America could be on the cusp of a great victory–a victory for accountability and truth. The Benghazi debacle is, at last, breaking into the public consciousness. Indeed, in its outlines, finally visible as the coverup unravels, Benghazi is starting to look like a scandal, bringing up memories of an earlier scandal, Watergate.
Yet the Republicans could still blow it, not only for themselves, but much more importantly, for the country. They could blow it, that is, if they make the terrible mistake of turning an honest and necessary inquiry about the events of 2012 and 2013 into a contrived exercise in political positioning for 2016.
Yes, I am looking at you, Karl Rove. After your abysmal campaign performance in 2012, it’s painfully evident that your too-clever-by-half tricks in 2013–injecting your presidential-campaign-style attack spot into the Benghazi investigation–could undercut your own party yet again.
We’ll get back to Rove in the third installment, but first, let’s assess where we are on Benghazi.
As we all know by now, the Obama administration bungled everything about Benghazi on September 11, 2012, leading to the tragic death of our ambassador and three more brave Americans. Yet at the same time, we must admit that the administration was successful in covering up its own fecklessness–at least well enough to get through last year’s presidential election.
Yet in the last few days, that coverup has been uncovered, as all Americans can now see. [snip]
Speaking of coverups and the obstruction of justice, I might add that for me, as someone who experienced Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal firsthand back in the 70s, the memories of that sordid mess have all come flooding back as I think on this new sordid mess.
The cliché of scandals is that it’s usually not the incident itself that’s so serious, but rather, the cover-up of the incident. That was certainly true of Watergate; yes, it was a criminal conspiracy from the outset–a conspiracy to rig the re-election of Richard Nixon–but it’s not clear that Nixon knew about it in advance. Yet he did know soon after the June 17, 1972 break-in, and instead of cleaning house, he helped to cover it up. That’s what turned Watergate from a election scandal into an impeachment scandal. [snip]
But of course, then Obama would have had to cancel his campaign events, hunker down in the White House, and prove himself to be a real commander-in-chief. [snip]
It never seems to have occurred to Obama, or anyone else in his administration, that the Benghazi tragedy required some sort of midcourse correction, away from campaigning and toward governing. No, the campaign strategy had been set in Chicago long before: The Obama re-election campaign was predicated on the idea that the 44th President had killed Osama Bin Laden and won the war on terror.
So Obama’s team was all assembled for that famous photo in the White House Situation Room as they awaited the news of the Bin Laden raid in Pakistan on May 1, 2011. But then, more than a year later, a new attack by Al Qaeda on a new 9/11 simply wasn’t part of the carefully laid out campaign script. And since campaigning was paramount,the Al Qaeda role in the Benghazi attack had to be airbrushed out by the White House–with the aid, of course, of an adoring media.
Thus the terrorist assassins became, in the Obama narrative, just an unruly mob, fired up by some dumb Mohammed video made in California. Once that cover story was settled upon, that was the beginning of the cover-up of Benghazi.
As the rubble in Benghazi was still smoldering, the President declared, on September 12, 2012, “We will work with the Libyan government to bring to justice the killers who attacked our people.” And then he was aboard Air Force One, off to Las Vegas, for a rally and fundraiser.
The immediate question, of course, is what Obama left behind in Washington D.C. that day. Increasingly, it appears that he left his underlings in Washington to work out the new and dishonest Benghazi narrative–the cover-up. The goal was to insulate the President from all this bad news–he had nothing to do with it. Isn’t it interesting, for example, that no photos were ever released of the President working on the Benghazi crisis on the night of the attacks? Nope, with the November election just six weeks away, the White House strategy was clear: The President was to kept far, far away from anything that might make the votes wonder if they had the right commander-in-chief.
Thus we come to the more important question–the ultimate question: What did the President know? (and when did he know it?)
Everything else, in the long run, flows from that. Obama might not know it or think it, but he is, as JFK said more than a half-century ago, “the responsible officer of this government.” That is, the President is primary in the Benghazi saga; inquiries into the role of anyone else–including the former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton–are decidedly secondary or even tertiary. In an investigation such as this, we shouldn’t be looking to the capillaries, or even the arteries; we should be going right to the heart–Obama. If others wish to obscure his role, well, we must seek to clarify his role.
Yet even as we keep our focus on the President, we still have to understand how his men and women acted on his behalf.
