THE BLOG
10/21/2013 01:44 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

The Benghazi Hoax

For 13 months, Republicans and their allies in the right-wing media have tried to use the deaths of four Americans at U.S. diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Libya, as a political weapon against President Obama, Hillary Clinton, and others in the administration.

In my newly released e-book "The Benghazi Hoax," I turn the tables on those conservative ideologues, showing how they turned a night of terror -- but also of valor -- into a phony scandal.

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Introduction: Romney's Dilemma

Mitt Romney woke up on the morning of September 11, 2012, with big hopes for this day -- that he'd stop the slow slide of his campaign for the presidency. The political conventions were in his rear-view mirror, and the Republican nominee for the White House was trailing President Obama in most major polls. In an ABC News/Washington Post poll released at the start of the week, the former Massachusetts governor's previous 1-point lead had flipped to a 6-point deficit.

"Mr. Obama almost certainly had the more successful convention than Mr. Romney," wrote Nate Silver, the polling guru and then-New York Times blogger. While the incumbent's gathering in Charlotte was marked by party unity and rousing testimonials from Obama's wife, Michelle, and former President Bill Clinton, Romney's confab in Tampa had fallen flat. One of the biggest problems, according to critics in the media, was a glaring omission in Romney's acceptance speech: The candidate's failure to make even a passing mention of the U.S. troops still fighting and dying overseas in Afghanistan. Even some of Romney's conservative supporters were flabbergasted. Weekly Standard editor William Kristol wrote Romney's failure to praise and acknowledge the troops was not just "an error" but "a failure of civic responsibility."

Now, on September 11, the 11th anniversary of the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks on United States soil, the Romney camp had a unique -- but complicated -- opportunity for a do-over. The candidate was slated to speak before the National Guard Association convention in Reno, Nevada -- an ideal gathering for discussing respect for military service while touching on his ideas for veterans' affairs and the use of American forces overseas. At the same time, there was a limit on what he could say: the candidates had agreed to halt all negative campaigning for the 24 hours of the 9/11 anniversary.

The New York Times later reported that Romney "said that while he would normally offer a contrasting vision with President Obama's on national security and the military, 'There is a time and a place for that, but this day is not that. It is instead a day to express gratitude to the men and women who have fought -- and who are still fighting -- to protect us and our country, including those who traced the trail of terror to that walled compound in Abbottabad and the SEALs who delivered justice to Osama bin Laden."

Roughly 7,000 miles away, a U.S. compound was coming under siege. The city of Benghazi in eastern Libya had been at the vanguard of the uprising against longtime Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and now it was home to an American diplomatic facility that had been targeted for attack. Shortly after 9 p.m. local time -- or 3 p.m. in the eastern United States -- a Toyota pickup truck belonging to militia members thought to be friendly to American interests pulled up to the front entrance of the compound. The pickup, with anti-aircraft guns mounted in the back, startled the guard on duty by peeling out, throwing up gravel as it vanished into the desert night. It was the last and most dramatic sign that something was amiss that day.

Sean Smith, the 34-year-old chief information officer for the consulate posting -- a computer whiz and a tireless gamer -- had been online with a gaming friend when he signed off, "Assuming we don't die tonight. We saw one of the 'police' that guard our compound taking pictures." Now, hours later, Smith was back online when he heard a disturbance near the front gate. "Fuck," he wrote. "Gunfire."

What would transpire in the eastern Libyan city during a long and hellish night was an American tragedy that ended in the deaths of Smith, two other U.S. security personnel, and this country's ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens. Stevens was a remarkable 52-year-old American -- a former Peace Corps member who'd abandoned a likely lucrative law career to represent the United States and promote its ideals in dangerous postings abroad.

No one could have imagined how quickly the murder of Stevens and three other Americans would become politicized by a hungry right-wing leviathan of savage punditry and pseudo-journalism. Nor could anyone fathom how the most basic facts would get twisted, contorted, and even invented out of thin air to create bogus narratives -- first to suggest that a U.S. president seeking re-election was incompetent, feckless, or sympathetic to terror, and then, when that faltered, to tarnish the reputation of his secretary of state as the public speculated she might run for president in 2016.

