White House press secretary Jay Carney on Wednesday defended Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s assertion that the administration’s initial claims the Benghazi attack was the result of a violent protest — rather than terrorism — made no “difference” in the big picture of the tragedy.
Carney, speaking to reporters at the White House daily briefing, said Clinton was referring to “an obvious political obsession over a series of talking points that again bears no relevance on the central issues” around the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
More often, a secretary of state sees the cables that his or her staff pulls out because they are important and should be seen. Figuring out what the incumbent secretary wants to see, will wish to see, and will be angry for not having seen is very difficult when there’s a new secretary — but what is Hillary Clinton’s excuse on September 11, 2012, after almost four years in office? There had been three and half years to set up a system, to let the career officers of the Secretariat and the Operations Center know what she wants, and to have her personal staff figure it out too.
That is to say, if she did not see the Benghazi cables in a timely fashion, if she did not see Chris Stephens’s cables describing the deterioration of security, and if she did not see his requests for more security, this was a huge management failure on her part. It is a poor excuse to say, “Gee, the Department gets lots of cables” — and perhaps even worse then to hide behind an Accountability Review Board that pins responsibility on assistant secretaries and no higher.
While Clinton gave, as she has before, lip service to the idea that she took responsibility for the tragedy, throughout her testimony she demonstrated that she regarded the whole idea of accountability as a detail to be shrugged off or pigeonholed along with internal government reports about the matter. Her attitude, when not listening to paeans to her service and frequent trips abroad, seemed to betray her belief that not only were questions about Benghazi unimportant but that she knew the mainstream press would continue to give her a pass for her failures.
The problem here is not just what she considers an irrelevant question from Johnson or a mere “difference of opinion”–as she characterized Senator John McCain’s scathing attack on her record on the issue–but a belief that four dead Americans in Benghazi was really not such an earth-shaking event. Her consistent talking point seemed to be that the committee shouldn’t bother itself trying to find out what happened and why and who was responsible for the mistakes that led to the deaths, but merely to “move on”—to steal a phrase made popular during her husband’s presidency. That’s why she still won’t say who changed the public talking points about Benghazi that led to Rice’s lies and why they were altered.
Rohrabacher asked the secretary whether she informed the president first that the attack was the result of protests about an anti-Islamic video, or whether it was a coordinated terrorist attack.
“We all remember what the emphasis was,” he said. “Over and over it was repeated that we had enraged the Islamic terrorists […] which by the way, what does that do? […] That means we’re at fault…”
Rohrabacher continued, saying, “The only people I know who are in jail right now is the filmmaker. Isn’t that disconcerting?”
“I’m not sure she had rehearsed for that type of question,” Johnson told BuzzFeed Wednesday afternoon, after the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “I think she just decided before she was going to describe emotionally the four dead Americans, the heroes, and use that as her trump card to get out of the questions. It was a good way of getting out of really having to respond to me.”
He said it was clear, at other points during the hearing, that Clinton was working off a set of talking points, but that his questions “got under her skin” because “they’re just so common sense.”
“I just don’t think she had an answer to that,” he said. “Maybe it embarrassed her. Maybe she hadn’t thought of it that way.”
It was riveting television, but her statement was utter nonsense. First, invoking the slain American diplomats to defend herself from a tough question was distasteful in the extreme. It is because their lives were so valued and their death so jolting that the hearing was even happening. Second, the false choice between a protest and an evening stroll gone awry was patently ridiculous. The relevant questions included whether the attack was a spontaneous protest (one form of threat), a pre-planned terrorist attack (another level of threat entirely), or an opportunistic combination of the two. Because the administration misled the American people, it helped perpetuate a false sense of security about our terrorist enemies — that they were virtually defeated. Finally, “what difference at this point does it make?” Well, it makes all the difference in the world when trying to determine terrorists’ intentions and capabilities in North Africa.
Watching the exchange, I was reminded a bit of the Biden/Ryan debate, when smirks and laughs successfully substituted for argument. Of course, no one is laughing or smirking here, but once again attitude trumps substance. Nonsense delivered with anger and conviction is still nonsense.
Yet today’s testimony in some sense does not matter, given that Ms. Clinton is probably going to run in 2016 for president, and has enjoyed a protective media veneer over her long career — shed only once in 2008 when opposing Barack Obama.
Although she has shown moments of teary emotion (cf. the 2008 campaign), had problems with recollections about past events (cf. under fire in Bosnia), and offered scenarios that seemed improbable (cf. subpoenaed documents mysteriously appearing belatedly in a White House anteroom), her testimony today will be seen, as the Washington Post described it, as “an uncharacteristic display of emotion for Clinton, who is usually collected and reserved in public.” Despite Hillarycare, Whitewater, Travelgate, Filegate, the cattle-futures mess, the circumstances surrounding the 2000 Clinton pardons, “suspension of disbelief,” etc., Ms. Clinton, for not fully explained reasons, remains mostly beyond audit and censure, a fact she has come to appreciate.
“Madame Secretary, you let the consulate become a death trap. That’s national security malpractice,” said Duncan.
“You’ve said you take responsibility, what does responsibility mean, Madame Secretary? You’re still in your job, and there are four people at the Department of State that have culpability in this that are still in their jobs. I heard the answer about firing or removing personnel, I get that, but this was gross negligence. At what point in time can our government fire someone whose gross negligence left four Americans dead in Benghazi?”