For the four decades since Watergate, one axiom has proven true time and again: It’s not the crime, it’s the cover-up. Scandals in Washington mostly start as either embarrassing yet minor peccadilloes or incompetence that present a potential political problem. They turn into major scandals when politicians attempt to hide them rather than address them openly, and then get caught in lies, deceptions, and even larger crimes than the instigating event.
Watergate certainly demonstrated this model well; rather than simply cut the bumbling political operatives loose that had been caught breaking into Democratic headquarters in 1972, the White House actively tried to hush up lower-level connections, for various reasons – including the incentive to keep quiet other abuses of power taking place in the Nixon administration.
It’s tempting to apply this model to the fallout from the terrorist attack in Benghazi. The attack itself took place in a region known to be dangerous, where other Western nations had already withdrawn from diplomatic missions. It resulted in the death of American Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the first such loss in 33 years, as well as three other fine Americans who tried to defend the mission. The attack was a well-planned and coordinated assault on both the consulate and a designated “safe house” that overwhelmed the security forces arrayed to protect our personnel and facility.
Diplomatic missions face these kinds of threats at all times, especially consulates, where host countries are less likely to approve US military forces for protection. As several witnesses testified in a House Oversight Committee hearing on Wednesday, the State Department and the country accepts those risks as the price for remaining engaged. Otherwise, we would run from every troubled region in the world, and our lack of fortitude might encourage some to make more regions just as troubled.
However, we only accept those risks when we can mitigate them with proper security for Americans dispatched to those hot spots. Clearly, that was not the case in Benghazi, especially for the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attack. At a House Oversight Committee hearing today, State Department security expert Charlene Lamb insisted that “We had the correct number of [security] assets in Benghazi,” a remarkable statement considering the rapid destruction of consular security and the deaths of four Americans in the incident.
Eric Nordstrom, one of the State Department witnesses who also testified, provided support for the Obama administration’s position – for the most part. Much was made prior to his appearance of prepared testimony that leaked to the media showing that Nordstrom never got a response to two requests for more security in Libya, specifically for Benghazi. Nordstrom tried to soften that up, but then confirmed the impression left earlier by his prepared testimony – and that the only plan in place was to hope for the best. Nordstrom explained:
“The frustrating thing that I found is once the first teams and the first TDY-ers [temporary security forces] started to expire at 60 days there was a complete and total absence of planning that I saw in terms of what we were supposed to do from that point on. So when I requested resources, when I requested assets, instead of supporting those assets, I was criticized. And somehow it was my responsibility to come up with a plan on the ground and not the responsibility for DS [diplomatic security]. I raised that specific point in a meeting with the DS director in March, that 60 days there was no plan. And it was hoped that everything would get better.”
After the attack, the White House went into cover-up mode. For at least the next seven days, Obama administration officials insisted that this incident started as a protest that “spun out of control,” in the words of UN Ambassador Susan Rice. Two witnesses at the hearing on Wednesday attempted to offer support for Rice, claiming that the intelligence community had told them the same thing. Lamb still refused to call the incident a terrorist attack at the hearing: