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.
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.”
Although Clinton says she never saw reports contradicting Rice’s version of events, she testified that she was careful never to blame the video for the attacks in -Benghazi. “With respect to the video, I did not say that it was video from—that it was about the video for Libya. It certainly was for many of the other places we were watching these disturbances.”
That’s parsing that would make even her husband blush. In a statement she put out on the evening of September 11—“Statement by Secretary Clinton on the Attack in Benghazi”—she denounced the assault and the video. “I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today. . . . Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”
Three days later, at the solemn ceremony for the arrival of the caskets of the slain Americans, she said: “This has been a difficult week for the State Department and for our country. We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in -Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful Internet video that we had nothing to do with. It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless, and it is totally unacceptable.”
Clinton’s current position, if we take her literally, seems to be that the protests and attacks on our embassies throughout the region came in response to the video, but the attack in Benghazi did not. Let’s take Clinton’s parsing at face value and assume that she intended to separate the Benghazi attacks from the violence elsewhere triggered by the video. If she wasn’t linking the attacks in Libya to the video, she was one of the only Obama officials who didn’t do so. Why? By her own account, she hadn’t seen any of the reporting that contradicted the administration’s early claims about those attacks—made by everyone from Susan Rice to Barack Obama.
It seems unlikely that we’ll get answers to these questions. The establishment media coverage of Clinton’s testimony ranged from fawning to fulsome. CNN’s Soledad O’Brien apparently wasn’t bothered by Clinton’s inconsistencies, but she excoriated Senator Ron Johnson for having the audacity to ask about them. NBC News summarized her appearance this way: “Speaking of Clinton’s performance, all of her political strengths were on display. She was prepared. She was tough when she needed to be. She was deferential when she wanted to be. And she displayed both raw emotion and a sense of humor. It’s also worth noting that she’s stronger today—politically—than she was four years ago. . . . But politically, her performance yesterday is enough to quiet any nervous Nellies in the Democratic party that she isn’t ready for what will inevitably be a rough and tumble campaign should she embark on it.”
But before we put the Benghazi story to bed, it’s worth noting that Republicans in Congress are not satisfied, and many of them are angry. The administration, its claims of transparency notwithstanding, has refused to provide congressional oversight committees with many of the documents they requested. In particular, the White House has told congressional investigators that it will not provide any documents related to the drafting and editing of the much-disputed “talking points,” despite the fact that the administration has offered five different explanations of how those talking points were put together, then changed to omit references to al Qaeda.
The media may not have much interest, but confirmation hearings for John Brennan, the president’s nominee to head the CIA, will soon provide senators an opportunity to grill him about the administration’s inconsistencies and continuing lack of transparency. If they use it well, the Benghazi scandal may yet grow to adolescence. Either way, Republicans owe it to the public, and particularly the families of the deceased, to demand answers.