Benghazi - what's new?

Not much, if you listen to apologists for the White House and State Department, even after the testimony of two previously-excluded whistleblowers yesterday at a House Oversight Committee hearing on the Benghazi attack that killed four Americans.  Glenn Kessler, the Washington Post fact-checker, says that while some of what was said has already come out — somewhat reluctantly — there were in fact some new revelations.  And even what we know think as established fact has new angles that carry some big implications.

For instance, let’s look at the demonstration run amok vs terrorist attack narrative issue.  Kessler points out that we have known for months that there was no demonstration at the Benghazi consulate prior to the attack.  Earlier reports said that confusion may have come from a lack of information combined with demonstrations in other countries in the region.  What’s new, Kessler points out, is Hicks’ testimony that he spoke directly with Hillary Clinton on the night of the attack and briefed her:

So it is not new that there was no protest. That’s been officially well established. It is also not new that many officials knew it was a terrorist attack.

What is new is that Hicks has put a human face on previous reporting. He also disclosed he spoke directly to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton the night of the attack, presumably relaying his conclusions.

The hearings also revealed an e-mail written by Elizabeth Jones, the acting assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, in which she recounted a conversation with the Libyan ambassador on Sept. 12: “When he said his government suspected that former Gadhafi regime elements carried out the attacks, I told him that the group that conducted the attacks Ansar Al Sharia is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.”

One generally presumes that top government officials have access to classified information and firsthand accounts not available to the media. But in this case either their judgments were colored by media accounts as well — or they took advantage of the media’s reporting to obscure some politically difficult news.

Kessler’s avoiding a conclusion here.  If the State Department thinks CNN has better info in Atlanta than its own people on the ground in Libya, then why bother having people on the ground at all?

There’s also the matter of Susan Rice directly contradicting the Libyan president on the nature of the attacks on September 16th.  By that time, everyone should have known it was a terrorist attack, but Rice went on five talk shows to blame it on a demonstration.  Meanwhile, Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf went on American television to correctly state that terrorists had conducted the attack, and he even knew who they were.  That rebuke from an American diplomat had a direct impact on the US ability to investigate the issue, and on al-Magariaf’s ability to lead:

While the political fallout long has been clear from Rice’s appearance on the Sunday shows, what’s new is Hicks’ description of the diplomatic impact — that Libyan cooperation into the probe was greatly hindered because the president of Libya, Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf, who also appeared on Face the Nation, was so angry that Rice disagreed with his description of a “preplanned” attack.

Magariaf was “insulted in front of his own people,” Hicks said. “His credibility was reduced. His ability to lead his country was damaged.”

Hicks’ description of his reaction to Rice’s comments — “I was stunned. My jaw dropped. And I was embarrassed” — is also rather telling, given that previously administration officials had asserted that Rice’s remarks reflected a consensus that no one would dispute at the time.

Another witness attacked the integrity of the Accountability Review Board, on which apologists relied yesterday, calling it an attempt to cover up for the top brass:

Nordstrom suggested the board’s report attempted to protect higher-ranking officials, and specifically faulted it for not looking at the key role played by Under Secretary for Management Patrick Kennedy in failing to deliver the request for more security to Clinton.

He said a similar failure occurred in the 1998 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kenya, which killed 19 Americans.

“[The ARB] has decided to fix responsibility on the assistant secretary level and below,” said Nordstrom. “And the message to my colleagues is that if you’re above a certain level, no matter what your decision is no one’s going to question it.

“I look back and I see the last time we had a major attack was East Africa. Who was in that same position, when the unheeded messengers … were raising those concerns? It just so happens it was the same person. The under secretary for management was in that same role before.

“There’s something apparently wrong with the process of how those security recommendations are raised to the secretary.”

There was also the matter of the State Department’s counterterrorism chief, who got cut out of the Benghazi loop almost immediately after the attack began:

Thompson described how his request for a specialized emergency response team was rebuffed by officials at the White House. He said he got the idea the officials weren’t sure what was happening in Benghazi and therefore weren’t sure if the “FEST” team of special operations forces and intelligence personnel was a suitable option.

Thompson was told FEST wasn’t “on the menu“:

Mr. Thompson, the deputy coordinator for operations, testified that he thought the U.S. needed to activate an interagency advisory group called the Foreign Emergency Support Team, but was told that top State Department officials had already determined that sending the team wasn’t “in the menu of options.”

The State Department has said that the team, based in the U.S., wouldn’t have arrived in Libya in time to make any difference. Daniel Benjamin, the head of counterterrorism at the time of the September attacks and Mr. Thompson’s former boss, has said that the question of whether to deploy the team was posed early, and the State Department made the correct decision against sending it.

But that presumed that State knew at the moment just how long the attack would last:

[Thompson] also said he considered the response inadequate because “one definition of a crisis is you do not know what’s going to happen in two hours.”

So yes, there was quite a bit new at the hearing — and all of it pointing to a political whitewash during and after the attack.  What’s not new is the apologists’ refrain:

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