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.
10. 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.
9. 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.
8. 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’.
7. 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.
6. 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.