Twisting Benghazi Slowly, Slowly in the Wind
Two of the prime terrorist suspects in the Benghazi attack have been captured (one is dead), dozens more have been arrested in Libya, and the suspect group is dispersed and hunted, with its Benghazi headquarters dismantled -- but one wouldn’t know this listening to Republicans inside the Benghazi media bubble, whether partisans or reporters.
“This issue of Benghazi is really bubbling up,” Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said on Fox News Oct. 28, echoing a talking point repeated on other networks and elsewhere by Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Reince Priebus, Carly Fiorina, Rudy Giuliani and Newt Gingrich, among others. During the next 24 hours, rightwing blogs were alive with the new meme of a “Benghazi Blackout.”
The essentials of the Benghazi attack on September 11 have been known and unchanging since the day after, as timelines by the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press attest: about 20 jihadists in a local militia, taking advantage of growing anger over an internet video, launched an organized attack on the consulate that killed two Americans and several Libyans in the course of about two hours (9:30-11:30 pm). A quick reaction force from the CIA annex 2km came to the consulate and took the American survivors back to the annex. While they and Libyan forces were preparing to evacuate the diplomatic personnel, there was a brief mortar attack (about 4 am) on the annex, killing two American SEALS.
McCain’s Talking Point: “Massive Cover-Up”
On CBS, Sen. McCain responded to a question about Hurricane Sandy by pivoting quickly into an answer about Benghazi: “This tragedy turned into a debacle and massive cover-up or massive incompetence in Libya is having an effect on the voter because of their view of the commander in chief. And it is now the worst cover-up or incompetence that I have ever observed in my life.”
Asked to explain what he meant, Sen. McCain, while deploying his “cover-up or incompetence” construction twice more, failed to explain what he thought was possibly being covered up.
In mid-September, Sen. McCain took Sean Hannity and Fox News in general to task for their bad reporting on Libya: “It was you and people on Fox that said in Libya, ‘We didn’t know who they were and let’s not help these people….’ They had an election and they elected moderates. They rejected Islamists. And yes, there are al-Qaida factors and there are extremists in Libya today, but the Libyan people are friends of ours, and they support us, and they support democracy. So you were wrong about — so you were wrong about Libya.”
For Republicans, reaction to the Benghazi attack began in bad faith on September 11, when Mitt Romney opportunistically misrepresented the American response in Egypt to local unrest there due to the 14-minute Islamophobic video that had been translated into Arabic and shown on Egyptian television. Partisan Republicans have tried to make a political issue of the Benghazi attack ever since.
How Is Benghazi Worse That Watergate?
One line of attack has been to portray the Obama Administration’s curiously inconsistent statements about Benghazi as some kind of a cover-up that’s somehow worse than Watergate. Sean Hannity launched the cover-up meme on September 20 on Fox News, without explaining exactly what was being covered up or why, just that it would somehow help the President’s re-election, presumably the way the Watergate cover-up helped Richard Nixon’s re-election in 1972.
No one has explained the Watergate meme coherently since it began, including Sen. McCain on CBS, who slipped the smear in with a sleazy touch of indirection: “You know, somebody the other day said to me this is as bad as Watergate. Well, nobody died in Watergate. But this is either a massive cover-up or incompetence that is not acceptable service to the American people.”
Another line of Republican attack has been to assert that the U.S. could have made an effective military response to the Benghazi attack while it was happening, but chose for some unexplained reason not to do so. There is no evidence that this is true.
The charge is not credible for several reasons, including:
- Libyan reinforcements arrived during the early fighting;
- The first fight lasted about two hours, too brief for the nearest American forces to get there;
- American reinforcements arrived from Tripoli around 1 am and were at the consulate annex when it suffered a mortar attack between 2 and 4;
- The American reinforcements enabled the remaining American diplomatic personnel to leave Benghazi safely.
The Pentagon Tries to Deal in Military Realities
At a multi-topic news briefing on October 25, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta responded to questions that included Benghazi. One questioner asked “why there was no military support earlier on the attack,” which suggests the questioner was ignorant of the length of the attack and the amount of military support that did respond during and after the two hour attack on the consulate.
As it became clear that the questioner assumed there was time for a Delta Force or fighter planes based outside of Libya to get to Benghazi in time to make a difference, Sec. Panetta described the forces available in the region, and then explained:
But -- but the basic principle here -- basic principle is that you don't deploy forces into harm's way without knowing what's going on; without having some real-time information about what's taking place. And as a result of not having that kind of information, the commander who was on the ground in that area, General Ham, General Dempsey and I felt very strongly that we could not put forces at risk in that situation…. This -- this happened within a few hours and it was really over before, you know, we had the opportunity to really know what was happening.
In his CBS appearance October 28, Sen. McCain indirectly supported the Pentagon explanation when he said, “obviously there was no military either capability or orders to intervene in a seven-hour fight.” [emphasis added] Even though McCain says the fight was much longer than it actually was, he concludes there was no capability for any more military support than was provided. And he implies that there were no orders because such orders would have been pointless.
Fox’s Unconscionable Claim from Anonymous Source
On October 26, Fox News cited anonymous sources to support a claim “that an urgent request from the CIA annex for military back-up during the attack on the U.S. consulate and subsequent attack several hours later on the annex itself was denied by the CIA chain of command….” According to Fox, the request was made after midnight from the CIA annex in Benghazi and asked for a Spectre gunship that was based 480 miles away in Italy. To make the story seem credible, Fox stated falsely that “fighting at the CIA annex went on for more than four hours….”
On October 28, Fox News senior political analyst Brit Hume complained that mainstream media were more or less ignoring the Benghazi story: “One of the problems we’re having here is, that it has fallen to this news organization, Fox News and a couple others, to do all the heavy lifting on this story.”
He didn’t say what wasn’t covered, but slipped into the Watergate meme of implied wrongdoing: “Normally, the big news organizations would have this thing out there. And we would know a lot more than we do about — about what the president did, what he knew, when he knew it, and what when he made what order he made and on what basis.”
If, as so many Republicans have claimed, the administration’s handling is a cover-up more significant than Watergate, then what is being covered up? Based on the available evidence, it’s more credible to believe that if there’s any cover-up at all,
it’s being orchestrated by the Romney campaign to distort and hide the early success so far of the President’s foreign policy in Libya, as Sen. McCain described it to Fox News in September.