That is the name of the “classified source” in an old email from Hillary Clinton released last week by Republicans purportedly investigating the 2012 attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Under the instructions of the Benghazi committee’s chairman, Republican Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, Koussa’s name was blacked-out on the publicly issued email, as Republicans proclaimed revealing his identity would compromise national security. The media ran with it, saying Clinton had sent classified information through her personal email account.
But the CIA never said the name was secret. Nor did the Defense Intelligence Agency or the FBI. No, Koussa’s role as an intelligence source is about as classified as this column. He is the former intelligence chief and foreign minister of Libya. In 2011, he fled that country for Great Britain, where he provided boodles of information to MI6 and the CIA. Documents released long ago show Koussa’s cooperation. Government officials have openly discussed it. His name appears in newspapers with casual discussions about his assistance. Sanctions by the British and the Americans against Koussa were lifted because of his help, and he moved to Qatar. All of that is publicly known.
But, as they have time and again, the Republicans on the Benghazi committee released deceitful information for what was undoubtedly part of a campaign—as Kevin McCarthy of the House Republican leadership has admitted—to drive down Clinton’s poll numbers. Republicans have implied—and some journalists have flatly stated—that Clinton was reckless and may have broken the law by sending an email that included thirdhand hearsay mentioning Koussa’s name. The reality is that the Republicans continue to be reckless with the truth.
The historical significance of this moment can hardly be overstated, and it seems many Republicans, Democrats and members of the media don’t fully understand the magnitude of what is taking place. The awesome power of government—one that allows officials to pore through almost anything they demand and compel anyone to talk or suffer the shame of taking the Fifth Amendment—has been unleashed for purely political purposes. It is impossible to review what the Benghazi committee has done as anything other than taxpayer-funded political research of the opposing party’s leading candidate for president. Comparisons from America’s past are rare. Richard Nixon’s attempts to use the IRS to investigate his perceived enemies come to mind. So does Senator Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting during the 1950s, with reckless accusations of treason leveled at members of the State Department, military generals and even the secretary of the Army. But the modern McCarthys of the Benghazi committee cannot perform this political theater on their own—they depend on reporters to aid in the attempts to use government for the purpose of destroying others with bogus “scoops” ladled out by members of Congress and their staffs. These journalists will almost certainly join the legions of shamed reporters of the McCarthy era as it becomes increasingly clear they are enablers of an obscene attempt to undermine the electoral process.
The consequences, however, are worse than the manipulation of the electoral process. By using Benghazi for political advantage, the Republicans have communicated to global militants that, through even limited attacks involving relatively few casualties, they can potentially influence the direction of American elections. The Republicans sent that same message after the Boston Marathon bombing, where they condemned Obama for failing to—illegally—send the American perpetrators to Guantánamo, among other things. They slammed the president because federal law enforcement agents read the failed underwear bomber his rights after they arrested him in 2009. Never mind that federal agents did the exact same thing under President George W. Bush when they arrested the failed shoe bomber years earlier. Republicans even lambasted Obama when he spoke about ISIS decapitating journalists, saying the president did not sound angry enough.
But there is an enormous difference between politicizing tragedy and using the levers of government to achieve that goal. Put simply, the transformation of the Benghazi attacks into a political drama now serves as one of the most dangerous precedents in American history, one whose absurdity and irrationality can be seen just by reviewing the past. This single Benghazi committee has been “investigating” the attack for longer than Congress conducted inquiries into Pearl Harbor, 9/11, Iran-Contra, Watergate and intelligence failures in Iraq.
Worse still, Congress convened 22 hearings about the 9/11 attack that killed almost 3,000 citizens working in the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan; this week, Congress will be holding its 21st hearing about an attack that killed four people working in Libya, with many more sessions left to come. Do Republicans actually think that terrorists killing four agents of the government who willingly assumed the risks of residing in one of the most dangerous places in the world is more important than terrorists murdering 3,000 unsuspecting civilians who were working at their offices in New York City?
In fact, no previous assault on a diplomatic outpost has received this kind of relentless expression of congressional outrage. There weren’t investigations that were anything on this scale about the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983 (63 killed), on the U.S. Embassy annex northeast of Beirut in 1984 (24 killed) or on the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, in 2008 (18 killed). Republicans didn’t believe these exact same scenarios that took place under Republican presidents merited similar zeal to dig down to some unexposed, imaginary “truth.”
In fact, Benghazi was just one of 21 major assaults on an American diplomatic facility in the last 20 years; the personnel murdered there were among about 90 other Americans hired by the government to work in diplomatic outposts who were killed in terrorist attacks from 1998 through 2012, according to a State Department report. Apparently, their killings—like the deaths of thousands of Americans at Pearl Harbor and in the World Trade Center—were seen as less important than murder of four people in a North African country in the midst of a government overthrow.
'Anybody but Hillary'
One important point has been universally acknowledged by the nine previous reports about Benghazi: The attack was almost certainly preventable. Clinton was in charge of the State Department, and it failed to protect U.S. personnel at an American consulate in Libya. If the GOP wants to raise that as a talking point against her, it is legitimate.
The earlier reports—two from the Senate, one from an independent board and six from the Republican-controlled House—were released before the 2014 election; after that, the House voted to form a special Benghazi committee, with the expectation that it would drag out its work until shortly before the 2016 election—four years after the armed assault took place. Despite all the work that has already been done investigating the attacks, the Benghazi committee has demonstrated that its members either have not read the reports or do not care about the conclusions they reached. Its members ask questions of witnesses that have already been answered—again and again. In fact, some of the questions that Republicans say have yet to be addressed have answers that are so well known they already appear on the Wikipedia page about the Benghazi attacks, sourced to the previous government reports.
