National Journal's National Security Insiders were split down the middle on whether the Obama administration's edits to remove any mention of terrorism from the original public statements on the Benghazi, Libya, attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens showed it deliberately tried to mislead the American public.
Fifty-one percent said that the edits of the talking points did belie the administration's efforts to spin the story of the attack that also killed three other diplomatic personnel--but many Insiders were split on why. "Clearly there was an intention to try to conceal the fact that the assault on the consulate compound was an organized terrorist operation--that was the point of the edits," one Insider said. "What recent revelations make clear, however, is that the motivations for concealing this information were more complicated than many first thought. In addition to protecting the administration's reelection narrative that al-Qaida and its affiliates were on their heels, it appears that the State Department was keen not to let the intelligence community accuse them of ignoring warnings about the risk of terrorist attack in Benghazi."
"Clearly it was an effort to avoid admitting that al-Qaida committed a terrorist act against us on a 9/11 anniversary," another Insider added. "It made a mockery of Obama administration declarations we had neutralized al-Qaida."
But 49 percent of Insiders disagreed that the edits of the talking points--which United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice relied upon on morning talk shows; she said the attack stemmed from spontaneous protests over an anti-Muslim film before turning violent--were meant to deliberately steer Americans away from the truth. "There was concern not to reveal classified information about the group CIA was targeting, squabbling about which agency was at fault for inadequate security, and confusion about the proximate cause of the attack. Washington should have listened to reporting from on the ground," one Insider said. Another Insider added: "Caution prevailed in an atmosphere of uncertainty."
A slim majority of 53 percent said the ongoing controversy would affect Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was at the helm of the State Department during the attack, if she decides to run for president in 2016. "Any political operative worth his/her salt will run part of Hillary's old 3 a.m. phone call ad, then cut to a clip of the Benghazi facility burning, and then show her making her 'What difference does it make?' statement to Congress," one Insider said. "Then all a narrator has to say is: 'It makes all the difference in the world, Hillary. The difference is four American lives.' Lights out for her campaign." Another Insider said the scandal reflects worse on the White House than on State, "but the inescapable fact is that it is a serious blemish on her tenure as secretary."
Not all Insiders agreed. Republicans will try to "exploit" Benghazi during the next presidential-election season, one Insider said, "but Americans have a short attention span, and it will be ancient and barely remembered history in 2014." The exhaustive probe carried out by Ambassador Thomas Pickering (disclosure: Pickering is one of NJ's Insiders) and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mike Mullen, one Insider said, made clear Clinton was not culpable. "The GOP can't hope to regain its ownership of either national security or economic competence themes through diversionary tactics. Governance is about the future, and these sad tactics show the failure of imagination that is undermining the Republican Party."
As another Insider quipped: "The Clinton Teflon skin will protect her."
National Journal's National Security Insiders Poll is a periodic survey of defense and foreign policy experts. They include: Gordon Adams, Charles Allen, Thad Allen, James Bamford, David Barno, Milt Bearden, Peter Bergen, Samuel "Sandy" Berger, David Berteau, Stephen Biddle, Nancy Birdsall, Marion Blakey, Kit Bond, Stuart Bowen, Paula Broadwell, Mike Breen, Mark Brunner, Steven Bucci, Nicholas Burns, Dan Byman, James Jay Carafano, Phillip Carter, Wendy Chamberlin, Michael Chertoff, Frank Cilluffo, James Clad, Richard Clarke, Steve Clemons, Joseph Collins, William Courtney, Lorne Craner, Roger Cressey, Gregory Dahlberg, Robert Danin, Richard Danzig, Daniel Drezner, Mackenzie Eaglen, Paul Eaton, Andrew Exum, William Fallon, Eric Farnsworth, Jacques Gansler, Stephen Ganyard, Daniel Goure, Mike Green, Mark Gunzinger, Jim Harper, Michael Hayden, Michael Herson, Pete Hoekstra, Bruce Hoffman, Paul Hughes, Colin Kahl, Donald Kerrick, Rachel Kleinfeld, Lawrence Korb, David Kramer, Andrew Krepinevich, Charlie Kupchan, W. Patrick Lang, Cedric Leighton, James Lindsay, Justin Logan, Trent Lott, Peter Mansoor, Ronald Marks, Brian McCaffrey, Steven Metz, Franklin Miller, Philip Mudd, John Nagl, Shuja Nawaz, Kevin Nealer, Michael Oates, Thomas Pickering, Paul Pillar, Stephen Rademaker, Marc Raimondi, Celina Realuyo, Bruce Riedel, Barry Rhoads, Marc Rotenberg, Kori Schake, Mark Schneider, John Scofield, Tammy Schultz, Stephen Sestanovich, Sarah Sewall, Matthew Sherman, Jennifer Sims, Constanze Stelzenmüller, Frances Townsend, Mick Trainor, Suzanne Spaulding, Ted Stroup, Tamara Wittes, Dov Zakheim, and Juan Zarate.
1. Do the Obama administration's edits to remove any mention of terrorism from the original public statements on Benghazi show it deliberately tried to mislead the American public?
