So now the House Republican leadership has announced still another investigation of the tragedy of Benghazi. My crisis management mantra about the truth is: “tell it early, tell it all, tell it yourself.” But the Republicans’ mantra seems to be, “tell innuendo early, often, and over and over again,” as if by repetition you can convert fact-free innuendo into the truth. You can’t.
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, within days of the attack on the diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya, appointed an independent Accountability Review Board (ARB) to investigate thoroughly why the tragedy occurred and how to avoid such security lapses in the future. The ARB was led by former Republican administration official Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Mike Mullen. The board made more than 60 recommendations to Clinton, concluding that there were “systemic failures” at the State Department. She immediately accepted responsibility and she accepted all of the board’s recommendations. She has said recently that the deadly attack was her “greatest regret” in her service as secretary of State.
So here are three indisputable facts that disprove the Republican innuendo of intentional wrongdoing or cover-up:
Fact one: The CIA, not the White House or the State Department, was the originator of the now controversial phrase in the “talking points” that the attack was “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo.” Protests in Cairo and elsewhere in the Middle East were indisputably in reaction to an anti-Muslim video posted online by an American.
We know that this exact phrase was in the first sentence of the first of 14 versions of the talking points drafted by the CIA on Sept. 14, 2012, at 11:14 a.m. and never changed through the last version, dated Sept. 15, at 11:36 a.m. We also know now, with the wisdom of hindsight, that the phrase, especially the word “spontaneous,” turned out to be wrong. It was a mistake made by the CIA in good faith and based upon contradictory and uncertain intelligence at the time. The CIA deputy director at the time, Mike Morrell, also told congress that it was he who scratched out a reference to al Qaeda “links” in the incident and instead used the word “extremists.” He had intelligence and investigatory reasons for doing so.
Fact two: When an exasperated Clinton asked, in response to a senator’s questioning, “What difference does it make?” at a Jan. 23, 2013, congressional hearing, she was explicitly not referring to the tragic deaths of four Americans, including her friend, Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Instead she was responding to a GOP senator’s factually baseless innuendo that there was a hidden White House agenda behind the use of the phrase “spontaneous demonstration.”
In fact, before she asked that question, she stated: “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans.” Immediately after, she stated: “It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from happening again. … The IC [intelligence community] has a process … to explain how these talking points came out. … [T]o be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice.” See the full transcript of what Mrs. Clinton said.
Fact three: Violent attacks on embassies that led to deaths of soldiers and diplomats occurred under Republican administrations. For example, President Reagan and his outstanding secretary of State, George Schultz, presided over the deaths of 251 marines in October 1983 in a terrorist attack on a relatively unguarded Marine barrack. And during President George W. Bush’s two terms, there were 64 violent attacks on U.S. diplomatic targets around the world, according to a University of Maryland database on global terrorism.
When this new House investigation is completed, let’s hope at long last that there will be thoughtful and fair-minded Republicans (there are still some left) who accept the distinction made by Sharyl Attkisson, formerly of CBS News, who wrote a lengthy and critical assessment of the administration’s performance in the Benghazi tragedy. Attkisson concluded that the administration’s handling of the tragedy was a result of “mistakes,” not “malice.”
One wishes, in this poisonous, partisan climate in Washington, that more people on both sides of the aisle and in the media would remember this distinction.
Lanny Davis served as special counsel to former President Clinton and is principal in the Washington D.C. law firm of Lanny J. Davis & Associates, and is Executive Vice President of the strategic communications firm, Levick. He is the author of a recently published book, Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics, and Life(Threshold Editions/Simon and Schuster).