I served in the Bush White House during the intense press coverage about who leaked the name of Valerie Plame, an undercover CIA agent, to Robert Novak. It was a story that obsessed the media and led to a three-year criminal investigation by a special counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald.
In the end, it turned out Richard Armitage was the person responsible for leaking Ms. Plame’s name, no laws were violated related to the leak, and the favorite target of the press, Karl Rove, was innocent of any wrong-doing. Though one individual in the administration was convicted of lying under oath, no underlying crime was committed. Ms. Plame and her husband Joseph Wilson, who we know made misleading statements during the whole episode, became celebrities of a sort. It was, in retrospect, much ado about very little, even if the press made life hell for innocent individuals.
Call it collateral damage from a scandal-crazed media.
I thought about all this in light of the testimony last Thursday of outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey. As Bill Kristol and I point out in our op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today, we learned from their testimony that President Obama, upon being told about the attack on the consulate in Benghazi, never once followed up with Panetta, Dempsey, or anyone else to see how things were developing. We learned that Messrs. Panetta and Dempsey both knew the assault on the compound were terrorist attacks on the night of the assault, even as the administration – in the persons of U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Obama – continued to peddle a false version of events for weeks afterward. And despite having been told about Ambassador Christopher Stevens’ repeated warnings that the embassy could not sustain an attack and he was concerned of the chaos and rise of Islamist elements in Benghazi, no forces were put in place or made ready nearby to respond to a possible attack. And during the actual attack, which we knew about in real time, not a single major military asset was deployed to help rescue Americans under assault.
As a result, the first American ambassador in more than 30 years was murdered, and so were three other Americans.
Here’s a thought experiment. Assume during the Bush or Reagan years three things happened: (1) four Americans were killed in a terrorist-led attack on an American compound; (2) the president and his top aides showed stunning indifference and passivity before and during the lethal attacks; and (3) the nation was misled for weeks after the attacks, even though the highest ranking members of the administration knew the true story.
Do you think the elite media would have covered this story with intensity comparable to, or greater than, the Plame story? Absolutely. Presidents Bush or Reagan would have been bombarded with questions. There would have been a feeding frenzy. They would not have been subject to obsequious “60 Minutes” interviews. The press narrative would have made this scandal a central part, not a footnote, of both presidencies.
Yet with a few honorable exceptions, journalists have devoted only a fraction of the attention to the Benghazi story as it did to the Plame story. The press, in fact, has shown a remarkable incuriosity to the period before, during, and after the terrorist attack that cost the lives of Ambassador Stevens, security personnel Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, and information officer Sean Smith. There has been none of the burning passion and obsession with the lethal Benghazi attack and the administration’s misleading accounts of it that we witnessed during the Plame story.
I’ll leave it to discerning readers to figure out why.