Despite the repeated claims by Gowdy that he is objective, the conclusions he will reach are already clear; he publicly stated them before the committee was formed in May 2014. In November 2012, Gowdy released a statement proclaiming as fact that the Obama administration “intentionally misled the American people” about the Benghazi attack. About a year later, in September 2013, he put out another press release in reference to Benghazi, stating, “If you can’t trust the information your government is giving you, how can you trust your government on any issue?” Eight months afterward, he was appointed to run the Benghazi committee, and in apparent disregard of his previous publicly issued conclusions, announced, “My goal is to conduct an inquiry that is rooted in fairness.”
But to fully understand how political this latest Benghazi investigation has become, look at the records. Since March, the committee has issued almost 30 press releases related to Clinton; only five have been put out on every other topic combined. Then there is the committee’s interim report from this past May. The word Obama—who cannot run for commander-in-chief again—is not mentioned. Neither is the word president. Or Ansar al-Sharia, the group suspected of engineering the attack. White House makes only 13 appearances. Imagine an investigation on 9/11 that did not mention Al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden or President Bush; that is what has been done with the Benghazi committee’s first public report.
It gets worse. The name Ahmed Abu Khatalla, the man arrested as the mastermind of the attack, shows up once. The word terrorist appears only 10 times. As for references to Clinton, the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination? Those show up 36 times in just 13 pages, an astonishing number given that the word Benghazi appears only 38 times. But the winner for the most mentions is the 39 references to emails from Clinton and the State Department. Clinton and her emails are referenced 49 percent more than the location where the attack took place and 197 percent more than the word terrorist.
This rampant politicization of the Benghazi tragedy has delighted Republican voters in an offensive and inappropriate way, given that the issue is about the murder of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and the three other brave Americans killed in Benghazi. At a recent GOP rally I attended, a speaker declared herself to be “Benghazi truth-seeking” in the same sentence in which she referenced gun rights, abortion, illegal immigration and other top conservative political issues. Political lapel buttons for candidates were sold right alongside others referencing Benghazi.
Online stores for political merchandise have entire sections committed to Benghazi. The most common items: buttons. Those manufactured before the 2014 election had Obama’s face or name alongside accusations of a cover-up while the new ones reference only Clinton. The latest political buttons contain phrases like “Anybody but Hillary Because Benghazi,” and “Hillary 2016: Remember Benghazi?” One has a drawing of devil-horned Clinton with the words “The Beast of Benghazi” emblazoned underneath. Others are simply ghoulish, with dripping blood and grave sites. (Benghazi buttons sold before the 2014 election frequently used the symbol of the Obama campaign with pools of blood pouring out; now the blood is shown on Clinton.) I couldn’t find any that criticize the terrorists who murdered Americans; I found only two in memory of the fallen. Then there are the bumper stickers calling Clinton “The Butcher of Benghazi,” or saying “People Died, Hillary Lied,” “Benghazi: Hillary’s Only Accomplishment,” “Hanoi Jane, Benghazi Hillary” and other phrases.
Nothing like this happened after 9/11. Yes, there were scores of buttons and bumper stickers with words on them like “We Will Never Forget” and “America Salutes Its Fallen Heroes.” These were intended to unify the country and honor those who had died; in a widespread search, I could find none showing the blood of the murdered splattered on anyone in the Bush administration.
The Republicans’ unseemly delight in Benghazi has even spread to political fundraising. There is the Stop Hillary PAC, which broadcast an ad about Clinton and Benghazi. The Virginia GOP held a “Beyond Benghazi” fundraiser where donors had to pay $75 to attend and $5,000 to sponsor the event. A blog post before the 2014 election by the National Republican Senate Committee stated, "Americans deserve the truth about Benghazi, and it's clear Democrats will not give it to them. Donate today and elect a Republican Senate majority."
But by far the most egregious examples of Republicans trying to raise money on the backs of the dead was by the National Republican Congressional Committee, the official GOP group that works to elect Republicans to the House. In a blog post on its fundraising website, the NRCC told supporters, “House Republicans will make sure that no one will get away from Gowdy and the Select Committee.’’ The NRCC also sent out an email that contained a link that led to part of the NRCC’s site with a URL that ended with the words “Benghazicoverup-contribute.” That page directly sought money for the committee’s political efforts under the words “You’re now a Benghazi Watchdog. Let’s go after Obama and Hillary Clinton.” Beneath that, and directly next to the suggested contribution levels, was a photograph of Clinton and Obama surrounded by the sentences “Benghazi Was a Coverup. Demand Answers.”
Secrets, Lies and Sidney Blumenthal
Trey Gowdy was demanding answers: What is the definition of unsolicited?
At a hearing in June, the Benghazi committee‘s questioning of Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime associate of Hillary Clinton, had dragged on for hours. Republicans had yet to ask him a single question about the attack or anything related to it, although as the Democrats on the committee established quickly that morning, Blumenthal had never been to Libya and knew nothing about the assault. In fact, more than eight hours would pass in the hearing before a Republican asked anything about Benghazi.
They did, however, spend an enormous amount of time on Blumenthal’s outside work and email communications with Hillary Clinton. According to people who have seen the transcript of the hearing—which the Republicans have refused to release—Gowdy’s opening inquiries were off-topic, bizarre and totally political. He asked Blumenthal many questions about a series of articles posted on Media Matters, a liberal website, that proved embarrassing to his friend, Republican Representative Jason Chaffetz of Utah. One post said Chaffetz had attacked Clinton and Obama about Benghazi although he had voted to cut funding to the State Department for security at diplomatic outposts. Gowdy asked Blumenthal if he wrote the articles, commissioned them, edited them or read them. He inquired about his relationship to Media Matters, Democratic political commentators and organizations connected to the Democratic Party.
Eventually, Gowdy’s questions turned to emails that Blumenthal had sent to Clinton. The former secretary of state had said publicly that they were unsolicited emails from an old friend. In question after question, Gowdy grilled Blumenthal about the definition of unsolicited. The meaning of the word, Gowdy proclaimed, was “unwanted”—yet Clinton had clearly made statements in her emails that she appreciated Blumenthal’s input. The congressman persisted with his incorrect definition to prove Clinton lied about a topic unrelated to Benghazi until Blumenthal’s lawyer suggested looking up unsolicited in the dictionary (it means “not requested,” as the Democrats later pointed out). Gowdy immediately moved on to another topic unrelated to the Benghazi attack.