The first document of the cover-up, of course, were those dozen-times rewritten Benghazi talking points, the ones that Susan Rice used to mislead the nation on September 16, 2012–five ways to Sunday, one might say. We might immediately note that the Mohammed video never appears in those “talkers.” It was only in the days to come that the blame-the-video narrative was repeated by not only the President, but also the Vice President, Hillary Clinton, Susan Rice, and everyone else in the administration. So there’s a mystery to be unraveled? Who dropped the Mohammed video argument into the national dialogue?
So who was ultimately in charge of those talking points? Not Hillary Clinton, nor her State Department. Instead, the buck seems to have stopped at the White House–but nowhere near the President, of course.
Instead, it was a second-tier functionary at the National Security Council who took the lead. The key figure seems to be one Ben Rhodes, whose title is deputy national security adviser for strategic communications and speechwriting–which should be translated to, “spinning and talking-point massaging.” He was the main rewrite guy.
But here’s where the cover-up gets even more interesting. How so? Because, after all, Rhodes is not in charge of the NSC. And if the actual head of the NSC doesn’t leap to mind, well, that’s proof that the plan is working. What plan? The plan to keep Tom Donilon out of the news and out of the line of fire.
The Benghazi cover-up at the White House was, in fact, a double cover-up. As we have seen, the President was to be insulated from Benghazi. But so, too, was someone else. That someone else is Thomas E. Donilon, the national security adviser at the White House, who is, of course, Ben Rhodes’ boss at the National Security Council. So if Rhodes is doing something as vital as managing the Benghazi message, we can be reasonably sure that Donilon was all over it. We can be reasonably sure of it, that it, but what we can’t actually see it, because Donilon has chosen to become politically invisible. Yes, if you and I haven’t heard much of Donilon lately, that’s not an accident; even though he is very ambitious, he has always been a behind-the-scenes player. And he’s been very behind-the-scenes for these past eight months.
I consider Donilon to be the greatest spinner and string-puller working in Washington today, and those talents have been good for his career. He started out as a political hack who then parlayed those talents into a gig that made him millions at Fannie Mae . And while the Fannie scandal has destroyed many Beltway careers, and deservedly so, Donilon managed to worm his way up into the highest rung of US national-security policymaking.
Yet not surprisingly, Donilon’s rise has been terrible for the country. I have warned about Donilon extensively in the past, noting, in particular, his skill as a master-leaker and news master-manipulator. In particular, Donilon has been in the middle of the Stuxnet leaks from last year–the leaks designed to make the Obama administration look tough against Iran. And although many Washington leaders, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein(D-CA) were forthright in expressing their concerns about the leaks, and in suggesting that the White House was involved, nothing happened to anyone in the White House–certainly not Donilon. So perhaps that’s how Donilon developed the hubristic arrogance to think that he could leak and spin anything, even Benghazi.
As an aside, to see Donilon in action, we might take another look at that famous Sit Room photo from May 1, 2011. Look closely at the picture: Who’s the dominant figure? It’s not Obama; he’s hunched down on the side. No, the alpha male in the shot is the bluff fellow in the blue-green shirt, his arms sternly folded across his chest–Tom Donilon. These things don’t happen by accident; it’s Donilon, not the others, who runs the Sit Room, and he is smart enough to know where to stand. Does that seem petty? Sure it does. Is it petty? Sure it is. Welcome to Washington.
However, Donilon’s skills seem to have stopped there, with his ability to look commanding in a photo. By contrast, his command of American foreign policy and national security is considerably weaker–more like atrocious.
Donilon could have gone to the President after Benghazi and suggested that course-correction. Donilon could have said, “Mr. President, the situation has changed. You must face up to the challenge of terror and confront it head on.” Once again, not only would such a new and resolute course of action have been the right thing to do, but it would have proven to be, as a residual result, good politics for Obama, as well. Yet Donilon, whom I have known for 35 years, isn’t that smart. If he ever knew that JFK had said, in the wake of the Bay of Pigs back in 1961, “I am the responsible officer,” he obviously failed to grasp the positive impact of forthright candor.
Lacking any larger vision of his own job, Donilon just defaulted to what he knew best–conniving and cover-upping. And conniving and cover-upping not only for Obama, but also for himself. Instead, he was the offstage orchestra conductor, and the maestro; he orchestrated a campaign to of minimize, marginalize, misdirect, and mislead the country.
Yet even Donilon could also see that the Benghazi cover-story effort was not going to be a particularly happy experience for anyone. And so Donilon himself went underground–a hard feat for a national security adviser. Yet Donilon, the “invisible man” when he wants to be–and with the help of a dependent and subservient press–has so far gotten away with it. Thus it’s Ben Rhodes getting kicked around, not his boss.
