But laying aside the charges and counter-charges and obvious political implications of the hearings, which are being led by California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, this investigation always has been about a much broader issue: the lack of diligence, not only in Libya but throughout the Middle East tinderbox, in providing adequate protection to America’s diplomats.
It is a wonder that many more such incidents haven’t occurred.
The decisions made in what everyone now admits was a planned terrorist assault last Sept. 11, and not a spontaneous demonstration gone awry as U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice first announced, were marked by frantic efforts from those in Tripoli to send a security team to aid Stevens. They were rebuffed in Washington on grounds that neither the Tripoli team nor help from Washington could change the outcome. It was a clearly maddening response according to Hicks, Stevens’ deputy, and resulted in “the saddest phone call I have ever received,” one telling him of Stevens’ death.
One can legitimately question Washington’s reasoning if only on the grounds that while the odds of a timely rescue may have been long, the effort should have been made. In fact, the team’s leader reportedly was furious that it was told to stand down. The justification that forces were needed to help secure things in Tripoli in case the embassy there should be attacked is difficult to swallow considering that no such incident took place.
The responsibility for this travesty remains where it should, directly at the top levels of the State Department and its former secretary, Hillary Clinton. How much she realized while it was taking place no one seems to know or won’t admit — but she certainly was informed quickly thereafter, and to her credit has said she accepted the blame.
Hicks is a 22-year diplomatic veteran with a good record. His own anger at his inability to convince anyone to come to Stevens’ rescue and Rice’s ultimately hurtful mischaracterization of how it happened bubbled up in his comments to television afterwards and, he claims, brought retribution from his department superiors all the way to Clinton’s top assistant. The department, of course, denies any punitive efforts against him. But his dramatic testimony before Issa undercut those claims.
The Obama administration has been trying to cover its bottom on this since it happened and Republicans smelling Clinton’s blood in regards to her presidential aspirations for 2016 have been determined to not let the furor die. Democrats have hardly participated in Issa’s House Government Operations Committee hearings. Whether the debacle rises to the level of Watergate, as Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) said recently, is more than just a little reach.
But once again the camel in the room is the inadequacy in diplomatic security overall that the incident highlighted. The boys in the striped pants too often have regarded security as an impediment to diplomacy, a restriction on their ability to engage properly in the country where they are stationed. While there is some validity in that argument, it hardly applies in today’s violent world, and Stevens’ death is clear evidence that it is an outdated concept. Earlier requests from Tripoli for beefed-up security in Libya reportedly had been rejected.
What Stevens was doing on this trip to Benghazi at midnight without proper security has not been disclosed and may never be. He apparently often traveled freely in Libya and was considered a popular American. Whatever his mission on this occasion, it got him killed and if his bosses in State sent him without proper protection, and compounded it by refusal to come to his rescue, they deserve whatever the Republicans want to throw at them.
Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.