Both parties are wrong about Benghazi. Existing evidence does not point to a far-reaching cover-up on the scale of Watergate, as Republicans want you to believe. But it is not, as the White House claims, nothing.
The administration’s response to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on U.S. installations in eastern Libya was inaccurate, irresponsible and shrouded by campaign-style spin. It belied President Obama’s oft-broken promise to run a transparent government.
If nothing else, Benghazi is a blow to the credibility of the president and his potential successor, then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. This could be big.
Credibility is Obama’s strong suit, a key reason why his personal approval ratings continue to buoy soft job approval scores. He can’t afford to lose that trust.
Credibility is Clinton’s vulnerability, dating to the unjustified financial accusations that triggered the Whitewater investigation. Doubts persisted about her veracity and authenticity throughout the 2008 presidential campaign.
Republicans would be wise to stop overreaching (“Every bit as damaging as Watergate,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said last week) and second-guessing decisions made in the fog of war. Most voters likely will accept the judgment of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has said there was no way to provide military reinforcements in time.
Where the administration is most vulnerable is on questions of trust – an issue that, once exposed, can impact how votes consider the president’s words and deeds on all matters. This should be the White House's greatest concern after Wednesday’s hearing on the events leading to the deaths of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and two security officers. Four points:
The original sin: It took the president and his team too long to acknowledge the fact that armed Islamic militants had penetrated the diplomatic compound. Coming as it did during a tense re-election race the administration’s determined reluctance to use the word “terrorists” seems informed, if not driven, by political considerations. When United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice suggested on Sunday talk shows days after the attack that it had begun with protests against an anti-Muslim video, high-ranking diplomat Gregory Hicks said, “I was stunned. My jaw dropped and I was embarrassed.”
The call. Hicks’ emotional testimony Wednesday accused the administration of political machinations and bullying. Hicks told lawmakers that he was ordered not to talk to members of Congress about the attack. When he did so anyhow, and a State Department lawyer was excluded from the meeting because he lacked the necessary security clearance, Hicks said he received an angry phone call from Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff. Mills is well-respected and known for her fierce loyalty to Clinton. If Hicks is to be believed, issuing a no-communications order is an inherently political act and, by definition, a blow for transparency.
The demotion. Hicks told lawmakers he was given a scathing review of his management style after the attacks and was later “effectively demoted.” The State Department strongly denies his account, saying it had not and would not retaliate against Hicks. We don’t know who is telling the truth, but Hicks’ testimony forced Obama’s aides to make a devil’s choice between letting the allegations stand or calling a respected and long-serving diplomat, effectively, a liar. They chose the latter.
The review. The administration’s review of Benghazi criticized the “grossly inadequate” security at the diplomatic compound and led to the dismissal of four State Department officials. Witnesses said the investigation, led by veteran retired diplomat Thomas Pickering, was inadequate. “They stopped short of interviewing people who I personally know were involved in key decisions,” testified Eric Nordstrom, an official in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security. The testimony of these credible whistleblowers may raise doubts in voters' minds about how honestly the Obama administration faced its failings. Despite that, the Pickering report is a scathing indictment of State Department security efforts on Clinton's watch. If she runs for president, embassy security will be a credible and durable issue.
Beyond that, Benghazi may be at its core a blur of conflicting statements that don’t change the minds of many voters. Without bothering to assess what is known and what’s yet to be known, conservatives will cry cover-up and Democrats will see nothing.
Overreaching Republicans (conservative groups are raising money off the cover-up claims) are doing Obama and Clinton a favor. But the damage may already be done to the duo’s credibility – Obama’s strength and Clinton’s weakness.