Had the Benghazi attack not occurred at this unique moment -- on a day when the Republican candidate for the presidency and his promoters in the conservative media were desperate for a new storyline, especially one that would undercut the popular effect of the raid that killed Osama bin Laden the year before -- this tragedy might not have been converted into a political scandal. After all, Benghazi was just one of at least 157 attacks on our diplomatic facilities over a 15-year period, 9 of which resulted in U.S. fatalities. That Benghazi would remain at the forefront of the contentious American political conversation for the next year, and likely beyond, speaks less to any special circumstances of the September 11, 2012, attack, and more to the insidious nature of a Republican noise machine that has grown in size -- as well as decibels -- over the last four decades.

In fact, what has been called "the Benghazi scandal" by a chorus of voices including Fox News, right-wing radio talkers like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, and sympathetic websites like the Drudge Report, is better described as the Benghazi hoax. The act of terror that killed four Americans has become what the late film director Alfred Hitchcock would have called a "MacGuffin" -- an obscure plot driver whose real significance derives from the way that it motivates the characters. In this case, those characters are the ones who must fill an hour or an afternoon of airtime with partisan vitriol and hyperbole, and the Republicans in charge of investigative committees empowered to find a scandal -- any kind of scandal -- inside a Democratic White House.

To create a political hoax using a terrorist assault that killed Americans is, of course, unconscionable, but it has also served as a harmful national distraction. What should have been a tightly focused investigation into the protection of U.S. diplomatic posts and our policy in Libya has been hijacked by unfounded and sometimes wild conspiracy theories that have diverted attention from real issues that affect American voters. Over months, manufactured right-wing narratives bled slowly into news coverage from mainstream journalists eager to show their "balanced" approach -- thus misleading citizens who pay only casual attention to political developments.

The endurance of the Benghazi storyline -- even as myth after myth has been debunked -- helps explain why the GOP spin factory seems determined to keep Benghazi alive as a political attack until the 2016 presidential election, if possible. The hidden saga of how this hoax perpetuates itself is revealing in its outbreaks of sheer buffoonery. But it should be mostly infuriating for anyone who cares about the state of political discourse in America.

The decisions that launched the Benghazi hoax and caused it to eventually metastasize took place before the night of September 11 was even over.

The GOP nominee was flying back across the country on the campaign's McDonnell Douglas MD-83, en route from Nevada to the key battleground state of Florida, when news reached Romney's advisers that at least one American had died in Libya. A group of Romney's aides, including policy director Lanhee Chen, media strategist Stuart Stevens, and foreign policy adviser and former Ambassador Richard Williamson, convened on a conference call to draft a statement. Without even knowing the details of a tragedy, Romney's team saw opportunity.

It had only been a couple of hours since the candidate had declared that the September 11 anniversary was not "a time and a place" for a contrasting vision on foreign affairs -- but suddenly the chance to dent Obama's terrorism bona fides established in the 2011 bin Laden raid was too tempting.

But the initial information coming out of the Middle East was also very confusing -- and not just because of the late hour and the still-unfolding situation at the Benghazi compound. September 11, 2012, had been a day of chaos across the Islamic world. Outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the largest city in the Arab world, about 3,000 protestors condemned Innocence of Muslims, a poorly produced American-made video posted to YouTube that mocked the Prophet Muhammad. By day's end in the Egyptian capital, Islamist militants breached the walls of the diplomatic complex; the U.S. flag was torn down and an Islamist black flag was raised in its place.

Over the next several weeks, heated anti-American demonstrations were staged in response to the video in more than 20 countries, including outside U.S. embassies and consulates in Tunisia, Yemen, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Across the Middle East, Africa, and South Asia, there were numerous reports of fatalities (although none involving Americans).

The video at the center of the protests had been produced by Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian Coptic Christian, and by a right-wing American evangelical Christian named Steve Klein who has been linked to Islamophobic groups. Nakoula was a murky character; in 2010, he had pleaded no contest to bank fraud charges after opening fraudulent accounts using stolen Social Security numbers. He would be arrested again soon after the protests for probation violations. In November 2012, he pled guilty and was sentenced to one year in prison.

His video -- really just a short trailer for a supposed longer film that was never released -- seemed designed to aim at little besides agitating Muslims. Here's how Vanity Fair reviewed it: "Exceptionally amateurish, with disjointed dialogue, jumpy editing, and performances that would have looked melodramatic even in a silent movie, the clip is clearly designed to offend Muslims, portraying Mohammed as a bloodthirsty murderer and Lothario and pedophile with omnidirectional sexual appetites." Yet the reaction to the movie trailer spread around the globe.

