Hillary Clinton shields Obama from Benghazi scandal

Neil Munro White House Correspondent
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Secretary of State Hillary Clinton used an interview in Peru to take rhetorical responsibility for the Benghazi disaster — and to provide some political cover for her boss.

“I take responsibility” for the security oversights that allowed the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. embassy in Libya, Clinton said.

But Clinton also used the CNN interview to push blame onto lower-ranking State Department officials who were implementing the administration’s policy of downgrading security in Libya.

“The president and the vice president wouldn’t be knowledgeable about specific decisions that are made by security professionals, [who are] the ones who weigh all of the threats and the risks and the needs and make a considered decision,” Clinton told CNN on Monday.

Clinton’s calculated move may reduce the campaign-trail pressure on President Barack Obama, who has taken a big hit in the polls amid publicity over the attack and the White House’s extended effort to blame an anti-Islam filmmaker in California.

GOP leaders have blamed the Sept. 11 attack on Obama’s 2009 Muslim-outreach policy, which they say has helped Islamist parties gain power in Egypt.

“What I want to avoid is some kind of political gotcha or blame game,” Clinton told CNN. “I know that we’re very close to an election … [and] we are at our best as Americans when we pull together,” she claimed in Peru, where she was attending conference on women’s issues.

“Clinton appeared to be trying to inoculate President Obama from criticism as he prepared for Tuesday’s [campaign] debate,” The New York Times wrote after the comments.

Republicans quickly rejected Clinton’s gambit.

“If the President was truly not aware of this rising threat level in Benghazi, then we have lost confidence in his national security team,” said an Oct. 15 statement from three GOP Senators.

“But if the President was aware of these earlier attacks in Benghazi prior to the events of September 11, 2012, then he bears full responsibility for any security failures that occurred,” said the statement from Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte.

“The security of Americans serving our nation everywhere in the world is ultimately the job of the Commander-in-Chief. The buck stops there,” said their statement.

Obama and Clinton likely won’t escape political damage, partly because they helped set security policy in the war-ravaged country.

The statement came a week after White House officials began blaming Clinton’s department for bungling the defense of the diplomatic facility in Benghazi, and a week after State Department officials blamed intelligence agencies for the failure.

The poorly guarded, lightly fortified Benghazi facility was overrun Sept. 11 by a group of local jihadis, who also attacked another U.S facility nearby. The attacks killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, one civil servant and two guards.

Mid-level State Department officials told an Oct. 10 House hearing that they had reduced the U.S. guards at the facility from five to three, and hired locals to work as unarmed or armed guards.

However, a March memo released during the hearing, chaired by Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, showed that top officials had adopted a policy of minimizing the security dangers posed by local jihadi groups.

Officials in the U.S. embassy in Tripoli were seeking “to transition from emergency to normalized security operations,” said the March 28 memo.

The embassy’s reliance on local recruits was part of a top-level decision to minimize security worries in Libya. That policy also avoided a clash with Libya’s fragile leadership, which opposed the deployment of many U.S. guards before the attack, and also opposed the rapid dispatch of FBI officials to Libya to investigate the attack.

Within days of the attack, mid-level officials at the State Department tried to blame the nation’s intelligence agencies for their failure.

“There was no actionable intelligence available … indicating that there was a planned massive attack,” Patrick Kennedy, the under secretary of State for management, told the hearing, held by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

Libya’s jihadi groups formed while U.S. air power devastated the Libyan army in 2011. After the war ended, the groups began attacking various targets in Benghazi, including the U.K.’s diplomats and the Red Cross, prompting their evacuation from the city.

On Oct. 9, just two days before the attack that eliminated the U.S. diplomatic post in Tripoli, two local militia leaders threatened to stop protecting the U.S. facility if the U.S. appeared to support a Libyan politician, Mahmoud Jibril.

“If Jibril won, they could not continue to guarantee security in Benghazi,” they told a U.S. official, according to the memo, which was approved by the U.S. ambassador shortly before his death.

Instead, the militia leaders wanted the Libyan affiliate of the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood to win power. If the Muslim Brotherhood won, it would appoint the leader of the “17th of February Martyrs Brigade” as defense minister, said the Sept. 11 memo.

Officials in that brigade had earlier agreed to help defend the Benghazi facility.

After the Benghazi attack, Libya’s parliament deposed the sitting prime minister. No replacement has been selected since, leaving the nation without a working government.

The Muslim Brotherhood is the Arab world’s most established Islamist party, and it has numerous ties to Islamist jihadi groups. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood won half the seats in parliament and the presidency, effectively giving the group control over the Arab world’s largest and most important country.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s rise to power in Egypt was aided by Obama and Clinton.

In July, Clinton met with Egypt’s new president, Mahmoud Morsi, and declared, “The United States supports the full transition to civilian rule with all that entails. … [and is] working to support the military’s return to a purely national security role.”

The Muslim Brotherhood’s top leader — Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie — recently called for attacks against Israel.

“The Jews have … spread corruption on earth [and] spilled the blood of believers,” Badie said, according to a report in Egypt’s main newspaper, Al-Ahram. Badie has also called for Egyptians to launch “holy jihad, high sacrifices and all forms of resistance,” to restore Islamic rule over Israel.

The 17th of February Martyrs Brigade is an Islamist group with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The militia is named to honor several Islamists who were killed by Libya’s security forces in 2006, when a mob attacked the Italian diplomatic facility in Benghazi. The attacks were launched after an Italian government minister criticized Islam’s reputed founder, Mohammad.

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Neil Munro