BY MICHAEL S. JOHNSON
President Barack Obama has dismissed it as a political circus. Senator John McCain thinks it is a cover-up. Rep. Jason Chaffetz raises the spectre of impeachment.
Somewhere between a political circus and an impeachable offense is the truth about the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Lybia, that resulted in the deaths of four Americans on Sept. 11, 2012.
The truth, of course, is seldom an absolute. That’s especially the case in politics where opinions legitimately differ, recall is never total, and facts and circumstances can generate more interpretations, descriptions, analyses, and conclusions than there are facts and circumstances.
We will never know exactly what happened in Benghazi, but we do know that four good people died there. We have reason to believe their deaths may have been prevented. We certainly don’t want their sacrifices to have been in vain.
So we have to get as close to the truth as we can; to learn, to change, and to give greater meaning to the lives of Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods, and Glen Doherty.
Unfortunately, we’re not even close to the truth. Seven months later we are still mired in the manipulation of the facts, exaggerations and excuses, confusion and contradictions, all jostling us back and forth between a political circus and cover-up. It is a pattern so common in Washington: The incident, the investigations, the disclosures of new and damning information, more investigations, polarization between the combatants, media exploitation, and the evolution of public awareness, to public concern and finally, hopefully, public judgment that shapes an acceptable outcome.
For Benghazi, there are a lot of issues still on the table. Accusations and denials abound, some of which are plausible, some preposterous. For anyone paying attention, the landscape is confusing and frustrating, let alone disturbing, and a long way from public judgment, although a growing percentage of Americans (now at 55 percent according to a Post-ABC poll) think the President is engaged in a cover-up.
There are four key elements to the controversy: (1). The security of State Department personnel not just in Lybia, but across the globe; (2) the investigation, capture and punishment of those responsible for the Benghazi deaths; (3) the veracity of the information the government is making public; and (4) the responsibility of the media to both deliver information accurately, fully and without bias.
Could the deaths of Stevens, Smith, Woods, and Doherty have been prevented? Could the government have responded more forcefully to the early warning flares that were going off like firecrackers months before the attack? Could the Pentagon have responded militarily the night of the attacks and, if not, why not? What was the status of our relationship with Libyan security at the time? These questions strike at the heart of our commitment to protect our personnel abroad, and should help launch the broader debate about that in Congress.
Why was the criminal investigation by agencies of the government, including the FBI, botched so badly in the immediate aftermath of the attacks? The FBI didn’t show up on the scene for three weeks. On its face, that one fact is an insult to those who died. Where does the investigation stand now? What is being done to capture those identified as being on the scene that night? What agencies are involved in the investigation? Who’s in charge? Why don’t we know more? Why isn’t the media asking more questions?
Did the Obama Administration deliberately deceive the American people in the days, weeks and months following the attack in the midst of a presidential election? Did the misinformation that was disseminated after the attack do damage to American foreign policy, American security, and/or the morale of American diplomats in the U.S. and abroad? What effect did the Administration’s response have on American integrity abroad?
Did the media fail in its responsibility to adequately cover the aftermath of the attack and in so doing mislead and misinform the public? Did most media outlets willfully disregard evidence that would prove damaging to the Administration?
These questions spawn a hundred more, but they are at the core of the controversy and hold the key to its resolution.
That resolution–writing the final chapters to the Benghazi tragedy– will continue to elude us if the President doesn’t get beyond his faux righteous indignation and condescending arrogance; if Republicans don’t keep their focus on governing and oversight rather than taking down Hillary Clinton; and if the media don’t suppress their biases and get back to their investigative instincts. If they all do their jobs, the public may actually be enlightened enough to draw some conclusions of its own, force the right outcomes, and move on.
The security and foreign policy questions are the most important and most urgent, for obvious reasons. We left four Americans to die a violent death in a foreign land. We jeopardized our relations in a volatile region of the globe. Benghazi raised questions about security of our personnel around the world and whether we will ever be able to protect them without negating their effectiveness. Benghazi raised serious questions about the internal communications among State Department personnel and their communication and coordination with other agencies, particularly the CIA, whose role always needs re-examination.
