National Journal’s Michael Hirsh, in writing about the House hearings on the September 11, 2012 attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, said, “Benghazi was a tragedy. It will, almost certainly, remain a political issue. What it is not – by a long shot — is a scandal yet.”
To understand why this judgment is wrong, it’s helpful to keep in mind that weeks after the attack the Obama administration claimed the cause of the violence was a spontaneous demonstration, not pre-planned attacks; that the cause of the demonstrations was an anti-Muslim YouTube video; and that there was no terrorist involvement in the attacks.
Now compare that narrative with some of what we learned based on the testimonies of Gregory Hicks, deputy chief of mission in Libya before he became the top American diplomat in Libya after Ambassador Chris Stevens was murdered, as well as Mark Thompson, the former deputy coordinator for operations in the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau and Eric Nordstrom, an official in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
1. Mr. Hicks confirmed that he received a call from Ambassador Stevens shortly before he died. Stevens said to Hicks, “Greg, we’re under attack.” (Not, “There’s a demonstration outside the diplomatic outpost.”) Mr. Hicks also confirmed that the night of the attacks the Libyan president, Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, called him and said these attacks were led by Islamic extremists with possible terror links. Five days after the attack the Libyan president said on CBS’s Face the Nation that the attacks were “pre-planned” and “pre-determined.” And Mr. Hicks told the House committee, “The only report that our mission made through every channel was that this was an attack. No protest.” Mr. Hicks also emphasized there was “no report” from anyone on the ground that that there was a demonstration.
2. We learned of a September 12 e-mail from Beth Jones, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, who wrote to several key individuals in the State Department that she had a direct conversation with the Libyan ambassador. Ms. Jones wrote, “I told him [the Libyan ambassador] that the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al-Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.”
3. Asked about the role played by the YouTube video that the administration said had sparked the attack in Benghazi, Mr. Hicks told the House Oversight Committee, “The YouTube video was a non-event in Libya.” He added, “The video was not instigative of anything that was going on in Libya. We saw no demonstrations related to the video anywhere in Libya.”
4. When Mr. Hicks was asked his reaction to Ambassador Susan Rice’s televised account of the events in Benghazi–when she blamed the attacks on the YouTube video; repeatedly characterized it as a spontaneous demonstration; and insisted there was no involvement by terrorist elements–Hicks said he was “stunned,” that “my jaw dropped” and that he was “embarrassed.”
5. According to Hicks, Special Forces were “furious” when they were told to stand down during the Benghazi attack. “I will quote Lieutenant Colonel Gibson,” Hicks told the committee. “He said, ‘This is the first time in my career that a diplomat has more balls than somebody in the military.’” (Lt. Colonel Gibson, located in Tripoli, was ready to board a C-130 to go to help the Americans under attack.) The previous claim by others that “there was never a stand down order by anybody” was false, according to Hicks.
6. Mr. Hicks said that after a long and distinguished career, there was “a shift” in the way State Department officials treated him after he asked why Susan Rice had blamed the Benghazi attack on protests sparked by a YouTube video.
“In hindsight, I think it began after I asked the question about Ambassador Rice’s statement on the TV shows,” Hicks said. He had asked Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Beth Jones why Susan Rice had said the Benghazi attack stemmed from a demonstration. Jones said that she didn’t know, according to Hicks. “The sense I got was that I needed to stop the line of questioning,” Hicks added.
Mr. Hicks went on to tell the committee that Ms. Jones gave a “blistering report” of his performance when he returned to the U.S. to attend the funeral of Ambassador Stevens, though he was given “no indication” there were issues with his work. “She even said she didn’t understand why anyone in Tripoli would want me to come back,” Hicks recalled. “I’ve been effectively demoted from deputy chief of mission to desk officer,” he said.
7. Mr. Hicks testified that he was instructed not to be personally interviewed by Representative Jason Chaffetz, who was visiting Libya to investigate what had happened. He also said he had “never,” in any other circumstance, been told not to talk with Members of Congress investigating an event. And when a lawyer was excluded from one meeting with intelligence officers because he lacked security clearances, Hicks received a furious call from then-chief of staff to Hillary Clinton, Cheryl Mills. According to Hicks, Ms. Mills called him directly. Mr. Hicks described her as being ”very upset.” Mills, Hicks said, demanded to know what was said in the meeting.
8. Those testifying yesterday said they felt that the investigation of the Benghazi attack by the State Department, the Accountability Review Board, was inadequate because many people who were directly involved in the attacks–including those testifying as well as Secretary of State Clinton–were not interviewed. “They stopped short of interviewing people who I personally know were involved in key decisions,” said Eric Nordstrom.
Add to all this the reporting of Steve Hayes of the Weekly Standard. Thanks to his story, we know that the early talking points produced to explain the Benghazi attacks were accurate–but after the State Department and the White House altered them, the American people were presented with an utterly false account of events.
As I wrote earlier this week, early (accurate) references to “Islamic extremists” were removed. Early (accurate) references to “attacks” were changed to “demonstrations.” And there was no mention of any YouTube video in any of the many drafts of the talking points — even though everyone from the president of the United States to the secretary of state to the U.N. ambassador blamed the attacks on the “awful, “heinous,” “offensive,” “reprehensible,” “disgusting” and “widely disseminated” video. Except that we now know the video was irrelevant to what happened.
It sounds like a scandal to me.