There’s a huge red flag in the Benghazi mess, but conservatives are letting the media get away with using a red herring to avoid it.
Give the establishment media credit for obstinacy: Once it settles on a standard narrative or explanation for a particular subject, it shows remarkable discipline in explaining away any evidence that contradicts its own approved spin. So it has been with the media’s 250-day old determination to downplay the scandalous nature of the Obama administration’s treatment of its outpost in Benghazi before, during, and after the terrorist attack there that took four American lives.
After a rough week or so when developments actually shook the media’s Benghazi façade, it was the Washington Post’s editorial page that did double-back flips to re-establish the official line: Nothing to see here, children; move along; don’t trouble your pretty little heads about it. (After all, as the Post theorized last November, the whole idea of this as a scandal probably stems from endemic Republican racism. Yes, really.)
Yet by any objective standard, the totality of the Benghazi affair contains numerous elements that, if the partisan affiliations were reversed, would have made the Post apoplectic.
The most obvious red flag is the administration’s treatment of Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission in Libya. Here we have a career public servant of impeccable reputation (and personally a Democrat, no less) who has said he was A) ordered not to talk to a Republican congressman; B) berated for daring to voice internal dissent from talking points he knew for a fact were untrue; C) actually demoted for trying to insist on the truth; and D) then in effect called a liar by the administration for claiming he had been demoted -- which is not even a disputable fact, because no matter how one explains it away, moving from deputy chief of mission to a desk officer slot is by any reasonable definition a demotion.
When in the history of scandals has the Washington Post ever averted its eyes and stifled its tongue when a whistleblower in a major matter has been so obviously, flagrantly bullied and retaliated against?
Completely apart from every other aspect of the Benghazi mess, the treatment of Gregory Hicks alone is a major scandal.
It becomes more scandalous still when one examines the substance to which Hicks testified. According to his testimony, which was entirely believable (and in many cases proved by other documents and testimony), the administration A) had ignored multiple requests for added security in Benghazi before the attacks -- and then, in the days after the assault, scrubbed that fact from its talking points; B) ordered a team of four commandos in Tripoli, who were ready and eager to fly to Benghazi during the attack, to stand down -- and then, in the days after the assault, given the impression that no armed help had been available anywhere; C) had repeatedly been told, with no room for doubt whatsoever, that the attackers were affiliated or associated with a jihadist militia -- and then had repeatedly, for weeks, provided another story, while scrubbing the mention of jihadists for political reasons: so that this fact would not be “abused by congressmen to beat the State Department for not paying attention.”
The Post now acts as if the security failures are old news -- a subject worth examining for future policy changes, but certainly not a scandal. But in those first weeks after the terrorist assault, which was when the cover-up was occurring, it was certainly not old news. Indeed, considering the date -- 9/11 -- the repeated requests for more security, the five prior dangerous incidents in Benghazi, and the utter flat-footedness of the entire administration’s response, the dereliction of responsibility itself was at least borderline scandalous.
But the cover-up thereof was certainly a scandal, especially in the context of the obvious political motivations at play. There was a political campaign ongoing -- and control of the first few days of the news cycle, as every campaign consultant knows, is absolutely crucial in helping the public decide whether to tune in or tune out to a story, and to what aspects of the story to tune in.
The red herring by the media is that the e-mails released so far by the White House, regarding the talking points developed several days after the terrorism, are the most important aspect of the cover-up -- and therefore that the lack of a smoke-belching howitzer in them proves the lack of scandal.
But that’s wrong. The e-mails do not cover the first 67 hours after the attack began, which is when the narrative of the “anti-Islamic video” was first given traction. And what they show isn’t an administration struggling with what to first tell the public, but rather a State Department desperately trying to scrub the talking points of information that just happened to be the exact evidence (imagine that!) that could contradict the story it already had been telling for nearly three days.
And why was it so important to strip from the talking points all mentions of jihadist links and of previous CIA warnings, while leaving in the vague reference to “demonstrations” in Cairo? Because the “demonstrations” comport with the narrative blaming the video rather than the administration -- and because the “blame the video” narrative already had become a political football.
Remember that it was around noon on the day of the attacks (U.S. time zone), shortly after the embassy walls in Cairo had been breached, that somebody in Cairo first put out a statement apologizing for the video. It was before midnight, U.S. time, that Republican candidate Mitt Romney released a statement blasting the Obama administration for apologizing to the attackers before strenuously denouncing the attack. By mid-day Sept. 12, when Romney held a press conference, the big story was whether Romney’s criticism was a politicization of tragedy. And by then, the administration, including the president himself and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, had distanced itself from the “apology” but had firmly set its flag in the soil of the “blame the video” narrative.
So as the Romney camp worked to explain the assaults as evidence of failed administration policy, the administration was feverishly trying to push all the blame onto an obscure film maker. Sure, there was politics on both sides. But the difference was that the administration already knew, from multiple sources, that the Benghazi attack was jihadist in nature and almost certainly pre-planned (which also was an obvious supposition, considering the 9/11 date). The administration knew the facts, but tried to distract the public from them.
Obama recently asked why the administration would conduct a cover-up “for only three days.” Well, aside from the fact that it was eight days (three until the talking points e-mails, two more days until Susan Rice’s Sunday news-show appearances, and another three before admissions in Hill testimony began to grudgingly acknowledge the jihadist link), the answer is that in a presidential campaign, eight days can mean the world. Keeping the focus on the video, rather than the administration’s screw-ups on security and policy, undermined the Romney criticisms, enlisted the media’s sympathy, and inoculated Obama against further Romney attacks on the subject. (Even the ultimate acknowledgment wasn’t proactive, but came only after the “video” excuse had begun to publicly fall apart.)
