The American tragedy in Benghazi is the most investigated terrorist attack of its kind in recent history. Eight House and Senate committees have looked into the attack, generating 18 hearings, 40 administration briefings, and the production of at least 25,000 pages of administration documents. But these investigations have uncovered no evidence of wrongdoing by President Obama or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, despite the best efforts of Republican House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa to manufacture a scandal.
In May, Sen. Bob Corker (R-TN) said, "I feel like I know what happened in Benghazi. I'm fairly satisfied."
Yet the so-called scandal lives on and the Issa investigation rolls on. Why?
In our new e-book The Benghazi Hoax, my Media Matters colleague Ari Rabin-Havt and I tell the story of how an unconscionable Republican effort to politicize an American tragedy amidst the 2012 presidential race morphed in the ensuing months into a closely coordinated campaign to smear Clinton as she mulls the possibility of running for president in 2016.
The Benghazi Hoax is the product of hyper-partisan zeal on Capitol Hill -- familiar enough -- mixed with a new and virulent strain of Tea Party-tinged Benghazi Trutherism in the conservative grassroots. "Benghazi, you let them die," a heckler shouted at Clinton during a speech this week.
Thus the hoax is likely to persist, if at times on a low boil, for the next 18 months leading up to Clinton's decision; and if she does run for President, it will re-emerge as Exhibit A in the GOP case against her. Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), a likely presidential contender, has already claimed that Benghazi is proof that Clinton is not fit to be commander-in-chief.
GOP-aligned independent expenditure committees like Rove's American Crossroads and the new opposition research group America Rising, run by former Mitt Romney aides whose candidate originated the hoax in the first place by politicizing the attack as it was still unfolding, are raising millions to preemptively tarnish Clinton's reputation. In May, Crossroads created a Benghazi ad honing in on Clinton's supposed role. America Rising's website is a hotbed of Benghazi conspiracy theories.
The crux of their charge is that a cold and calculating Hillary Clinton and her devious senior aides engineered a vast government cover-up of the administration's feckless and deceitful actions before and after the terrorist attack.
The right's cover-up trope is tried and true, dating back to their false rendition of the role Clinton and her White House aides played in the early Whitewater days 20 years ago. So, too, is the caricature of Clinton as a heartless phony consumed only by personal ambition.
But those smears fly in the face of reality.
In the wake of any terrorist attack on the U.S., serious questions inevitably emerge on whether it might have been prevented. Though there is no evidence that Clinton personally knew of the requests made from the field for additional security at the Benghazi diplomatic compound, she took the "Buck Stops Here" approach of a confident chief executive and accepted full responsibility for any lapses.
Clinton then appointed an Accountability Review Board to investigate what had gone wrong, taking the political risk of naming two former government officials who had served in Republican administrations -- and thus had no motive to whitewash the facts -- to lead it. When the ARB failed to lay blame at Clinton's doorstep, Republicans trashed it and baselessly claimed that the board conspired to cover up her purported culpability.
While the recommendations of most government commissions are shelved to gather dust, before she left office as secretary of state, the forward-looking Clinton, prioritizing the nation's security at the expense of any political hit she might take, began the process of implementing all of the ARB's 29 recommendations and took disciplinary action against several officials at State. Unfortunately, that didn't close the case.
When Clinton suffered a concussion after falling shortly before she was scheduled to give congressional testimony on Benghazi in December, conservatives, led by Fox News, made the crazy claim that Clinton was faking illness to avoid appearing on Capitol Hill. Clinton was suffering from "acute Benghazi allergy," according to Charles Krauthammer. When she did testify and showed some visible emotion while discussing the violent deaths of her diplomats, conservatives sought to deny her humanity by claiming she was acting.
Other charges seemed more serious -- until they fell apart on examination. The portrait of Clinton as AWOL on the night of the attack was quickly dispelled in testimony showing that she was deeply engaged, talking to Obama, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, CIA director David Petraeus, and the head of the Libyan National Congress.
Issa claimed his investigators unearthed damning State Department cables directly implicating Clinton in decisions about security at the diplomatic facility that the ARB somehow missed and in contrast to her sworn testimony. But as The Washington Post's Fact Checker column concluded, all out-going cables from Washington bear the "signature" of the secretary of state. That's just protocol. There's no evidence Clinton ever saw them.
Conservative lawyers breathlessly promoted a would-be star congressional witness who was said to have been muzzled and demoted by top Clinton aides in retaliation for meeting with a Republican member of Issa's committee. Yet in the end he testified to no muzzling and said he had requested reassignment to Washington himself, due to family concerns.
Next came the revelation that another top aide at State massaged administration talking points on Benghazi to protect Clinton from political fallout. But contrary to the suggestion that the aide was some sort of Clinton flunky, she was a career Foreign Service officer who had previously served as an advisor to Dick Cheney. Despite the best efforts of Issa's spin-meisters, nothing in the talking points controversy altered the fact that professionals in the intelligence community -- not political aides -- both originated and signed off on the talking points. They did not include details about the perpetrators, testimony showed, to avoid tipping off terrorists to the criminal investigation.
The Republicans have the Benghazi story exactly backwards. Whether by helping craft the Obama administration's tougher-than-Bush approach to terror, holding herself accountable, providing a steady hand as the attack unfolded, taking steps to ensure our diplomats are safe, cooperating fully and transparently with government investigations -- even by publicly connecting to the feelings of her fellow Americans about the loss of bona fide American heroes -- every step of the way Clinton did the right thing.
"The Benghazi Hoax" is now available for $0.99 at Amazon.
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