Last Wednesday was a day of extremes for the former Secretary of State, who was in Beverly Hills to pick up a public service award from a private foreign policy organization. There her tenure at the State Department was lauded as activists from a group called “Ready for Hillary 2016” gathered nearby to round out the chorus.
Yet hours earlier and on the opposite side of the country, her legacy came under heavy fire in a hearing convened by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. There a trio of State Department witnesses offered gripping testimony calling into sharp question Clinton’s conduct and that of her senior staff in the run-up and response to the September 2012 jihadi assaults on the U.S. diplomatic mission and a CIA annex in Benghazi that killed J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans.
The hearing did not live up to the hype (here and here) about exposing Watergate-style malfeasance, but it gave renewed vigor to criticisms about Mrs. Clinton’s actions in her final months at Foggy Bottom. These criticisms include:
Why did Clinton propagate a discredited administration narrative about the assault being the consequence of a spontaneous violent reaction to an anti-Muslim YouTube video that key State Department officials knew almost immediately to be false? Yet she presented this line in her public remarks and private comments to the grieving families at the September 14 memorial service for the four dead Americans. And she apparently took no action to correct this narrative even as Susan E. Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, was giving it wide broadcast and President Obama dispensed it before the U.N. General Assembly a full two weeks after the attack.
Clinton, Rice and other top administration officials claim that the narrative was based on the intelligence community’s consensus view at the time. But Gregory Hicks, a well-respected career diplomat who served as the No. 2 U.S. official in Libya at the time of the attack, testified at last week’s hearing that he immediately reported to the State Department that the Benghazi assault was a terrorist strike. According to him, “the only report that our mission made through every channel was that there had been a [terrorist] attack.”
The hearing also presented into evidence a September 12 email from Elizabeth Jones, the acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, showing that these reports had quickly traveled up the State Department’s chain of command. In the email, Jones tells Ambassador Rice, Cheryl Mills (Mrs. Clinton’s chief of staff and long-time consigliere) and Patrick Kennedy, who as the Under Secretary for Management had ultimate responsibility for diplomatic security in Libya, that the attack was the premeditated work of Ansar al-Sharia, an Islamist militia group affiliated with Al Qaeda.
We know from previous disclosures (here, here and here) that the CIA station chief in Libya was reporting a similar message, which was supported by National Security Agency communications intercepts. And this message made its way into the initial version of the talking points that the agency prepared for the administration but which were then misleadingly revised (here, here and here) at the State Department’s insistence. Indeed, it now appears that Jake Sullivan, then Clinton’s deputy chief of staff and currently Vice President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, played an instrumental role in shaping the final version of the talking points.
Questions about the version of events that the administration initially put out are important for two reasons. First, it bears centrally on the mounting criticism that the Obama team habitually subjects foreign policy to political machinations. True, this charge is voiced all the time by partisan antagonists. But in recent months former administration insiders and even Obama supporters have come forward to give it credence. It is, for example, a prime accusation in Vali Nasr’s new book, The Dispensable Nation. Nasr previously served as a State Department advisor on AfPak policy and he writes that…
[T]he president had a truly disturbing habit of funneling major foreign-policy decisions through a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisors whose turf was strictly politics. Their primary concern was how any action in Afghanistan or the Middle East would play on the nightly news, or which talking point it would give the Republicans. [Emphasis added]
And even administration well-wishers like David Rothkopf lament about how “political calculations often trump good policy choices” in the Obama White House.
Given that the Benghazi strikes occurred just as the presidential election season kicked into high gear, last week’s testimony only deepens suspicions that the administration’s first inclination was to see the attacks through the lens of domestic politics. This is all the more so since: 1.) Hicks testified that he was told to cease and desist his internal probing about the false narrative’s genesis and that his persistence has placed his career in jeopardy, and 2.) Allegations have surfaced from inside the State Department that some of its counter-terrorism staffers were cut out of the decision-making process in the attack’s aftermath.