If the only issue were who is getting credit when things are good (Donilon and Bin Laden), and discredit when things bad (Rhodes and Benghazi), then West Wing power games would be, well, a somewhat amusing little game.
However, as we know, the stakes are much higher than any mere game, In fact, the echoes between Benghazi and Watergate are eerie, indeed. Yet the stakes are, in fact, much higher because they go to not only the credibility of the presidency, but also to the security of the country.
Yet as we learned in Watergate–or should have learned, anyway–a complicated cover-up conspiracy cannot succeed. So Tom Donilon and his tactics are not only a cancer on the presidency, but they are also, by now, a threat to Obama’s credibility and legacy.
Most of all, though, Donilon and his ways, now metastasized across the federal government, are a threat to the United States of America.
Yes, there is more than one scandal brewing in a White House cauldron of LIES! Let’s begin at the beginning. What was Amb Stevens doing in Benghazi in the first place with little or no security just the bare minimum of locals providing protection?
In order to get to the bottom of this mystery, the daily news reports are forced to work backwards until they arrive at the beginning. In my opinion, we must establish why Christoper Stevens was asked to go to Benghazi (at the May 2012 Correspondent’s Dinner) by Obama? That answer has been bandied about in several reports but nothing concrete has yet been established except for the fact it was about GUNS- Were those gun made in the USA? Were they leftover guns from Kadaffi’s storehouse? Why was it imperative to use the Ambassador to collect those guns? Obama asking him to accept the mission at the Correspondents Dinner? (these questions have yet to receive clear concise answers. So they remain at the forefront of our questions list until they are answered as the beginning of the ‘Benghazi Odyssey” of Chris Stevens.)
Here is a recent compilation posted in The New Yorker by Alex Koppelman, entitled “Spinning Benghazi”. I suggest you open the links (as you go) for the details before you continue reading if you are not aware of all the facts as this story is pieced together.
From the very beginning of the editing process, the talking points contained the erroneous assertion that the attack was “spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved.” That’s an important fact, because the right has always criticized the Administration based on the suggestion that the C.I.A. and the State Department, contrary to what they said, knew that the attack was not spontaneous and not an outgrowth of a demonstration. But everything else about the changes that were made is problematic. The initial draft revealed by Karl mentions “at least five other attacks against foreign interests in Benghazi” before the one in which four Americans were killed. That’s not in the final version. Nor is this: “[W]e do know that Islamic extremists with ties to al-Qa’ida participated in the attack.” That was replaced by the more tepid “There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.” (Even if we accept the argument that State wanted to be sure that extremists were involved, and that they could be linked to Al Qaeda, before saying so with any level of certainty—which is reasonable and supported by evidence from Karl’s reporting—that doesn’t fully explain these changes away.)
Democrats will argue that the editing process wasn’t motivated by a desire to protect Obama’s record on fighting Al Qaeda in the run-up to the 2012 election. They have a point; based on what we’ve seen from Karl’s report, the process that went into creating and then changing the talking points seems to have been driven in large measure by two parts of the government—C.I.A. and State—trying to make sure the blame for the attacks and the failure to protect American personnel in Benghazi fell on the other guy.
But the mere existence of the edits—whatever the motivation for them—seriously undermines the White House’s credibility on this issue. This past November (after Election Day), White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters that “The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two institutions were changing the word ‘consulate’ to ‘diplomatic facility’ because ‘consulate’ was inaccurate.”
Remarkably, Carney is sticking with that line even now. In his regular press briefing on Friday afternoon (a briefing that was delayed several times, presumably in part so the White House could get its spin in order, but also so that it could hold a secretive pre-briefing briefing with select members of the White House press corps), he said:
“The only edit made by the White House or the State Department to those talking points generated by the C.I.A. was a change from referring to the facility that was attacked in Benghazi from “consulate,” because it was not a consulate, to “diplomatic post”… it was a matter of non-substantive factual correction. But there was a process leading up to that that involved inputs from a lot of agencies, as is always the case in a situation like this and is always appropriate.”
This is an incredible thing for Carney to be saying. He’s playing semantic games, telling a roomful of journalists that the definition of editing we’ve all been using is wrong, that the only thing that matters is who’s actually working the keyboard. It’s not quite re-defining the word “is,” or the phrase “sexual relations,” but it’s not all that far off, either.