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 The attack itself took place in a region known to be dangerous, where other Western nations had already withdrawn from diplomatic missions.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:
Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.): Because today as I listen to people, and you Ms. Lamb, have said— you've described these attackers in a number of ways, but you don’t mention terrorists at all. Why is that? I mean, the compound had been attacked once before, and breached, and these people had all these weapons—projectiles, grenades, all kinds of weapons. Why would you call this anything but a terrorist attack? Why do you call them attackers?
Lamb: Sir, I have just presented the facts as they've come across. I am not making any judgments on my own and I am leaving that to [unintelligible].”
However, another witness, Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, said the assault was “instantly recognizable” as a terrorist attack – one he had been expecting for quite a while. “I almost expected the attack to come,” Wood told the committee. “We were the last flag flying. It was a matter of time.”
Oversight chair Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif) also revealed that the State Department has 50 minutes of video of the attack from their remote surveillance system. The video immediately showed State Department officials that there had been no protest at all. So far State has not produced the video for the Oversight Committee. Issa demanded access to it in the hearing, telling Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy that he’d like to see it before it gets leaked to the media.
In other words, State knew all along that this hadn’t been a protest that spun out of control. Why, then, did Obama administration officials insist on the false narrative of a protest over a YouTube video? Barack Obama has spent the last 16 months arguing that he has al-Qaeda on the run after the mission that killed Osama bin Laden, and similarly has the Taliban nearly broken in Afghanistan.
Admitting that al-Qaeda had reestablished itself well enough to pull off a successful military-style assault on an American diplomatic mission – on the anniversary of 9/11, no less – would be a humbling admission that he had been wrong all along. In fact, Lt. Col. Wood told Rep. Dennis Kucinich in the hearing that al-Qaeda has a better grip in eastern Libya than the US, which helped liberate it from Moammar Qaddafi:
Kucinich: “Is Al Qaeda more or less established in Libya since our involvement?”
Wood: “Yes, sir their presence grows every day, they are certainly more established than we are.”
In this case, it’s hard to argue that the cover-up is worse than the “crime” of incompetence that led up to it. After all, four people died in that attack, and perhaps even a higher level of security might not have prevented it. It has become clear, though, that the State Department didn’t recognize that Benghazi and its environs had become a nest of the very terrorists we now fight in places like Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, and other hot spots, and that this was no ordinary case for consular security. Instead of listening to people on the ground and acting to provide some kind of extraordinary security, the Benghazi mission was left to just “hope that everything would get better.”
On top of that, the administration at the very least allowed a false narrative to unfold about the nature of the attack – a narrative that had specific political benefits for President Obama. That might be coincidence, but that’s difficult to believe. At the very least, it shows a remarkable level of incompetence to send the UN Ambassador to five Sunday talk shows five days later to push the false “spontaneous protest” narrative when the White House itself had designated it a terrorist attack within the first 24 hours.
At worst, this looks like a political cover-up intended to disguise the fact that Obama’s policy in Libya has given al-Qaeda a fresh launch and another safe haven for its operations against the US.
Either way, this requires immediate and thorough scrutiny, from Congress and the national media. That may make some journalists uncomfortable in an election season, but we need to know the truth about national and diplomatic security – so that we don’t have even more dead Americans and further cover-ups about the circumstances of their deaths.