Before Wednesday's hearing into last September’s attack on a U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) said: “If you link Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it maybe by 10 or so, you’re going to get in the zone where Benghazi is.” Not even close.
Going into the hearing by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, we knew that the facility in Benghazi had been underprotected and that the Obama administration clung too long to “talking points” that linked the attack that killed four Americans (including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens) to outrage over an anti-Muslim video. (Contrary to what Republicans have been saying as far back as the Mitt Romney presidential campaign, the attack could have been both a terrorist attack and a response to the video.)
The hearing didn’t alter that picture much, though it featured some poignant testimony from Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission in Libya whom Republicans hailed as a persecuted whistle-blower. Hicks was clearly frustrated that military resources weren’t marshaled to try to prevent further violence. He also scored points with Republicans when he said that his “jaw dropped” when he heard United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice say that early indications were that the attack stemmed from a protest over the “Innocence of Muslims” video.
But Hicks didn’t refute the argument that there wasn’t time to deploy special operations troops to Benghazi in time to prevent the second wave of attacks. And, dramatic as it was, the “jaw dropped” quote doesn’t prove that Rice or Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton concocted the explanation about the video to prevent election-year damage to President Obama’s record in combating terrorism. In fact, the idea the attack might be connected to worldwide outrage over the video was eminently plausible at that point.
In TV interviews after the attack, Rice, drawing on talking points prepared by the intelligence community, said that “currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously ignited by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post and subsequently its annex.”
The Weekly Standard has reported that an earlier version of the talking points included the statement that “we do know that Islamic extremists with ties to Al Qaeda participated in the attack.” That language, the magazine said, was removed by the deputy director of the CIA.
In December, an investigative panel concluded that the State Department was guilty of "systematic failures" in security. As for the talking points, it’s often forgotten that even as Rice was giving credence to the possibility that the attacks were inspired by the anti-Muslim video, she also said of the attackers: “Whether they were Al Qaeda affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or Al Qaeda itself, I think is one of the things we'll have to determine."
Even so, she paid the political price for the controversy and was passed over for secretary of State. Benghazi might also come back to haunt Clinton if she runs for president in 2016. (Certainly Republicans would like that.) It certainly is a blot on the Obama administration’s record. But Benghazi wasn’t Watergate or Iran-Contra before Wednesday’s hearing, and it still isn’t.
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