The hearing was littered with other irrelevant questions. Gowdy and his staff asked Blumenthal more than 50 questions about the Clinton Foundation, the charitable organization established by Bill Clinton and where Blumenthal had worked. Republicans also asked more than 45 questions about David Brock, who operates Media Matters and other related groups, and over 160 questions about Blumenthal’s relationship and contacts with the Clintons.
Nine hours of questioning achieved nothing in advancing the investigation into the Libyan terrorist attack, since Blumenthal had no firsthand knowledge related to Benghazi; the closest he had come to providing information to Clinton about the area was by forwarding a report written by Tyler Drumheller, a long-retired CIA officer who had been head of the European division for clandestine operations.
So what was Blumenthal doing in front of the committee? A former White House aide to President Clinton, he had not been in government for more than 14 years. Blumenthal also had plenty of contacts from his years as a journalist—including Drumheller, whom he had mentioned in a few stories for Salon. He was a friend of Hillary Clinton and—like scores of civilians and former government officials before him—he provided information he believed to be important to the former secretary, who then passed any of it she considered worthwhile to her staff for review. Henry Kissinger, former secretary of state under Richard Nixon, played the same role for the Bush administration in the lead-up to the Iraq War. Robert Murphy, a former American diplomat, provided similar information to Kissinger during his years with Nixon. In fact, Nixon himself frequently reached out to then-President Bill Clinton to offer analysis and information. Former journalist and think tank veteran Michael Ledeen has funneled his thoughts and details of things he had learned to numerous Republican administrations and brokered introductions with people overseas. A conservative think tank scholar used his contacts to set up a meeting between senior Pentagon officials with the Bush administration and two former member of the Iranian government in December 2001. One White House official with the Bush administration even reached out to me in 2002 for information about Osama bin Laden’s financial network. (As a journalist, I was required to decline the request.)
In other words, there was nothing unusual about someone like Blumenthal directing his analysis and information to Hillary Clinton. Had the secretary instructed Blumenthal to stop providing potentially valuable intelligence, it would have been not only likely unprecedented but also bordering on incompetence.
The only point in subpoenaing Blumenthal to testify was for the Republicans to traffic in Benghazi-related conspiracy theories, including one explicitly stated on Sunday by a member of the Benghazi committee, Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas. In an appearance on Meet the Press, he said Clinton had “relied on Mr. Blumenthal for most of her intelligence” on Libya. Gowdy, in a letter he made public on October 8, made the same statement
Think about that for a moment. Either Pompeo and Gowdy were being completely disingenuous, or irrationally believe that Clinton (who was cleared to review any classified intelligence developed by the State Department, the CIA and other agencies throughout government) instead decided to make decisions based primarily on information from a man who had never been to Libya.
Andrea Mitchell, NBC’s longtime diplomatic correspondent who hosted the program, responded quickly to Pompeo’s assertion. “That is factually not correct,” she told Pompeo. “No, it is absolutely factually correct,” Pompeo responded.
“Relied on Mr. Blumenthal for most of her intelligence?” Mitchell repeated. “I cover the State Department. That is just factually not correct, and I've been as tough on this issue as anyone.”
But that was not the only fantastical conspiracy theory about Blumenthal. In the October 8 letter, Gowdy claims that Blumenthal was a primary driver for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Libya based on an email he sent to Clinton in February 2011, more than a year and a half before the Benghazi attack. Gowdy fails to mention a relevant fact: This was hardly Blumenthal’s idea. Diplomats who had defected from the tyrannical government of Muammar el-Qaddafi, then the Libyan leader, were calling on the United Nations to impose a no-fly zone. So had Libya’s ambassador to the U.N. Britain and France were already drafting a resolution to put in place a restricted area where aircraft would be forbidden to fly. Within days, Republican Senator John McCain announced his support for the idea, and Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, said it was worth considering. But in the world of the Benghazi committee, none of these voices—major Western governments allied with the United States, the analysis of ambassadors and Libyan government exiles, and the input of American senators—were as important in making a such critical decision as an email from Blumenthal.
After ignoring the history of the no-fly zone debate, Gowdy then makes the most incredible accusation of all: that Blumenthal was using his (imaginary) role as Clinton puppet master to impose a no-fly zone so that he could make money. In the October 8 letter, Gowdy wrote that Blumenthal was pushing for war in Libya to profit from his financial stake in a company called Osprey Global Solutions. At the time, Osprey was attempting to arrange a contract to provide humanitarian assistance including housing, medical clinics and schools in five sites.
But once again, Gowdy’s assertions are false. David Grange, a retired Army major general who is president and chief executive of Osprey, says Blumenthal had no stake in his company at all. In fact, Grange says he has met Blumenthal only once, for no more than 15 minutes. While Blumenthal may have played a small role brokering efforts by a third party consultant to facilitate the humanitarian assistance project, he had no contract to obtain any money, according to an executive from another corporation involved in the proposed deal. While there may have been an unpromised possibility that Blumenthal could have obtained a finder’s fee, this executive says, nothing was ever paid to anyone. In the end, Grange says, Osprey “didn’t make a dime” from its efforts, in large part because the situation in Libya was so chaotic; it was impossible to determine who had the authority to sign an agreement.
Ever since Blumenthal gave his testimony, he, his lawyer and Democratic members of the committee have been demanding that the transcript be made public. That document would reveal the sham of the committee, the fact that Republicans cared more about articles in Media Matters than about the Benghazi attack. It would, according to people who have seen it, prove critically embarrassing. An agreement was reached to have a vote on releasing the transcript at the next business meeting of the committee. But Gowdy canceled the meeting. More than 100 days have passed; no business meetings that would allow for the testimony to be released have been scheduled or held.
