Reading through the competing partisan reports and listening to the congressional testimony of various officials last week, it seems fair to say that no actual crimes were committed (though you never know what you don’t know).
There were, in at least a figurative sense, criminal lapses in judgment by senior officials. Many of those lapses are recounted in the Accountability Review Board report. It found “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department” that “resulted in a special mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place.”
Translation: U.S. officials were caught by surprise by a terrorist attack on 9/11 in a country where our ambassador had repeatedly warned his superiors — including then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — that security was grossly inadequate. That ambassador, Christopher Stevens, was vindicated in a pyrrhic sense when he was murdered by well-organized terrorists.
Clinton picked four of the five members of the “independent” board, and they were kind enough to show her a draft before they released it to Congress. The ARB assigned all meaningful blame to some mid-level officials. ARB members declined to interview Clinton because, according to testimony Thursday by Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Michael Mullen (the chairman and vice-chairman of the ARB), they determined at the outset that it wouldn’t be necessary. None of the people who were interviewed for the report were under oath.
For those who followed the still-unfolding scandal at the IRS, this might be significant. Initially, IRS official Lois Lerner tried to pin all of the blame of some low-level employees in Cincinnati. When employees were questioned by congressional investigators — away from their bosses and under oath — evidence was found to help prove Lerner’s account a well-orchestrated lie.
Congressional Republicans would like to get relevant witnesses to testify under oath, but they claim that the State Department and CIA are blocking that. CNN has reported that many potential CIA witnesses have been subjected to “frequent, even monthly” lie detector tests to discourage them from leaking information. One insider told CNN: “You have no idea the amount of pressure being brought to bear on anyone with knowledge of this operation,” Said another: “You don’t jeopardize yourself, you jeopardize your family as well” if you talk to anyone about what happened.
That’s all very ominous, and I’m at a loss as to why it’s outrageous for Congress to try to get to the bottom of what happened. But to listen to defenders of the administration and a lot of allegedly neutral journalists, this basic exercise in congressional oversight is a deranged and entirely fabricated partisan witch hunt. It’s an odd charge given that the only obvious fabrication in the whole affair was the relentless effort to cast the attack that killed four Americans as a spontaneous reaction to an obscure and shoddy YouTube video.
But we probably know what happened. In the midst of a hard-fought presidential election, the administration, and specifically the president, was caught embarrassingly flat-footed by a terrorist attack. And even when it knew the attack was still going on — without any possible knowledge of when it was going to end — it still failed to send any help. The ARB establishes that much.
In their testimony Thursday, Pickering and Mullen softened that criticism by noting that the U.S. military can’t be expected to defend every diplomatic outpost everywhere in the world all of the time. Fair enough. But maybe it’s not unreasonable for the military to be ready for an attack in, say, the Middle East on Sept. 11? Particularly in a country where officials knew security was a huge problem?
At the time, the Obama campaign had been touting its success in the war on terror. The last thing it wanted less than 60 days before the election was to lose that issue. So, afraid of the political fallout, the White House and the State Department circled the wagons.
Hillary Clinton is a master of the passive-aggressive art of dragging out investigations until the press and public lose interest and spinners can use abracadabra phrases like “it’s all old news,” “let’s just move on” and, most famously, “what difference does it make?”
The irony in this case is that it’s precisely that tactic that has now turned a political problem for Obama into a political problem for Clinton. And unfortunately, the only real accountability we can hope for on Benghazi will come when she runs for president herself.
Jonah Goldberg is the author of “The Tyranny of Cliches.”