But the resolution of the political questions may have an even more profound impact over a longer period of time. Answers to those questions could help determine whether the self-preservation instincts of team Obama were powerful enough to drive decision-making into the dark side, a tendency that faces most administrations.
At the eye of the political hurricane are the extensive revisions of talking points on the cause and likely perpetrators of the attack. The notes, which you would think would not be significant in the scheme of things, were prepared by the State Department, the CIA, and the White House for use by Congress. They were also used by UN Ambassador Susan Rice who had nothing to do with Benghazi, but mysteriously showed up as the top Administration spokesperson on the issue five days after the tragedy. She employed the talking points in her false and embarrassing assertions that the deaths of those Americans were the result of a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video. The White House and some in the media would have us believe the controversy over the talking points is “irrelevant,” the result of internal squabbling among low-level bureaucracy wordsmiths.
That assertion, like Rice’s original, is patently absurd.
With apologies to DC commentator Chris Core, the integrity of public information is a, if not the, core value in a democratic republic. Those talking points and the proceeding attempts to explain what happened in Benghazi hold a lot of the secrets to the Obama Administration’s methods and motives in the days following the attack, and they are important in determining whether the Administration leveled with the American people or deliberately tried to deceive them. What the Administration did and why it did it is fundamental to public judgment of the relationship between the people and their government. It is that judgment that brought down President Nixon and nearly toppled President Clinton.
There is more than enough evidence to suggest that the public has been deliberately misled by Ambassador Rice, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney, and State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland. The President has included himself among the suspected with his bizarre claims that he declared the incident a terrorist attack in the first 48 hours. He did not and it is bewildering that with the record so clear, and his words so unclear, he would even make that claim. Even the Washington Post, which for the most part has parroted his line on Benghazi, dismissed his claim.
The talking points also reflect a broader pattern of misinformation, exaggeration, manipulation, and factual re-engineering that has infected political discourse on both sides of the aisle and in the media, but particularly with this Administration. It doesn’t matter whether the subject is energy development, the fiscal cliff, or the end of the war in Afghanistan. The Administration, including the President, plays fast and loose with the facts and their interpretation. It is almost Owellian.
Whether the post-attack response was a deliberate cover-up as Senator McCain suggests, or a matter of political expediency two months out from a presidential election, or just one big misunderstanding, is yet to be determined. We must keep the eyes of our political leaders squarely focused on the fundamentals, ignoring the indignation of the left and the impeachaholics on the right. Once again, truth, resolution, good governance, and responsible politics will be found between the extremes, not among them.
The role of the media has been particularly troubling, particularly the degree to which the media have taken up sides in the disputes over the facts and their interpretation. Some media early on dug ideological and political trenches on both sides of the battlefield and refused to come out. Fortunately, a number of individual journalists broke through the bias and kept their perspective, notably Bob Scheiffer, Face the Nation host who featured the testimony of those gutsy State Department whistleblowers and ABC’s Jonathan Karl who revealed the depth and breadth of the talking point debacle. Also worth reading are an op-ed piece by Peggy Noonan in the Wall Street Journal titled, The Inconvenient Truth About Benghazi; an investigative piece by Rowan Scarborough in the Washington Times May 16, and an AP piece, A Look at Why the Benghazi Issue Keeps Coming Back.
It is understandable that the President wants Benghazi behind him and Republicans on Capitol Hill want it in front of them. The attention of most Americans is focused elsewhere. The challenge of Benghazi is to pay lasting tribute to those who died there by bringing the tragedy to a close conclusively, with positive outcomes that serve the nation well. Maybe the best approach, if a little sappy, is to think about what those four men would have wanted done now to make their sacrifice mean something.
Editor’s Note: Mike Johnson is a former journalist, who worked on the Ford White House staff and served as press secretary and chief of staff to House Republican Leader Bob Michel, prior to entering the private sector. He is co-author of a book, Surviving Congress, a guide for congressional staff. He is currently a principal with the OB-C Group.