Manipulating the Press
The Benghazi committee’s secrets go well beyond what Blumenthal had to say. Unlike almost every congressional committee investigation in history, the Republican congressman has insisted that much of the relevant questioning be conducted behind closed doors. Even when directors of the CIA appear before Congress, unclassified portions of the statements and questioning occur in public, while classified information is delivered in private.
The secrecy is all the more incomprehensible given the subject matter. The committee has called previous investigations incomplete. It even suggested that the original review by an independent Accountability Review Board was rushed and tainted. The board was co-chaired by Thomas Pickering, who served in high posts under both Democratic and Republican presidents, and was selected by President George H.W. Bush as his administration’s ambassador to the United Nations. His fellow chair was retired Admiral Michael Mullen, who was named as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff by President George W. Bush. The board came up with innumerable recommendations on changes that should be put in place to better protect American diplomats. The State Department rapidly adopted them.
But if the members of the Benghazi committee truly believe that the findings of the review board were inadequate, shouldn’t whatever information they obtain be made public as fast as possible? Taking the Republicans at their word, why are they willing to leave diplomatic personnel potentially in grave danger by hiding whatever flaws they discover in the protection protocols?
Unless, of course, they are not pursuing issues that could lead to better protection for diplomats. Indeed, by keeping testimony secret, Gowdy, a former prosecutor, either does not care about keeping diplomats safe or considers the Benghazi committee to serve the same role as a grand jury. He refuses requests by witnesses to testify in public or to release transcripts of the questioning, suggesting that—just like in a criminal case—he does not want those who have been compelled to appear before the committee to coordinate their answers based on what they hear. The explanation is utter nonsense; unlike a prosecutor with a grand jury, the committee can neither instruct nor even request that witnesses don’t speak with one another about their testimony. Even lawyers for witnesses have the right to share information about what the committee asked and what the answers were. And, of course, there is no problem with discussing classified information; that can be delivered in closed session.
However, while Gowdy has intoned that certain information was going to be treated “as if it was classified,” he is making that designation himself, with no authority to do so since classification is handled by the executive branch, not Congress. Staff members of the committee who do not have security clearance attended testimony that involved such supposedly top-secret information. The government did not authorize even the transcriber of the testimony to hear classified information.
What possible reason, then, could the committee have for playing hide the ball with the testimony? Two possibilities come to mind. After the first public hearing, which was a serious and sober affair, Gowdy and the Republicans were derided by conservative zealots for failing to demand answers about every right-wing conspiracy theory or engage in the political theater of rage. “They have been beating the drums about this, and polls have shown that Americans want answers about this!” Harris Faulkner of Fox News intoned after the hearing. “I was shocked there was so little passion.”
The other reason to keep the testimony secret has rapidly become clear: so that they can selectively—and often incorrectly—portray to reporters what was said in the statements. For example, prior to the committee’s interview with Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff asked to testify in public out of concern that the Republicans would leak and misrepresent details of what she said. Her request was denied, and the committee made one of its proclamations about treating the unclassified information as classified.
Yet shortly after Mills’s nine hours of questioning ended, one committee member, Representative Lynn Westmoreland of Georgia, rushed to the studios of Fox News to discuss what Mills had to say. Politico published a report sourced to Republicans saying that the committee had been stunned to learn that Mills had reviewed the Accountability Review Board report by Pickering and Mullen, saying that it was “raising alarms on the right” that the independent investigation had been compromised.
These sources were either lying or woefully ignorant, not only of how government works but also of the previous information already made public. Almost all government reports—including ones as secret as independent inquiries of operational divisions in the CIA—are circulated among the relevant officials seeking comments and for help to determine any errors.
Worse still, this supposedly shocking information had been public for more than two years. In a June 4, 2013, sworn statement in another Benghazi investigation conducted by another GOP-led committee, Pickering stated that the review board had submitted an advanced copy of the report to confirm “the accuracy and the focus of our recommendations.” He also stated that the review board considered some of Mills’s input, adding that neither she nor Clinton had the right to edit the document, nor did they try to influence the outcome.
Pickering was not the only one to make this statement. In September 2013—again, two years before the supposedly shocking revelations in Mills’s statements to the Benghazi committee—the inspector general for the State Department issued a report stating that the members of the review board had limited their contact with senior officials in the department and that they all unanimously agreed there was no attempt “to impede, influence, or interfere with their work at any time or on any level.”
No matter. A new bogus script had been written and was trumpeted by the press. The Benghazi committee had discovered a deep, dark secret. In the eyes of Republicans, the review board’s findings could be dismissed out of hand as corrupt.
Other false stories repeatedly found their way into the press. There was the “criminal investigation of Hillary Clinton” article that appeared in The New York Times; once the story was knocked down, the Times sheepishly acknowledged its sources included officials from Congress. (The “Clinton is under criminal investigation” story has continued; she’s not.) The Daily Beast falsely reported that Blumenthal testified he was in Libya on the day of the Benghazi attack.
Articles in other publications even falsely portrayed documents obtained by the committee. For example, on June 18, Politico ran an article stating that, based on information obtained from “a source who has reviewed the email exchange” that Clinton and Blumenthal were sending emails back and forth to utilize Media Matters and the White House to neutralize criticism of her about Benghazi. But the representation to Politico was a lie: The quoted emails had nothing to do with each other, but were literally different discussions about different topics conducted days apart. The article also stated that the “sources” claimed that a particular Clinton email had never been produced by the State Department, in one of many suggestions of a cover-up. In truth, the email had been turned over by the department four months earlier. It is marked with identification numbers STATE-SCB0045548-SCB00450.
Just this week, more false statements by members of the committee that is supposed to be reserving its judgment until it hears the facts have been trotted out. Gowdy, Pompeo and Westmoreland all claimed on news shows in recent days that no previous committee had ever gained access to emails from Ambassador Stevens, one of the victims of attack Benghazi. “None of the seven previous committees bothered to access the emails of our ambassador,” Gowdy said on Face the Nation. “How on earth could any of the other committees have completed their work properly without access to the senior person on the ground’s emails?” Pompeo asked on Meet the Press. “We’ve just now gotten those emails,’’ Westmoreland said. “Nobody else had requested them.”