The embassy in Cairo, led by Ambassador Anne Patterson, a career diplomat who had previously been appointed ambassador to Pakistan by George W. Bush, made a decision to take action on its own. It released a statement "condemn[ing] the continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims -- as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions." The statement continued, "Respect for religious beliefs is a cornerstone of American democracy. We firmly reject the actions by those who abuse the universal right of free speech to hurt the religious beliefs of others."

News of the Cairo statement began to circulate through the media not long before the first news flashes out of Benghazi, where the shots that information officer Smith had first reported were devolving into a noisy attack as a large, growing fire illuminated the night sky. The implication seemed clear at the time: The protests over the YouTube video had deteriorated and spread, from the embassy wall that had been breached in Egypt to an all-out attack in neighboring Libya.

As the Romney plane neared Jacksonville, the magnitude of the news overseas met a desire for a rapid response. The campaign's senior team closely vetted a statement, settling on final language; landing in Florida, the candidate was briefed on developments in Libya and personally approved the release.

Moments later, it was emailed to the media. It was originally embargoed for roughly 90 minutes, until after midnight on the East Coast, to allow his team to claim that they had technically avoided violating the unspoken agreement barring attacks on September 11. But that would be too late for local newscasts or deadline at many newspapers. The anxious Romney campaign lifted that embargo at 10:24 p.m. Eastern time.

"I'm outraged by the attacks on American diplomatic missions in Libya and Egypt and by the death of an American consulate worker in Benghazi," the statement read. "It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic missions, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."

The crucial word was "sympathize." Obama had sought the White House in 2008 by offering himself and his policies as the antidote to the harm to America's global reputation caused by the controversial anti-terrorism tactics of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. Obama's predecessors had invaded Iraq on flimsy pretenses, ordered interrogations of terrorism suspects using techniques the United States has long considered torture, and established indefinite detention without trial for inmates at a prison camp in Guantanamo Bay.

In 2008, then-candidate Obama stood before the Democratic National Convention in Denver and accused the GOP of squandering the nation's diplomatic legacy, promising to "restore our moral standing so that America is once again that last, best hope for all who are called to the cause of freedom, who long for lives of peace, and who yearn for a better future." Just months after taking office, Obama traveled to Cairo to amplify this message before a predominantly Muslim audience. "America is not -- and never will be -- at war with Islam," he said that day, but he added this caveat: "We will, however, relentlessly confront violent extremists who pose a grave threat to our security -- because we reject the same thing that people of all faiths reject: the killing of innocent men, women and children. And it is my first duty as president to protect the American people."

In seeking to create a new tone in U.S. relations with the Arab world, Obama never uttered specific words of apology for what had transpired during the Bush-Cheney years. Yet as soon as these words left the president's mouth, they were enshrined in the right-wing media as an "apology tour" by the likes of former Bush strategist Karl Rove and Rush Limbaugh, who called the Cairo speech "outrageous" and "absurd." As Romney -- looking to gain support with ultra-conservative GOP primary voters despite his centrist record as governor of Massachusetts -- tightened his hold on the party's nomination, he did not repudiate this extreme, factually challenged rhetoric; instead, Romney made this false premise a centerpiece of his campaign. "I will not and I will never apologize for America," the former Massachusetts governor said in February 2011. "I don't apologize for America, because I believe in America."

The Washington Post's fact-checker had responded to this statement by Romney, and similar ones by his Republican primary rivals, by awarding it Four Pinocchios -- the highest rating for dishonesty. "The apology tour never happened," wrote the Post's Glenn Kessler. This admonition clearly had little impact on Romney, who doubled down by titling his obligatory campaign biography No Apology: The Case for American Greatness -- a rebuttal to a statement that had never been uttered in the first place.

This helps explain why Team Romney was chomping at the bit to release a statement critical of Obama -- even if that meant violating the widely lauded one-day truce in negative campaigning. The Romney brain trust had convinced themselves that in this new Cairo statement they had uncovered -- retroactively -- the proof of the Obama "apology tour." And as a result of what they believed was the Obama administration's fecklessness, an American in the neighboring nation of Libya was now dead.

