it is responsible for their deaths.
WHITE HOUSE GOES INTO DAMAGE CONTROL MODE
No wonder the White House was desperate, less than two months before a presidential election, to suppress the information that State Department officials in Washington rejected warnings from Ambassador Stevens and other US officials in Libya that their own lives were being put at risk by inadequate security.
As the White House went into damage control mode, it stuck with the story that the attack was the result of a civilian protest against the anti-Muslim video long after that theory had become unbelievable.
It also redoubled its attacks on Mitt Romney for exposing the weakness of Obama’s policy towards the Muslim world as revealed by the Cairo embassy apology. The White House had initially hoped that the incident would quickly fade as a political issue. But once it became clear that the tragedy at the Benghazi consulate should have been avoided by providing it with adequate security, it became a major crisis for Obama’s administration and his re-election campaign.
The White House is trying to back away from its original story. A month after the attack, it still claims that what was known about the attack was “evolving” slowly, even though videos of the attack and detailed accounts by American survivors were available to US intelligence almost immediately.
Some Democrats have sought to shift the blame to congressional Republicans for cutting more than $300 million in State Department funds in this year’s budget. Republicans quickly responded that only a small portion of those cuts came from the State Department’s security budget, and that there were other discretionary funds available to cover the costs of added diplomatic security in Libya if State Department officials had thought it was necessary.
A SIGN OF OBAMA’S POLICY FAILURES
The blowup of the Benghazi coverup is doubly embarrassing for Obama because he is still trying to claim political credit for helping to depose Muamar Gadhaffi, the previous dictator of Libya, in favor of a new government which, as in Egypt, is under the strong influence of Islamic radicals.
The original White House strategy of blaming the attack on Muslim reaction to the video fit nicely with Obama’s overall view of foreign policy. He still blames the war against terrorism, started in response to the original 9/11 attack, for the current US problems in the Muslim world. He believes the solution is to deliver more apologies to the instigators of Islamic terrorism, and having the US adopt a passive role in world affairs, even when they impact national security.
But the evidence is now clear that Obama’s whole approach to Middle East policy has failed and led to a sharp decline in US influence throughout the world. Enemies of the US, such as the rulers of Iran, have learned that they no longer need fear the US, while traditional, longtime US allies, such as Israel, former Egyptian President Mubarak, and to a lesser extent, Great Britain, have learned to their dismay that they can no longer count on US support as they once did.
SCANDAL BREAKING AT A BAD TIME FOR OBAMA
The political importance of the Benghazi attack has been impacted by subsequent events in the presidential campaign. When it first emerged in mid-September, Obama had a dominant position in the race, and seemed almost unassailable. But after Obama stumbled in his first debate against Romney, and the White House coverup became more visible, Democrats are vulnerable on the national security and foreign policy issues for the first time.
Obama has been put on the defensive. He is trying to regain his political momentum at the same time that his administration’s version of the biggest foreign policy and national security event since bin Laden’s death has been totally discredited.
RUMORS OF A RIFT BETWEEN OBAMA AND CLINTON
Ed Klein, a biographer of both Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, says that the Clintons fear that Obama will seek to make the Benghazi attack “a stain on her political fortunes should she decide to run for president in 2016.”
The bad blood between the Obama and the Clinton camps dates back to the 2008 Democratic primaries. It seemed to have been settled when former president Bill Clinton delivered the Democrat convention keynote address, and the former president began appearing in Obama re-election commercials and campaign events.
Klein claims that Bill Clinton became miffed once again when Obama ignored his offer to help him prepare for his first debate with Romney, and didn’t even give him the courtesy of a return phone call.
Klein says that Bill Clinton was prepared to advise his wife to resign as Secretary of State before the election if Obama tries publicly to pin the blame for the Benghazi tragedy on her.
Mrs. Clinton had previously made it clear that she does not intend to continue as Secretary of State if Obama wins re-election, and her political future remains the subject of much speculation.
There have been some indications that the State Department is trying to distance itself from the White House handling of the Benghazi incident. During the hearings in front of Issa’s committee, State Department officials declared that they never believed that the attack had grown out of a protest against the anti-Islamic video.
MRS. CLINTON STEPS UP TO PROTECT OBAMA
Mrs. Clinton’s decision to publicly accept responsibility for the security failure at the Benghazi consulate indicates that another deal has been struck to avoid an open rift between the two camps before the November election.
Her statement in Lima endorsed what White House press secretary Jay Carney said last week, that all “matters of security personnel are appropriately discussed and decided upon at the State Department by those responsible for it.”
Before Monday, Clinton had been careful to stay in the background while White House figures, like Vice President Biden, or lower level State Department officials, such as UN ambassador Rice, stated the administration’s view on what happened in Benghazi, and who was responsible for the tragedy there.
In an interview with CNN Monday night, Clinton specifically defended Biden’s statement during the vice presidential debate, saying that the “President and Vice President certainly wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals.” But during her bid for the 2008 Democrat presidential nomination against then Senator Obama, she expressed a different view of the president’s duties. “Being President means being both CEO and COO of one of the largest and most complex organizations in the world,” Mrs. Clinton said four years ago, adding “the buck stops in the Oval Office.”
On Monday she also defended the initial White House “confusion” about the terrorist nature of the Benghazi attack, and declared that her mission now is to prevent such an attack from ever happening again.
However, Clinton still has not publicly expressed her own understanding of exactly what happened during the Benghazi attack, or why at times the State Department version of those events has differed so much from the White House narrative. By coming forward to take responsibility she lets the White House off the hook, and may be politically noble, but she has still left too many questions about the incident unanswered.
In a speech at a conference sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies on the Middle East and North Africa, Mrs. Clinton defended the State Department’s security policies. She said that it was impossible for the US to “prevent every act of violence or terrorism, or achieve perfect security. Our people cannot live in bunkers and do their jobs.”
She also reaffirmed Obama’s Middle East policy which “supports rather than discredits the promise of the Arab Spring” and urged Americans to look at the “full picture” and not just the “violent acts of a small number of extremists against the aspirations and actions of the region’s people and governments.”
Despite Clinton’s efforts to accept responsibility for the security in Benghazi and explain away the White House coverup, it is an issue which will not go away before Election Day. The investigation into the attack by Issa’s congressional committee will continue, as will inquiries by the media, and a new investigation by the Senate’s Homeland Security and Government Affairs Committee, announced by its chairman, Senator Joseph Lieberman. If more evidence of White House obstruction is uncovered, people may decide they hare had enough of the amateurs and this cover ups.