The statements were either a coordinated attempt to mislead or a universal display of ignorance. An array of emails from Stevens had been produced years ago to congressional committees investigating the Benghazi attack, including a number that expressed the ambassador’s concern about the security situation for the diplomats in Libya and the violence there. The same emails were produced to the Benghazi committee on November 24 and December 9 of last year. Perhaps the State Department found additional emails. That would be likely given the millions of documents that have been demanded from the agency by the various congressional committees, all of which must be reviewed before release.
The emails are part of a broader pattern by the committee’s Republicans, who have repeatedly claimed that old information is new. On October 7, Gowdy stated that the committee had questioned 50 witnesses who had never been interviewed before. That statement, like so many others, was false. Committee records show that there are only transcripts of 54 people have been interviewed or provided sworn statements. Of those, the Pickering-Mullen review board from three years ago already interviewed 23 of them. Of the remaining 31, the majority included State Department employees, current and former campaign officials, press officers, employees involved in information technology and an array of others who could not be expected to know a thing about the Benghazi attack.
But more important is who has not been interviewed. The committee has never asked a single question of the Secretary of Defense. In fact, no one from the Pentagon has testified in any hearings, and only four members of the department have been questioned at all.
The Truth About Clinton’s Emails
Since March, the Benghazi committee has delved into another topic with almost zero relevance to the attack: Clinton’s use of a private email system. Emails that have been produced have done nothing to refute the conclusions by all of the other government investigations of the attack. Indeed, if the Benghazi committee truly believes that the private email issue is of such importance, it needs to pass the issue to another congressional committee for investigation so that the inquiry into the terrorist attack can resume.
The email set-up for Clinton—who is widely known as technologically incompetent—has been criticized as a mistake, including by Obama and the former secretary herself. But it has been repeatedly misrepresented, not only by the committee but also in the press.
For example, the committee’s interim report from May included the false—and clearly political statement—describing Clinton’s use of a personal account as “the former secretary of state’s unusual email arrangement with herself.” No, this was an arrangement made with the State Department allowed under the rules listed in the Federal Register, which is why Colin Powell had the exact same set-up when he was secretary of state under former President George W. Bush. While that doesn’t mean the approach is wise, it’s hardly unusual given that a Republican who held Clinton’s job did it too.
Senior White House staffers and presidential advisers did the same thing during the Bush Administration; at least 88 officials—including the White House Chief of Staff and Karl Rove, the president’s senior adviser—used personal emails to conduct official business over a private internet domain called gwb43.com, which was maintained on a server at the Republican National Committee. More than 22 million of those emails were deleted.
As for Clinton, her first use of the personal email account for work purposes while serving as Secretary of State occurred on March 18, 2009. Before that date, she continued to utilize her Senate email address. According to current government officials, State Department experts briefed Clinton about the requirements for record preservation under the law; no evidence has yet been produced to suggest that she violated those rules. From March 18, 2009 until she left the department on February 1, 2013, government records show she sent 62,320 emails, including 30,490 that were designated as work emails. Of those, more than 90 percent were preserved on servers maintained by the federal government because Clinton sent them to accounts ending with “.gov.”
This was not, however, the only email address Clinton used. The State Department maintains a separate, closed system for classified information. With the exception of one email with a member of the British government, none of Clinton’s communications with foreign officials went through her personal email account.
By comparison, Clinton’s use of her personal email was more limited than Powell’s. In his book It Worked For Me, he wrote that he used a personal email account set up on a laptop to exchange information not only with his principal assistants and ambassadors but also with foreign ministers overseas. Like Clinton, he used a second email account for classified information. Powell has also said he did not preserve any of the emails from his personal account from the time, either by printing them or saving them on a storage device. None of this is to suggest that Powell did anything wrong. It does, however, raise a question Republicans have yet to answer: Why is Clinton’s use of private emails a controversy, much less a scandal, if Powell’s was proper?
Critics also rage that Clinton’s emails on the nonclassified personal system were not secure. Yet no one ever points out that hackers have proved that the State Department’s nonclassified system, which she otherwise could have been using, is one of the more insecure systems in government. In 2006, unknown foreign intruders hacked into the State Department system and downloaded terabytes of information, including emails and attached documents. This year, Russian hackers gained access to the State Department’s unclassified email system despite repeated efforts by American government experts to lock them out. The hackers used the State Department system as a “backdoor” to crack into the White House’s unclassified system, which allowed them to obtain documents like Obama’s nonpublic schedule. So if Clinton had used the State Department’s unclassified system for the emails she sent from her personal account, they almost certainly would now be in the hands of Russian hackers.
But government records show that no hacker has been found to have gained access to Clinton’s private server, something that is far easier to determine given the limited number of accounts it holds and the comparative ease of running security analytics through such a small system. Nor was there any other form of unauthorized intrusion into the email, and no one else had access to the account itself. In fact, after Clinton left government, multiple hackers tried to break into the system but failed. The server was located at Clinton’s home, which is guarded by the Secret Service. Numerous security consultants, IT specialists and government experts put systems in place to prevent breaches; those systems were continuously updated to account for new spyware, malware, viruses and related hacking techniques.
Finally, despite the relentless yet failed effort to locate information sent through Clinton’s email system that was deemed classified at the time, one major point has been overlooked: The secretary of state had the power to declassify any department document she chose. Every modern president has issued rules regarding the authority to classify and declassify documents. During the Bush administration, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney held that authority, so he often decided on his own to declassify documents that his office then provided to members of Congress and the press.