But there is an even deeper psychological level for understanding the urgency of this critical initial attack by Romney. Since Obama first emerged in 2008 as a favorite for the White House, conservatives would not, and realistically could not, overtly go after a groundbreaking African-American politician over his race. Instead, they hinted that Barack Hussein Obama -- the son of a black Muslim from Kenya (and a white anthropologist with deep family roots in Kansas) -- couldn't defend America because on some fundamental level he didn't understand the nation that he now commanded. In July 2012, a top surrogate for the Romney campaign, the former George H.W. Bush aide John Sununu, famously told a conference call that the 44th president of the United States needed "to learn how to be an American."

The only thing unusual about the Sununu remark was that it came from such a high-level figure. The notion that Obama was in some way fundamentally un-American festered in the lower rungs of the conservative movement -- most famously in the birther movement that scoured the globe for non-existent evidence that the Hawaii native was actually born outside of the United States, rendering him ineligible to serve. Throughout Obama's first term, leading conservatives seized on any statement from Obama or White House aides that didn't describe terrorists or possible terrorist incidents in the starkest, most apocalyptic terms as a sign of his weakness. Their goal: tapping into the absurd subconscious notion that America's commander-in-chief sympathized with America's enemies.

By the late summer of 2012, the Obama-ordered killing of bin Laden and successful strikes against other Al Qaeda leaders had already made a mockery of such attacks. But now, in these first few confused hours, the muddled information coming out of Egypt and Libya certainly looked to Republicans like an opportunity to renew the warped old line of thinking.

Meanwhile, Obama's Pentagon, State Department, and CIA were still in the middle of a long night trying to figure out how to save Americans under fire halfway around the world. The gunfire that Smith reported to his friend was just the opening salvo in an all-out assault involving dozens of fighters. The facility initially under attack in Benghazi was separated by about a mile from a more-heavily staffed second facility -- known as "the annex" -- that hosted a CIA operation and other American personnel.

No one had seen it coming -- a British security team that returned some vehicles to the compound between 8:10 and 8:30 local time saw nothing out of the ordinary. With only seven U.S. staffers -- five State Department security agents and their two protectees Smith and Stevens -- at the scene of this first attack, it was easily overrun by the waves of hostile fighters. Ambassador Stevens -- who'd concluded a meeting with a Turkish diplomat less than two hours before the gunshots -- and Smith were shepherded by a security aide into a "safe room" in the compound.

But the attackers outside poured out cans of gasoline and set raging fires around two buildings, including their sanctuary, creating an intolerable inferno of heat and smoke. The security officer was unable to extract the two men from the building; Smith was later found by U.S. agents who got through in an armored vehicle, while Stevens was eventually taken to a hospital by Libyans but soon declared dead from smoke inhalation. The five security officers, and Sean Smith's body, were evacuated to the annex by members of the team stationed there.

And this was not the end of a bloody night in the eastern Libyan city. Shortly after 5 a.m. the next day -- or 11 p.m., September 11, in Washington -- there was a second wave of violence in Benghazi. This happened after a small group of CIA agents and other operatives arrived from the capital city of Tripoli to coordinate the evacuation of the Americans inside the annex. But new fighting erupted minutes after the rescuers arrived. Two skilled security personnel -- Benghazi-based Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty, who had just arrived from Tripoli -- were both struck by mortar rounds on the rooftop of the annex as they tried to fight off the attackers and begin the evacuation.

Yet at the same time, something remarkable -- stunning, really -- had just happened. Even while the fighting in Benghazi was still underway, with CIA agents and State Department aides still taking enemy fire, a major-party candidate for president had issued a statement attacking the commander-in-chief's handling of the matter. Equally as shocking was that the statement was released during a day when both campaigns had supposedly disavowed negative campaigning as a small tribute to the nearly 3,000 Americans who'd been killed by terrorists on this date 11 years earlier.

After Obama, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and their colleagues had mourned the dead, and while the rubble was still being cleared from the compound, the secretary of state ordered an independent review of what happened in Benghazi headed by an Accountability Review Board, or ARB. For months, the panel performed the grim but necessary task of investigating any security lapses before the attacks, naming the officials who were involved, and making a lengthy list of recommendations to prevent a similar tragedy from happening in the future.

The heartbreaking night was also distinguished by incredible heroism. Lost in the grim news accounts about the deaths of the four diplomats and security aides was what a small group of Americans had accomplished in Benghazi -- saving five U.S. personnel under heavy fire during the initial assault, recovering Smith's body at the height of the mayhem, and then evacuating roughly 30 people from the annex.

"The Benghazi Hoax" is now available for $0.99 at Amazon.