The current outbreak of Benghazi Fever shows how strong the virus is—and that it is apparently immune to basic remedy.
On Friday, the Republicans went full Benghazi. House Speaker John Boehner announced he was setting up a special House committee to investigate the attack—that is, the Obama White House's response to it. Meanwhile, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chair of the House government oversight committee, subpoenaed Secretary of State John Kerry to testify before his committee on May 21 about the State Department's handling of GOP congressional inquiries about Benghazi. (Apparently, Issa is now probing a supposed cover-up of the original supposed cover-up.)
This week, Issa, Fox News, and other Benghazi-ists rushed to the ramparts once again, when a White House email was released showing that a top Obama aide had suggested that an administration spokeswoman defend the president's policy regarding the Arab Spring and the Muslim world following a series of anti-American attacks that included the September 11, 2012, assault on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi. As part of the interagency effort then underway to prep then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice for appearances on several Sunday morning talk shows—the exercise that produced the Benghazi talking points Republicans have been howling about ever since—Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser, wrote that one goal for Rice was to "underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy."
A-ha! cried the Benghazi truthers. Here's proof that the White House schemed to convince the public that the tragic attack—which claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans—was merely the result of protests spurred by an anti-Islam video made by some American wacko, not the doing of Al Qaeda or its allies. President Obama and his comrades, the Benghazi truthers insist, wanted to cover up the politically inconvenient fact that Al Qaeda-ish terrorism was responsible for the killing of four Americans, since acknowledgment of this would have tainted the counter-terrorism credentials of Obama, the Bin Laden slayer, and decreased his chances of reelection.
But as we know now, the CIA and the State Department took the lead in fashioning the talking points. A year ago, the release of internal White House emails about the drafting of the talking points clearly showed there had been no White House effort to shape the narrative in a devious manner. (It appeared the CIA and the State Department were more concerned about their own bureaucratic imperatives.) And the new email from Rhodes is pretty standard stuff, indicating a White House desire to justify its policy on the Arab Spring in the face of troubling events. Rhodes was encouraging Rice to present the case that the anti-video protests that had occurred in various places in the Muslim world were sort of a one-off event, not an indication that the overall Obama approach toward the region was misguided. Note that Rhodes referred to "protests," plural, when making this point. That week there had been violent anti-video uprisings in Egypt, Yemen, and Sudan, not just Libya. So all the fuss about the Rhodes email—which quickly passed through membrane between Fox News and the rest of the media, receiving airtime on CNN, ABC News, and elsewhere—is smoke, not fire.
Moreover, the Rhodes email is a reminder of how far off the rails the Benghazi-bashers have gone. At the bottom of the second page of his four-page memo is proposed language for discussing the Benghazi attack: "The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the [anti-video] protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US Consulate and subsequently its annex." According to the internal White House emails released last year, this was how the CIA had asked for the event to be described.
Rice stuck to this script when she went on the air days after the attack. Appearing on ABC, she noted,
Our current best assessment based on the information that we have at present is that, in fact, what this began as was a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated. We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people, came to the embassy to—or to the consulate, rather—to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then, as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that, as you know, in the wake of the revolution in Libya, are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there.
Though some within the CIA and military have said it was their assessment from the get-go that the Benghazi assault was unrelated to the anti-Islam video, reports at the time and subsequent investigations have confirmed that the video and the protests in Cairo played a role in the attack. The new batch of released emails—the one containing the Rhodes note that has launched a thousand Fox News reports—includes an Al Jazeera report filed the night of the attack. It reads,
Witnesses say an armed mob has attacked the US consulate in the Libyan city of Benghazi and set fire to the building in what they way was a protest at [sic] a film deemed offensive to Islam's Prophet Muhammad.
Just hours earlier on Tuesday, thousands of Egyptian demonstrators apparently angry over the same film—an amateur film produced by expatriate members of Egypt's Christian minority resident in the US—tore down the Stars and Stripes at the US embassy in Cairo and replaced it with an Islamic flag.