The finalized public version of the rules under Obama was issued on December 29, 2009, through a document called “Executive Order 13526-Classified National Security Information.” Through that order, a senior official with the authority to deem a document in an agency or department as classified also had the power to declassify it. So the question is moot. Clinton could take a classified State Department document, declare it unclassified and send it to whomever she chose. Of course, that would not apply to classified information she received from, say, the CIA—but remember, if an intelligence organization deemed the material to be secret, it would have been sent to Clinton through the closed system at the State Department and not to her personal email.
Then comes the controversy about Clinton erasing emails. The words sound terrible, but the reality is not. Think of it like this: Before there were emails, government employees had work documents and personal documents. Both might be kept at home or at the office. Work documents needed to be preserved and often were stored in the national archives. Even in the event that someone filed a Freedom of Information Act request or Congress issued a subpoena, no one had to turn over every piece of paper, whether personal or not. The Federal Records Act places the responsibility of determining which documents are official and which are personal on the government official to whom they belong. A government official must retain or turn over all work records but has every right to take boxes of personal, private material and throw it out. The same holds true for emails.
The State Department delivered the first request for emails on October 28, 2014, to several previous secretaries, including Clinton; this was done as part of an effort by the agency to update its record keeping to stay in compliance with federal requirements. Powell, as he publicly stated, had none to provide because they had all been deleted. Clinton instructed her lawyers at Williams & Connolly to review all of the emails on her behalf to determine which were work-related and which were not.
Multiple methods were used. First, a computerized search was conducted of every email sent to an account ending with “.gov,” which would include all the documents sent to every official government email. That found 27,500 emails, all of which were already preserved in federal systems. Then another search was conducted using the first and last names of more than 100 officials with the State Department and others in the government. Next, manual reviews were performed in case there were unrecognized email addresses or typographical errors that would have prevented those documents from being located. In addition, the lawyers searched for a number of other specific terms, including the words Benghazi and Libya. These last three steps located more than 2,900 other emails. Printouts of the 30,490 emails were then provided to the State Department. Some critics have suggested there was something untoward about the fact Clinton sent paper records. But that is the procedure that is required by the State Department in a document called the Foreign Affairs Manual.
Once all of the reviews were completed, Clinton deleted all of the remaining emails deemed to be unrelated to her work. While at first that struck me as foolish, it is now clear it was necessary. The committee, which has leaked misleading information and publicly accused Clinton of wrongdoing, was demanding access to the server so it could decide, contrary to the requirements of law, which documents should be produced. It’s safe to assume that every personal, private detail of Clinton’s life that might have been captured in her emails would immediately appear as “scoops” in the morning newspaper or discussed by committee members on national television.
Of course, in a world of wild Republican irrationality, suspicions exist that some of the work emails that didn’t go to other government officials or into government systems might have been intentionally destroyed. But the question is, Why? Why would some of Washington’s most prominent lawyers take a risk that could ultimately result in disbarment by intentionally hiding work-related emails that might turn up anywhere—in the accounts of recipients, or in the accounts of people who received copies from the recipient, or even in the hands of an unknown hacker? The idea if far-fetched. But it is that kind of lunacy that has pushed the Benghazi investigation forward for so many years.
A Collapse Into Fantasy
Conspiracy theories have become a driving force in Washington, and the Benghazi investigation is no exception. What started as a legitimate, important inquiry into the circumstances and failures that led to the tragic deaths of four Americans has transmogrified into a tale of secret plots and treachery in which malicious officials manipulate the government and act as virtual co-conspirators with the terrorists who murdered their colleagues.
This is emblematic of a phenomenon that the historian Richard Hofstadter called “the paranoid style of American politics.” As Hofstadter said in a speech at Oxford University in November 1963, “We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world with the rest of us but by his fantasies as well.” Proponents of a vast Benghazi conspiracy approach the topic with absolute certainty that something sinister took place in Washington that involved far more than a bureaucratic failure to utilize the correct procedures for protecting diplomats. Policy blunders are boring; tales of conniving and evil are the stuff to engender fevered passions.
The collapse into fantasy began on the day of the Benghazi attack, but not because of the events in Libya. Many of the Benghazi-obsessed seem unaware that the chaos at that consulate was occurring across the Muslim world. The first protest exploded outside of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. There, Muslim protesters overran the embassy perimeter fences and stormed the compound in what CNN described at the time as “an all-out assault.” They were driven, protesters said, by anger about a video posted on the Internet that they believed insulted the Prophet Muhammad. Then angry Muslims gathered outside the Benghazi mission, and soon the attack erupted. Protests also started at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, Tunisia, which the participants attributed to the same Internet video, but as the protesters made their way to the embassy’s perimeter walls, the police stopped them. With angry Egyptians still roaming the Cairo compound and the Benghazi consulate smoldering from arson, the next demonstration began, as protesters stormed the compound of the U.S. Embassy in Sanaa, Yemen, where they began looting and setting fires.
In other words, what the modern critics either do not realize or consider is that the American government was facing chaos in multiple diplomatic facilities around the Middle East and North Africa. Even as terrorists were attacking in Benghazi, angry Muslims who also might launch a terrorist strike were roaming the grounds of the embassy in Cairo, as they would for days to come. As each crisis calmed, another erupted.
On the day of the attacks, according to government records and testimony before other committees conducting investigations, Clinton learned of the Benghazi assault at 4:05 p.m. Forty-nine minutes later, a cable arrived at the State Department saying the shooting had stopped and the compound had been cleared.
In the hours that followed, Clinton spoke with Obama, the national security advisor, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the director of the CIA and scores of others. At 6:41 p.m., she called the president of the Libyan General National Congress seeking his help. During the eight-minute call, Clinton asked for the Libyan government to provide additional firefighters and security personnel to the Benghazi mission, as well as guards to the U.S. diplomatic facility in Tripoli. Another eight minutes passed, and she called the deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli for an update and to reach out to any sources he had in the Libyan government to seek more assistance. Six minutes later, she was on a conference call with eight other U.S. government officials. At 7:45 p.m., she joined a secure video teleconference with senior officials with the White House, the Department of Defense and the intelligence agencies. Then she called Obama to consult with him and keep him updated on developments. At almost midnight came new information that a safe house where American personnel had taken refuge was under attack.
