The Magazine

Hillary Bobs and Weaves

Feb 4, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 20 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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Hillary Clinton’s testimony last week on Benghazi was in many respects a fitting end to the multi-layered scandal that seems unlikely ever to grow beyond scandal childhood, at least in the minds of those responsible for determining what is and is not scandalous in Washington.

Sec. Hillary Clinton

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Clinton’s testimony at two hearings​—​before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday morning and the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the afternoon​—​was notable for its inconsistencies, misleading claims, buck-passing, and incomplete answers. But few in the national media seemed to notice​—​or care. Perhaps reporters who had managed for months to avoid in-depth coverage of Benghazi and its many permutations simply weren’t familiar enough with the subject matter to recognize even the obvious problems with what Clinton said. And there were many, many problems.

At times, Clinton depicted herself as a hands-on secretary of state, directly involved in the details of Libya policy before the attacks and the decision-making during and after them. She explained that she was notified of the attack in Benghazi “shortly after 4 p.m.” and after that was “in continuous meetings and conversations both within the department, with our team in Tripoli, with the interagency, and internationally.” She testified that she’d spoken several times to National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, among others, including CIA director David Petraeus, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey, the chargé d’affaires in Tripoli, the president of the Libyan National Congress, and top intelligence and Pentagon officials. “We were going over every possible option, reviewing all that was available to us, any actions we could take.”

She defended the administration’s policies with the authority of someone who was at the table as they were shaped and spoke with assurance about the steps the U.S. government is taking to counter al Qaeda and its affiliates.

At other times, though, Clinton’s descriptions of her involvement made her sound like someone entirely outside the Libya decision-making team. Clinton testified that she never saw any of the numerous appeals for additional security that State Department officials in Libya made to Washington. “I didn’t see those requests. They didn’t come to me. I didn’t approve them, I didn’t deny them.”

And what about the administration’s account of what happened? Clinton suggested that she had virtually nothing to do with the administration’s public explanation of the attacks that took the life of a U.S. ambassador for the first time since 1979.

Clinton testified that she did not pick Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to appear on the Sunday talk shows on September 16. When Senator Jeff Flake asked if she was consulted about that choice, she answered, “No.” When Flake invited her to describe some of the conversations in the administration surrounding the information Rice presented, Clinton responded: “I cannot speak to any conversation I specifically had, because the conversations were ongoing before and after Ambassador Rice’s appearance on the Sunday talk shows.” Indeed, she told the senators that she had nothing to do with the misleading talking points. “I would say that personally I was not focused on talking points,” she claimed.

And why didn’t Clinton herself take the opportunity to inform the American public about the attacks on State Department property and personnel? “Going on the Sunday shows is not my favorite thing to do,” she explained. “There are other things I prefer to do on Sunday mornings, and you know, I haven’t been on a Sunday show in way over a year. So it just isn’t something I normally jump to do.”

Even if Clinton didn’t help put together the talking points, she defended Rice and her erroneous claims. “I certainly did not know of any reports that contradicted the IC [intelligence community] talking points at the time Ambassador Rice went on the TV shows.”

That seems unlikely. Emails among Obama administration national security officials as early as the evening of September 11 reported that Ansar al Sharia had claimed responsibility for the attack. A cable from the CIA station chief in Libya on September 12 indicated that the attacks were likely carried out by terrorists, not a group of protesters angry about a film. Mohamed Magariaf, the president of the Libyan National Congress, whom Clinton testified she consulted after the attacks, would dismiss claims about the video and protests as “unfounded and preposterous.”

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