10 Facts About Hillary Clinton and What Really Happened in Benghazi
In the late evening of Tuesday 11th September 2012, eleven years on from the most deadly terrorist attack in modern history, a group of heavily armed Islamic militants carried out a well-organized assault on a US diplomatic mission compound in the eastern Libyan city of Benghazi. Shortly after 9:40pm local time, a group of gunmen launched a surprise attack on American and Libyan security forces, quickly overwhelming them before setting fire to a number of buildings. Smoke from the flames would claim the lives of State Department information management officer Sean Smith and US ambassador J. Christopher Stevens (the first US ambassador to be killed in the line of duty since Adolph Dub’s murder in Iran in 1979). At 4:00am, an armed group launched mortar shells against a CIA compound about a mile away, killing two former Navy Seals, Glen Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods, and wounding two others. The battle lasted until morning, after which a coalition of government-led Libyan forces and American reinforcements successfully carried out the compound’s evacuation.
Before the flames in the compound had died down, questions were being asked of the Obama administration. Why had this happened, and how could it have been allowed to happen? Why had security provisions been so inadequate in such a volatile area? And what did the attack mean for the future of American involvement in Libya? Just as inquiries into these issues answered questions, they also posed them, and one of the political players who fared worse in the period following was the then Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton. A great deal has already been written about Clinton’s controversial involvement in Benghazi, not least in relation to the correspondence (or lack thereof) linked to her private email account. Here at Listland we’ve compiled 10 of the most important things you need to know.
The first mistake was failing to label it a ‘terrorist attack.’
First to brave the media after the attack was the then US ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice. According to the Obama’s ‘foreign-policy guru’ Ben Rhodes, Rice was the president’s third choice for appearing on various Sunday shows after failing to secure either Hillary Clinton or Tom Donilon. In hindsight, her third place valuation may well have been valid.
On an interview given on ABC’S This Week in the immediate aftermath of the attack – the video and transcript of which are available here – Rice suggested that the Benghazi attack was not premeditated, but evolved from a protest against a particularly offensive anti-Islamic video, Innocence of Muslims, against which violent protests had recently taken place in Cairo. Some could defend this analysis, widely disseminated across the country’s media in the days following the attack, on the grounds that she was drawing from the earliest available evidence, as she readily and repeatedly admitted. But the damage had already been done, and the fact was that this uninformed and quite unbelievable explanation formed the official narrative of the Obama administration, establishing the cause of the attack as profound religious unrest as opposed to a fundamental failure in foreign policy.
Nor was it just Rice who was to blame for advocating this position, though she arguably took the fall. As the attack was being carried out, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a statement condemning the violence and alluding to its origins as a response to ‘inflammatory material posted on the Internet.’ A challenge from the Republican camp was, from this point on, inevitable.
Obama’s opponents were able to exploit this.
Once news of the strange characterization of the events in Benghazi unfolded the finger pointing began
The severity of the assault contrasted with the relatively weak rhetoric being offered up to explain it presented a political point-scoring opportunity which was too good for both conservative media corporations and the GOP to pass up. At first the accusations were sensationalist: Sean Hannity opened his September 20th Fox news show by accusing the government of a full cover-up, done in the name of ‘the perpetrators of terror, the murderers of Americans’ and even perhaps Al-Qaeda. Greta van Susteren, hosting On the Record, followed suit.
Then the attacks became more insidious. Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain launched a smear campaign against Susan Rice, questioning her suitability as potential secretary of state and accusing her of being complicit in a governmental cover-up going into the November 6th presidential election. Obama stepped in to defend (or, more accurately, deflect), but this did little to shift attention away from his administration’s shortcomings. By now, even Obama’s most ardent supporters were now starting to concede that the government’s initial explanation for the attack’s motives was poor; coupled with the fact that their timing on the anniversary of September 11th 2011 could only reinforce popular opinion that the attack was not impromptu and reactionary but rather symbolic and premeditated.
In the following months and years, there was still enough evidence (for those who looked) to attribute the attack to anger over the video. Then, with the trial of one of the attack’s ringleaders Ahmed Abu Khattala in July 2014, the Obama administration’s original narrative was conclusively undermined by the release of court documents. They offered testimony straight form the lion’s mouth that cited anti-American sentiment as the motive.
Clinton’s role as Secretary of State put her directly in the firing line.
As already mentioned, Clinton’s voice was one of the first to be heard, strongly condemning the attack in a contemporaneously issued official statement. As also mentioned, Clinton was among the first to attribute the cause to angry protestations about the anti-Islamic video getting out of hand. The fact that Clinton was so quick to comment on unfolding events was hardly surprising given her role. As Secretary of State, she had direct responsibility for the diplomatic mission, as she publicly acknowledged in a CNN interview given in mid October: ‘I take responsibility. I’m in charge of the State Department’s 60,000-plus people all over the world, 75 posts.’ Accepting responsibility for the loss of American life on foreign soil required more than just rhetoric though. As the days went on and more information started to surface, it fell to Clinton to react by outlining (and updating) the official position.