Over at the Pentagon, officials had taken action rapidly after word of the attack arrived. An operations officer with the United States Africa Command who was controlling an unarmed Predator drone flying over the Libyan city of Darnah was told to redirect it to Benghazi, about an hour away. After a meeting with the White House, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered two Marine Corps Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams platoons in Rota, Spain, to prepare to deploy; one was going to Benghazi and the other to Tripoli. He also dispatched a special operations unit from the United States. Finally, a team of American military commandos training in Croatia were ordered to head to Benghazi. The group, called the Commander’s In-Extremis Force, was formed to rapidly handle unexpected emergencies; it was the only unit close to Benghazi with the skills necessary to conduct a rescue, kill the militants and avoid civilian deaths. The group got as far as the Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily, Italy, placing them about an hour from Benghazi. But by that point, the assault in the Libyan city was over.
In the midst of all the bedlam came the first attempt to politicize the events of that day, although the Republicans were not yet focusing their attention on Benghazi. At that point, officials inside the embassy in Cairo were working to calm the situation outside by communicating a message to the protesters that denounced the video, saying they opposed “continuing efforts by misguided individuals to hurt the religious feelings of Muslims—as we condemn efforts to offend believers of all religions."
Almost immediately, Mitt Romney, the Republican nominee for president, rushed to meet with reporters with such speed that his hair was in disarray so that he could attack the statements being issued by American diplomats in Egypt who were trying desperately to save their own lives. His message: “It's disgraceful that the Obama administration's first response was not to condemn the attacks on our diplomatic missions but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks."
Democrats and Republicans lambasted Romney for inserting politics into the middle of an ongoing international crisis. But the backlash against Romney’s craven effort to capitalize on the circumstances did not end the Republican focus on the attacks on American diplomatic facilities. Given the embarrassment, Romney and other Republicans largely dropped talking about Cairo. With the news that Ambassador Stevens and several others had been killed, the GOP turned its attention to that tragedy, while essentially ignoring what was happening in Tunis and Sanaa.
As occurs in most rapidly moving crises, American intelligence officials were struggling to sift through conflicting information to determine what had really happened. (A similar struggle led the CIA to initially—and incorrectly—conclude that the Islamist group Hezbollah was behind the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11.) CIA analysts had written a report stating that the evidence suggested the Benghazi attack was a spontaneous one that grew out of the protests. After those intelligence officers headed home, a senior CIA editor with knowledge of the military, but not of Libya or the events in Benghazi, added a sentence saying that the weaponry possessed by the attackers suggested it was a planned attack.
By that afternoon, Clinton had heard the same thing. Notes she received for a 4:30 p.m. meeting said a militant group called Ansar al-Sharia was responsible for the attack. The embassy in Tripoli reported that the assault appeared to be pre-planned. Later, Clinton spoke by phone with the prime minister of Egypt, telling him they knew the events in Benghazi had nothing to do with the controversial video.
Then that intelligence began to fall apart. Ansar al-Sharia disavowed any role in the attack, and the American intelligence analysts who covered Libya, who had been complaining about the sentence added by the senior CIA editor, began assembling a thorough review that was fully coordinated between the relevant intelligence officers in multiple agencies. That report, titled “Extremists Capitalized on Benghazi Protests” and completed on September 13, stated, “We assess the attacks on Tuesday against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi began spontaneously.’’ It continued, “The attacks began spontaneously following the protests at the U.S. embassy in Cairo.” It also stated that extremists connected to Al-Qaeda were involved in the attacks, although there are no known operational connections between Ansar al-Sharia and Al-Qaeda. The statement about Al-Qaeda would prove to be wrong.
The intelligence community assembled its information into talking points for Susan Rice, the American ambassador to the United Nations, for her to use when speaking on Sunday morning talk shows. Her statements on September 16 lined up perfectly with the information provided by the intelligence agencies; a statement from the agencies would later be released attesting to that fact.
“The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex,” she said. “There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.”
Rice’s statement—or, more accurately, a misrepresentation of Rice’s statement—became the first and most important piece of the Republicans’ Benghazi conspiracy theory. It is now an article of faith among many Republicans that Rice said the Benghazi attack was caused by the video, when in fact she said no such thing. Instead, she said the then-current intelligence suggested that the video inspired the Cairo protests—which it did. The Cairo protests then inspired the Benghazi protests, and the Benghazi protests led to the attack.
While Rice perfectly cited the intelligence as it then existed and never said the Benghazi attack was the result of the video, so what if she had? Republicans have attached themselves to their own form of bizarre political correctness that requires the word terrorist to be uttered, even when the intelligence is unclear, and implies that somehow this single word will change everything. Islamic extremists attacked an American embassy and murdered the ambassador and other diplomats. The act of using violence to advance a political or religious cause and incite fear is terrorism. The motives, methods and operational allegiances of the perpetrators were still under investigation. It was pointless to say terrorist if no one could identify the group responsible. Did Republicans actually consider the American people so obtuse that Islamic extremists murdering United States officials was an act of terrorism?
But the spin had begun. The administration supposedly hadn’t said the attackers were terrorists; Romney even made that point in a presidential campaign debate with Obama. But the president had said three times in the two days following the attack that it was “an act of terror.” Romney persisted, as if terrorist was a magic word that would give a new meaning the attack in Benghazi. Finally, in a statement that outraged conservatives—and was in fact inappropriate—the debate moderator, Candy Crowley of CNN, told Romney he was wrong.
By that time, many Republicans believed Romney was headed for a landslide victory; Fox News and other commentators throughout the conservative media bubble repeated the mantra time and again. They dismissed the scores of polls showing he would lose as biased. Finally, when the results came in with a decisive Obama victory, just as the polls predicted, many Republicans were stunned. Soon a new conspiracy theory emerged: Obama had won the election because he had lied about Benghazi. What, precisely, the lie was remained unclear, although the imaginary statement by Rice saying the attack was caused by the video and Obama’s refusal to immediately use the word terrorist rather than act of terror were frequently cited.