The second reason why the origins of the discredited narrative are important is that Hicks, who has spent most of his career in the Middle East, attests that it unnecessarily complicated the FBI investigation of the attacks. Libyan leader Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf had quickly announced that the strikes were the work of terrorists and repeated this assertion on a Sunday morning television talk show on September 16, only to be contradicted by Ambassador Rice, who appeared on the same show right after him. As Hicks put it, Magariaf, who was struggling to assert the authority of the new central government in the aftermath of the Libyan revolution, was “insulted in front of his own people. His credibility was reduced. His ability to lead his country was damaged.” And in Hicks’ mind, this sense of affront helps explain why Tripoli’s cooperation with the FBI team became difficult. As it turned out, the diplomatic post in Benghazi remained unguarded from looters and others for more than two weeks after the attacks, with the result that it offered little of evidentiary value once the FBI finally arrived on the scene.
Why was the diplomatic post in Benghazi so lightly protected? The security situation there was rapidly deteriorating – indeed the United Kingdom closed down its consulate following a failed assassination attempt on the British ambassador who was visiting Benghazi in June 2012 and the U.S. post was subject to a bomb attack the same month. So it is extremely puzzling that the State Department not only failed to beef up security there in violation of its own guidelines, but had actually withdrawn security personnel and resources even as Ambassador Stevens and his staff protested.
According to press accounts, the Benghazi post was primarily a cover for a CIA operation aimed at neutralizing terrorist groups and weapons networks that sprang up in the chaos following the Libyan revolution. And because of this special status, confusion reigned between the State Department and the CIA over which agency had responsibility for the post’s security arrangements.* But even if this is the case, the department’s actions are striking given that Secretary Clinton, who was planning on visiting Libya later in the year, wanted to upgrade the post into a full-fledged consulate. Indeed, as Mr. Hicks testified last week, Ambassador Stevens went to Benghazi to advance this plan.
Just how thorough was the State Department’s formal inquiry into the Benghazi attacks that Clinton convened? The Accountability Review Board’s report released last December was a scathing indictment of the negligent security practices in Benghazi but assigned responsibility for them several bureaucratic levels down from Secretary Clinton and her senior staff. Critics question the ARB’s failure to include Clinton and her two chief deputies among the hundred or so department officials it interviewed, and some have even accused the inquiry of deliberately shielding the department’s higher-ups from justifiable blame. And even before last week’s hearing the department’s own inspector general had launched an unprecedented “special review” of the ARB’s “effectiveness and accountability.”
The hearing testimony gave new impetus to these concerns. Eric Nordstrom, who served as the security chief at the embassy in Tripoli until last July, attested that “[The ARB] stopped short of interviewing people who I personally know were involved in key decisions.” And Mark Thompson, the acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counter-Terrorism, complained that the ARB did not interview him despite his request to appear before it.
Hicks and Nordstrom expressed dismay that the ARB let the department’s senior staff off the hook for the security inadequacies in Benghazi and they singled out Under Secretary Kennedy as deserving special censure. Nordstrom also believes that responsibility extends all the way up to Mrs. Clinton’s door. He is incredulous at her denials that she ever saw the requests coming from Tripoli and Benghazi for added security. And it should be noted that General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed a similar disbelief in his testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on February 7. Dempsey stated that he had known of a cable sent a month before the attacks conveying concerns about the security protection in Benghazi and that “I would call myself surprised that she didn’t.”
Exclaiming “What difference, at this point, does it make?” before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 23 was really dumb. The now-memorable phrase by Secretary Clinton, made just as she was departing government service, might have been prompted by exasperation with what she considered partisan sniping. But coming in the same breath with a promise to “figure out what happened,” it instead conveyed callous indifference.
Last week’s hearing offered evidence of just how angry the State Department bureaucracy is with Clinton’s words, with Mr. Nordstrom in particular delivering a poignant rebuttal. She must surely regret the line and would have had to account for it had she remained in Foggy Bottom much longer. In any case, it will no doubt come to haunt her if she plans on resuming a political career. As one analyst observes, “Credibility is Clinton’s vulnerability…. Doubts persisted about her veracity and authenticity throughout the 2008 presidential campaign.”
The Benghazi controversy derailed President Obama’s first choice for Clinton’s successor. And with last week’s developments accelerating calls for a special Congressional investigation, two other potential casualties now appear in sight. The more vulnerable at present is Clinton’s own legacy as Secretary of State. But also at risk, especially if further evidence emerges of White House skullduggery, is the political advantage on national security issues that Democrats have only recently wrested from the Republicans.
*This interagency disarray is evident in the process that led to the CIA’s discredited talking points.