Initially, challenges to the official version were external, coming from right-wing media outlets. Soon, however, Clinton found herself at odds with those within her own party. On September 13th, CNN reported the testimony of State Department officials who denied a link between the protests outside the consulate in Cairo and the attack on the embassy in Benghazi, calling the latter a ‘clearly planned attack.’ Obama evaded the comment, but Clinton, speaking at a ceremony at Andrews Air Force Base the next day ignored it, continuing to blame the video. Then on September 18th Obama conceded ground, saying that the attackers had used the video ‘as an excuse.’ It wouldn’t be until September 21st, ten days after the event, that Clinton publically referred to the incident as a ‘terrorist attack’.
Pressure intensified when allegations emerged that requests for additional security had gone unheeded.
It didn’t take long for questions of security (or the relative lack of it) to be asked of the government. On October 10th a CNN news report revealed that Libyan officials had warned the US about the growing threat in the area (the compound had previously been targeted in June, along with a number of other western interests in Benghazi). Concern over the inadequacy of security provisions versus the growing threat was also rife within the compound, as revealed by a number of emails and cables sent by Ambassador Stevens between June and August.
Much noise has been made about Hillary Clinton either ignoring or actively denying somewhere in the region of 600 requests for added security, an idea most recently manipulated and exploited by Trump: ‘Look at Benghazi, our ambassador. He wired her 500 or 600 times asking for help.’ Clinton’s insistence to the House Select Committee on Benghazi in October 2015 that none of these ever made it to her desk is, however, most probably valid, as suggested here.
As with so many other issues surrounding Benghazi, the security issue is difficult to unravel, with little concise non-partisan evidence available. But on the authority of nine separate investigations – comprising eight Republican Congressional investigations and a State Department investigation – it seems that, although State Department security measures were ‘woefully inadequate’, culpability cannot be laid at Clinton’s door. Clinton’s rejection of requests for more security was nothing more than a fabrication, dreamed up by Fox News and Republican politicians with a view to discrediting the Obama administration and garnering public support. It appears, at least with the latter, that they succeeded.
The Republicans set up the House Select Committee to uncover more evidence.
A number of investigations into the terror attack were carried out in its aftermath, the most significant of which was perhaps the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report, submitted in January 2014. As expected, the report highlighted failures within both government intelligence and the State Department. It blamed inadequate security, poorly shared information and an intransigent governmental response. What it did not do, however, was elucidate anything regarding the political cover-up obsessed over by the Republicans. Nor did it hold Clinton sufficiently accountable to satiate Republican tastes; it only mentioned Clinton once (p.76), and even then in loose terms of personal responsibility that had already been acknowledged by the former Secretary of State herself.
Then, in April 2014, an email sent by Ben Rhodes in the immediate aftermath of the attack and obtained through a freedom of information request emerged. The email set out how the administration (specifically its spokeswoman Susan Rice) would deal with the PR fallout of Benghazi, emphasizing the role of the video and circumnavigating a broader failure in foreign policy. In the wake of this email and their wider dissatisfaction, the Republicans decided to set up a fifth committee – in addition to the four House committees which were still in the process of investigating Benghazi – the House Select Committee on Benghazi. The hope was that it would be able to drill down and unearth culpable flaws in policy (and perhaps discrediting Clinton in her bid for the presidential nomination). On May 8th 2014, the House voted 232-186 in favor of its establishment. With the Committee established, it was time to gather information.
This is what started the email scandal.
Not long had passed before State Department officials, working in compliance with formal requests for policy information, encountered something odd: the complete absence of correspondence on Clinton’s state email account. It soon transpired that the Secretary of State had been using a personal email account stored on a private server, and had continued to do so even after leaving the State Department at the beginning of February 2013.
The State Department responded by requesting that Clinton turn over her private server emails. Upon receipt, they realized that of the 50,000 pages, around 900 referred to Libya. These were then forwarded to the House Committee in February 2015. Realizing the potential PR damage that could result from her use of a private server, Clinton was quick to promote both her complicity and transparency in a tweet. The measure was responsive rather than preventative however, and did little to shelter her from the resulting controversy.
Such controversy is explicable for a number of reasons. First there was the question of legality, with the Federal Records Act requiring personal emails to be recorded on departmental servers. Then there was the question of security. Some emails, as confirmed by an FBI investigation, contained either sensitive or classified information (though none, it seems, were marked as such) – their vulnerability on a private server posing a threat to state security. Perhaps most scandalous, however, was the issue of corruption – wiping emails and hiding the truth.
Some of the ‘missing’ Benghazi emails are not forthcoming…
On March 27th 2015 Ted Gowdy, the Republican chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, issued a press release asserting that sometime after October 28th 2014 when State Department first issued its request, Clinton decided ‘to wipe her server clean and permanently delete all emails from her personal server.’
Clinton, of course, refused to substantiate the claim. She maintained that she had only deleted her personal correspondence, turning over all work-related emails to the State Department upon request. However FBI Director James Cobey has shown this to be untrue – something that the right-wing media has fallen upon. While Cobey acknowledges that there is no evidence to suggest that Clinton deleted emails to conceal information, the fact is that there were thousands of work-related emails that were not turned over to the State Department, along with many others that will likely never be recovered.