The Pickering-Mullen review board soon issued its findings and recommendations. It concluded that “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” in two bureaus of the State Department resulted in inadequate security for Benghazi. However, it also found that the intelligence community had no warning of the attack. Although Congress was not named, the board also directed some of its criticism at the legislators. A constantly inadequate budget had led State Department officials to husband resources for the highest priorities; the Benghazi mission was not one of them. Staffing was transitory, and it was not designated with the status of a temporary residential facility. The consulate’s future after 2012 was deeply uncertain, and it was being neglected. The review board made recommendations, and the State Department adopted them.
In normal times, that would have been the end of any “scandal.” But with the Republicans feverish with conspiracy theories, Benghazi was not about to end. The false “Rice lied” story persisted, even as Republican-led congressional committees concluded it was not true. In fact, in a report issued in 2014, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence declared that, even by that time, it was impossible to state exactly what had happened. “Much of the early intelligence was conflicting and two years later, intelligence gaps remain,” the report said. “To this day, significant intelligence gaps regarding the identities, affiliations and motivations of the attackers remain.”
Hearing after hearing produced precious little new information, but each added more speculation to the growing blaze of Republican theories. Each was more illogical than the next.
The Chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Republican Representative Darrell Issa of California, held numerous contentious hearings about Benghazi. But they developed little in terms of new information. With the midterm elections coming, Issa tossed out in a conspiracy theory in February 2014 that not only had no factual basis but also contradicted itself.
“Why was there not one order given to turn on one Department of Defense asset?’’ Issa asked the crowd. “I have my suspicions, which is Secretary Clinton told [Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta] to stand down, and we all heard about the stand down order for two military personnel. That order is undeniable.”
No one ordered military assets to move, but Clinton gave an order to stand down. Of course, military assets were moved, but they were unable to get any further than Italy before the Benghazi attack was complete. And there is no doubt that any State Department would be concerned about the procedures for having an American military force attack in a sovereign nation. But was there such an order? Contrary to Issa’s statement, it is not only completely deniable, it has been denied by everyone involved, including all of the witnesses interviewed by the Benghazi committee.
Like so many other statements made by Republicans about Benghazi, it is wrong in every particular. Despite his investigation, Issa either lied or did not know of the multiple military orders that went out that night—diverting Predator drones, dispatching the Commander’s In-Extremis Force from Croatia, sending a special operations unit from the United States and instructing Marine platoons from Spain to prepare for deployment. On the other hand, Issa’s statement is literally true: Not one order was given to one Defense Department asset; that’s because four were given to four assets.
Then came the conspiracy theory that Clinton herself had personally signed a cable denying a request for increased security at Benghazi. This one was advanced by the chairmen of five Republican House committees and Senator Rand Paul. But the Republicans who continue to traffic in this claim are either lying or almost criminally ignorant about the processes of government.
To make the claim, these politicians cite a cable that went out with Clinton’s name on it in a pro forma signature. This is standard procedure for every cable issued by the State Department in every administration. There are millions of cables with Clinton’s name on them, with likely more than 1,000 generated each day throughout the State Department during her tenure, just as with every other secretary of state. This fantasy or falsehood, which has been repeatedly denied by every witness interviewed and is directly contradicted by the Pickering-Mullen report, persists as true in Republican circles and is often mentioned by GOP presidential candidates. A cable was issued rejecting the appeal for more security, but Clinton never saw it or signed it.
Today, there are many bogus claims still advanced by Republicans, which the Benghazi committee continues to pursue. But the all-time classic—which again, has been adopted as an article of faith among many Republicans—is that Clinton and other senior government officials were using the Benghazi mission to transfer weapons from Libya to Turkey, or in another version of the tale, from Libya to Syria. No one advancing this fantasy ever explains how a secretary of state could be directing an intelligence operation that would be handled by the CIA. However, this has been a favorite myth offered up by Senator Paul, who raised it both in a Senate hearing and in media interviews.
This theory, again, is completely false. In January 2014, Republican Members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence issued a report that definitively shot it down. The report read, “All CIA activities in Benghazi were legal and authorized. On-the-record testimony establishes that CIA was not sending weapons (including MANPADS) from Libya to Syria, or facilitating other organizations or states that were transferring weapons from Libya to Syria." No matter. Six months later, in a radio interview, Paul raised the allegation again, citing news reports that weapons were shipped from Libya to Syria.
Few noticed that 17 days after this renewed claim by Paul, the House Intelligence Committee adopted its final report, once again declaring the allegation to be nothing but a myth. The report read, “Multiple media outlets have reported allegations about CIA collecting weapons in Benghazi and facilitating weapons from Libya to Syria. The eyewitness testimony and thousands of pages of CIA cables and emails that the Committee reviewed provide no support for this allegation.”
In the end, one thing is clear: This rabid partisanship or unmitigated deception or utter incompetence conflicts with everything this country stands for. Four men died serving their country; it is beyond disgraceful that their memories are used for cartoons and political buttons and television shows all for the purpose of advancing outright falsehoods just to gain political points.
In their refusal to read documents or accept facts over fantasies, Republican conspiracy theorists have damaged this country in ways that cannot yet be fully comprehended. No doubt, the terrorists set on attacking America are cheering them on. Nothing could delight some terrorist sitting in a Syrian or Libyan or Iraqi hovel while hearing a top Republican congressman brag on television that a relatively small attack on a U.S.compound continues to threaten to transform a presidential election in the most powerful country in the world.
Ambassador Stevens and the three other men who died on that terrible day in Benghazi are not shiny objects to be dangled for political entertainment. They are American heroes. Serve their memories: Disband this inexcusable Benghazi committee, throw out the buttons and bumper stickers and fundraising letters. Allow the dead to finally rest in peace.