- Yes 51%
- No 49%
"Yes, it was deliberately misleading, but the substantive issues at stake here are hardly proportional to the controversy this has aroused, which is much more about partisan politics than about security policy substance."
"There is a consistent pattern in this administration of seeking to push executive-branch power as far as they can."
"Benghazi, IRS, AP! They will all blend together. The narrative of an administration that will do everything and anything to keep power."
"This White House micromanages foreign policy. It is inconceivable that State was acting on its own."
"Wishful thinking is never a substitute for reality."
"Amateur mistake that should not have happened this late in the first term. Mistakes happen; the question is, why was no one held accountable for the mistake?"
"The administration's 'edits' were designed solely to ensure that nothing interfered with the Obama administration's reelection narrative that 'bin Laden was dead and GM was alive.' The talking points and initial public statements from Ambassador Rice, the secretary of State, and the president himself were laughably inconsistent with what really happened in Benghazi. Their actions after the deaths of the U.S. ambassador and three others betrayed an astonishing disregard for their sacrifices and called into question not only their ability to protect U.S. personnel but their ability to truly lead one of the most important departments of the U.S. government. What's also troubling is that the administration seems to have forgotten that our current special operations forces' structure (Delta Force, JSOC, and then USSOCOM) was set up with the aim of preventing precisely these kinds of events after our dismal performance in the rescue attempt during the Iranian hostage crisis (Desert One). The fact that these forces were not used has not been satisfactorily explained."
"While the Republicans are over the top in politicizing this issue, they are also on to something. Clearly the administration was mainly focused on its own image, not on truth. Subsequent efforts to control the investigation, plus the Pickering report that whitewashes Clinton's senior staff, are only pointing to how the truth was the second casualty of this event, after the murder of American patriots."
"Evidence was clear that it was a terrorist attack--incompetence cannot explain sending Susan Rice out with a false story repeatedly."
"The administration's explanations of why the original CIA talkers had terrorism edited out as the reason for the attack (by other agencies because of bureaucratic politics etc.) are plausible. What the administration hasn't explained is how an anti-Islamist video was edited into the talkers as the reason for the attack, and why the president was still using it as an explanation for weeks after the attack."
"What other conclusion is possible?"
"After the fog of an initial attack, it would be irresponsible to call something 'terrorism' (and, therefore, terrorize ourselves) until we were sure."
"What possible advantage would there be for the administration even if it did want to mislead? Four Americans were dead whether the T-word was used or not."
"Let's not confuse political ineptness and the failure to communicate clearly and accountably with what actually happened. The two operational issues are 1) What forces or assets were in the country and who knew it, and 2) Potential response actions (explained clearly by Bob Gates to CBS). That said, the self-inflicted wounds keep coming and jeapordize any credibilty."
"There was much confusion, as there always is, surrounding these types of incidents. One shouldn't make such a charge until it's confirmed."
"Any administration is damned if it reveals every suspicion before the facts are in, as well as damned if it doesn't, and one report somewhere indicated the suspicion."
"They were trying to insulate themselves during a time of uncertainty."
2. Will the Benghazi controversy affect Hillary Rodham Clinton if she decides to run in 2016?
- Yes 53%
- No 47%
"The interesting dynamic created by the latest revelations is that the White House can only exculpate itself by blaming the State Department for misleading the American people. To the degree the White House succeeds, Hillary Clinton's reputation will be tarnished."
"She clearly accepted the falsehoods."
"Not fatal but takes the shine off of her role at State."
"This is not a mere 'side show' any more than Watergate was a 'third-rate burglary.' "
"It could. That her chief of staff was micromanaging efforts to spin the investigation in Libya points to some very disturbing questions that should be addressed."
"She is culpable for not ensuring adequate security and then participating in a whitewash of the events to help Obama control the narrative that al-Qaida was defeated."
"It doesn't look like it can be explained away, and so there will be some modest political price."
"People will or will not vote for Hillary based on their own biases and interests. But it does ruefully answer her own question about who you want to answer the 2-o'clock-in-the-morning phone call."
"She will have to answer questions about security preparations and why the State Department let the Benghazi mission fall through the cracks."
"It won't stop the effort to get her, however."
"This will surely be raised, but the only people who will care will be members of the Republican base who will already be highly motivated to oppose Hilary Clinton anyway."
"Because there was no conspiracy or deception in the administration's response linked to a political purpose, the issue will fade. By the time she runs, Iran, North Korea, and Syria, among other issues, may be more prominent."
"But just like Barbara Bush said of Jeb's run, we've really had enough Clintons in high office, as well."
"But the GOP will give it their best shot. Hillary can thank her immediate staff for that."
"The attempt to concoct a scandal has already passed the point of silliness. Three years from now it will look stale as well as silly."
"Will be long forgotten."
"The Hillary haters don't need Benghazi; the charge is unlikely to shape the undecideds, especially now that former Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates has joined her corner."
This article appears in the May 21, 2013, edition of NJ Daily as Insiders Split on Edits of Benghazi Talking Points.