To this day, ‘new’ emails continue to surface on a fairly regular basis. The FBI uncovered the most recent batch of thirty Benghazi-related emails on September 7th 2016. However, according to State Department, only one is new, and instead of containing juicy, original information consists of nothing more than a eulogizing address to Clinton from a diplomat. The others, it claims, are ‘near duplicates’ of previously disclosed emails. The lack of transparency has certainly been damaging for Clinton. But as we’ll now see, it is perhaps the information contained in the emails that have come to light that pose more of a threat to her reputation.
…And those that are reveal that she misled the public.
Returning to 2012 and the time of the attack, anybody who read over the initial statement released by Clinton’s office would have noticed a conspicuous absence – any mention of terrorists or terrorism. As we have seen, the official line was initially to portray the attack as a protest that had got out of hand rather than a concerted, targeted assault. A leaked email sent from Clinton’s private address to one Diane Reynolds (which we now know to be an alias for her daughter Chelsea) just forty minutes after the release of Clinton’s initial statement tells a different story.
In the email, brought to light by the House Committee on October 22nd 2015, Clinton divulges that the attack seemed to have been carried out by ‘an Al-Queda-like group’ [sic]. This position was reiterated very soon after in another email sent by Clinton’s deputy chief of staff revealing that the Secretary of State had assured the Egyptian Prime Minister Hesham Qandil that the attacks did not result from the video.
Another email details the content of a call made by Clinton to the Egyptian Prime Minister on September 12, 2012 – the evening following the attack. During this phone call, Clinton again went against the official version, saying: “We know that the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack not a protest.” Clinton, as established in #8 would go on alluding to the video as the cause for the attacks up until September 21st. With the publication of these emails, it is clear to see the insincerity with which she did so.
Benghazi’s legacy continues to plague Clinton.
For the former Secretary of State and current Democratic Presidential Candidate, Benghazi and the resulting email scandal has been a constant thorn in the side. It has been, and continues to be, used as ammunition by her political opponents and critics – not least by Donald Trump who has characteristically manipulated data and even called upon Russia to hack her email account to maximal sensationalist effect.
It is not just amongst Republican voters, between Clinton and whom there isn’t any love lost anyway, that her reputation has taken a hit though. A CNN/OCR poll carried out in August 2015 revealed that both independent and democratic voters have lost trust in the Democratic presidential candidate, with 58% of ‘independents’ and 31% of democrats believing her to have made a mistake by using a private email. This is to be seen as a product of Hillary’s own making; credit should to be given where it’s due to Bernie Sanders who, when presented with the issue at a Democratic debate in 2015, refused to take the bait, announcing: ‘The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails!’
Nor is it only in relation to the email scandal that Clinton often finds herself in hot water. As recently as September 7th 2016, Clinton made headlines by claiming, at a veteran’s forum hosted by NBC news, that ‘we did not lose a single American’ as a result of the United States’ military intervention in Libya; a claim understandably jumped upon by Trump.
And the controversy looks set to continue.
Returning full circle from the probe into Clinton’s private email account to the immediate aftermath of the attack and the explanations being offered by the Obama administration, we see the emergence of a new chapter in this story. On September 9th 2016, the parents of two Benghazi victims, Pat Smith and Charles Woods, filed an affidavit against Clinton after she failed to respond to a lawsuit brought against her in August. Their primary grievance, quite understandably, concerns the wrongful death of their respective sons. They are also, however, litigating against Clinton for ‘defamation and intentional and negligent infliction of emotional distress.’
Smith and Woods allege that Clinton held a private meeting with them in the attack’s aftermath in which she expressly cited the video as being the root cause, saying: “it was the result of [an] anti-Muslim YouTube video that had been posted online and that the creator of the video would be arrested.” Subsequently emerging emails, as we have seen, contradicted the explanation given to Smith and Woods, causing considerable emotional distress. They also allege that Clinton accused them of lying about the meeting’s content on four separate occasions in an attempt to protect her public image, political career and presidential nomination. The claim certainly holds emotional weight, and fits seamlessly into the political narrative that has built itself around Benghazi. Only time will tell whether it holds the legal weight to go with it.
Just over four years after the events, the Benghazi attack has already began to undergo a process of mythologization, if not through the seemingly impenetrably and endless mass of information that has been amassed online over the last four years and hampers any attempt at objective research, then through the publication of Mitchell Zuckoff’s 13 Hours, The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi (2014) and the release of Michael Bay’s 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi (2016). It will also undoubtedly continue this process, being drawn upon in the future in a range of different ways; from a versatile symbol in relation to US policy in the Muslim world to a citable example of the cost of its failure.
Unless new information continues to surface however – and the most likely source of such information is linked to the account of the current democratic presidential candidate – Benghazi is likely to remain a historical myth in a true sense: as something we can at once profess to understand yet that will forever be shrouded in mystery.