The bigger question isn’t whether the White House specifically and directly interfered with the talking points, via e-mail, but with how the administration settled on the “blame the video” narrative in the first place -- a narrative that, in retrospect, was absurd on its face.
In that light, the president’s 10 p.m. phone call on Sept. 11 with Secretary Clinton takes on supreme importance, just as Andrew McCarthy has noted at National Review Online:
We do not have a recording of this call, and neither Clinton nor the White House has described it beyond noting that it happened. But we do know that, just a few minutes after Obama called Clinton, the Washington press began reporting that the State Department had issued a statement by Clinton regarding the Benghazi attack. In it, she asserted:
“Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.”
Gee, what do you suppose Obama and Clinton talked about in that 10 p.m. call?
SO NOW WE HAVE walked backwards from the mistreatment of whistleblower Hicks to the day of the Benghazi assaults. To review in ordinary chronological order: 1) The administration failed to provide adequate security for the Benghazi facility despite repeated requests and warnings; 2) the administration failed/refused to mobilize significant military assistance while the facility was under fire; 3) Mr. Hicks personally told Secretary Clinton, while the fighting was still ongoing, that the fighting was major and was jihadist-related; 4) Clinton and Obama spoke not long afterwards -- the only confirmed interaction Obama had with anybody specific in a period of about six hours; 5) the administration very suddenly began even more prominently blaming the video while not even mentioning the evidence of a pre-planned jihadist assault; 6) the State Department, with the later help of the White House (especially after an in-person conference the next day), scrubbed the talking points in a way that left open the “video” interpretation while eliminating references to jihadists and CIA warnings; 7) berated Mr. Hicks for internally flagging the misrepresentation, ordered him not to talk to a congressman, and eventually demoted him; 8) according to multiple reports, deliberately kept some two dozen other on-site witnesses from talking to congressional investigators (or to anyone else on the “outside”) -- and the public still hasn’t heard from these other two dozen, to this day; 9) released only a selective sampling of e-mails, skipping the first 67 hours while offering spin to explain the embarrassments within the e-mails it did release; and 10) accused Mr. Hicks of being a liar.
Individually, most of these actions are some combination of bad policy judgment, incompetence, tawdry politics, and prevarications -- but not crimes. Retaliation against Mr. Hicks, though, might be criminal. (More context on that in a moment.)
But there’s more. There are numerous allegations that Mr. Hicks isn’t the only Benghazi-related whistleblower who was directly or indirectly threatened. And now there’s a report from CBS’ indefatigable Sharyl Attkisson that one of four State Department officers who was placed on “administrative leave” after a review of the security failures has posted poems on his blog indicating that he was treated as a fall guy for higher-ups. Raymond Maxwell, who certainly seems to have an impressive résumé, blamed “The Queen’s Henchmen” for conducting a “lynching” to “satisfy [their] guilty consciences.” He called it “Extrajudicial./Total impunity./A kangaroo court in/a banana republic.” Then, echoing (and obviously mocking) Secretary Clinton’s infamous outburst in her Hill testimony, he wrote: “And the truth? The truth?/What difference at this point does it make?”
In another poem, he wrote that “The web of lies they weave/gets tighter and tighter/in its deceit… the more they talk/the more they lie/and the deeper down the hole they go…. Just wait and feed them rope.”
Sounds as if Congress might want to subpoena Mr. Maxwell, doesn’t it?
If Mr. Maxwell asserts that he is being made a scapegoat, and Mr. Hicks and other whistleblowers report retaliation or threats thereof, is this part of a pattern or practice, from this administration, of bullying officials who would tell the truth? I argued just last week, with plenty of examples, that it most certainly is. Among other things, at least five inspectors general have been harassed, or worse, and stories are rampant in multiple news accounts of other examples of strong-arm tactics.
But now, just Monday, comes another official report from an inspector general confirming a separate example of retaliating against a whistleblower -- this time regarding the other scandal the establishment media has massively under-covered, the “Fast and Furious” gun-running operation. Much as the administration might try to portray the perpetrator as just a rogue agent, the fact is that retaliator Dennis Burke has unusually strong political ties with top Obama officials. Originally a close protégé of former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel, Burke then was chief of staff to now-Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. Even as Burke resigned in scandal two years ago, Napolitano praised him as “an outstanding public servant.”
In both Fast and Furious and in Benghazi, the result of the administration’s incompetence (or worse) was that people died. (Lots of people.) When an administration tries to cover up the real reasons people died, that alone usually makes it a scandal by the usual Washington Post/establishment media standards. When the administration threatens or punishes those who try to correct the record, it’s more than a scandal; it’s almost always criminal.
What the Post calls conservatives “obsess[ing]” over Benghazi is actually, by all prior standards, an eminently reasonable insistence that corruption be outed and reversed. The State Department’s mendacious, 12-step emasculation of the Benghazi talking points, for political purposes related to maintaining an already ongoing lie about an Internet video, is just one part of a long series of Libya-related actions that together amount to a serious corruption of our political system. Until Mr. Maxwell and dozens of Mr. Hicks’ Libya-based comrades can testify, the media’s job is to demand transparency and disclosure -- and to blast all administration efforts to stifle them.