How odd that Fox News did not mention this report. Maybe those witnesses were wrong and in the heat of the moment assumed the Benghazi attack was spurred by similar action in Egypt. But this past December, the New York Times, after a comprehensive investigation, reached this conclusion:
Months of investigation...centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.
The paper continued:
Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs...
The violence, though, also had spontaneous elements. Anger at the video motivated the initial attack. Dozens of people joined in, some of them provoked by the video and others responding to fast-spreading false rumors that guards inside the American compound had shot Libyan protesters. Looters and arsonists, without any sign of a plan, were the ones who ravaged the compound after the initial attack, according to more than a dozen Libyan witnesses as well as many American officials who have viewed the footage from security cameras.
A Senate intelligence committee report released in January said this: "Intelligence suggests that the attack was not a highly coordinated plot, but was opportunistic." This report noted,
It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attacks or whether extremist group leaders directed their members to participate. Some intelligence suggests the attacks were likely put together in short order, following that day’s violent protests in Cairo against an inflammatory video.
Compared to the on-the-ground reporting that night, the Times' investigation, and the Senate intelligence committee's finding, the original talking points presented by Rice hold up. At the least, this was a plausible explanation and, if these other accounts are accurate, not too far off the mark. The anti-Islam video and the protests in Cairo had been a factor.
The White House certainly has bungled part of its Benghazi reaction. It did not release the emails soon enough—and it has had a hard time explaining why the Rhodes email, as not-so-relevant as it is, was not part of the batch made public a year ago. The Obama White House not been able to pull off a release-the-birth-certificate moment to smother the Benghazi conspiracy theories.
But this should have been case closed, a long time back. Still, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) on Thursday accused the White House of running a "cover-up." And an angry Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said White House officials who lied about the attacks are "scumbags." On Wednesday, House majority leader Eric Cantor proclaimed that the Rhodes email proved the White House had "misled" Congress and the public. He claimed, "It is increasingly clear that this administration orchestrated an effort to deflect attention from their failed Libya policy and the resurgence of Al Qaeda and other terrorists."
Issa continues to hold hearings, as he did this week, putting on stage retired Brig. General Robert Lovell, who said the US forces "should have tried" to save Stevens and the others—seemingly backing the notion Issa has pushed that the Obama White House and the Hillary Clinton-run State Department were derelict in their duties that night. But Lovell, under questioning from a Democrat on Issa's government oversight committee, also said, "I did not say we did not try." (In a stunning rebuke to Issa and this witness, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, the California Republican who chairs the House armed services committee, declared afterward, "We have no evidence that Department of State officials delayed the decision to deploy what few resources the Defense Department had available to respond.")
Unbowed, Issa, on Friday morning, tweeted out a link to an editorial in his hometown newspaper, the San Diego Union-Tribune, that asserted that Obama had mounted a "deception" by blaming the Benghazi attacks on the video. The evidence? At a speech at the United Nations two weeks after the attack, Obama had "suggested...that the Benghazi attacks were linked to the video." In that speech, Obama merely had observed that a "crude and disgusting video sparked outrage throughout the Muslim world." That was a true statement—and, as noted above, others have also pointed out the link between the video and the assault in Benghazi. But the editorialists, looking as if they were doing Issa's bidding, were pushing the false narrative the right cannot drop: there was no connection to the video and Obama's gang outright lied to get the president reelected.
For Obama's political foes, the Benghazi narrative—that is, their reality-challenged version of it—offers too much benefit to be abandoned. It serves three fundamental desires of the right. The get-Obama crusaders have long wanted to show that the president is just another weak-on-defense Democrat, to demonstrate that he is not a real American worthy of being president, and to uncover an explosive scandal that eviscerates Obama's presidency and provides cause for impeachment. Benghazi, in their feverish minds, has had the potential to do all of this. It is a candy store for many conservatives—no matter that the bins are empty. They will not—cannot—let it go. Nor can they simply focus on the real issues of what went wrong that dreadful night and what must be done to prevent another such disaster. They are love-sick for Benghazi. And for that, there is no cure.