“A new tower rises above the New York skyline, al-Qaida is on the path to defeat, and Osama bin Laden is dead.” — President Barack Obama to the Democratic National Convention, Sept. 6, 2012.
Five nights after that speech, scores of attackers struck an ill-secured compound in the Libyan city of Benghazi. By morning they had killed four Americans: security agents Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, information officer Sean Smith, and J. Christopher Stevens, Washington’s ambassador to that convulsing nation. U.S. presidential politics instantly intervened, with Republican Mitt Romney declaring, “The Obama administration’s first response was not to condemn attacks on our diplomatic mission, but to sympathize with those who waged the attacks.”
Eight months later, fresh evidence suggests that with the election imminent, the administration, too, had a political agenda: to avoid acknowledging a successful terrorist assault on an underprotected U.S. outpost on the anniversary of 9/11. As ABC News documented Friday, the final (and at least 12th) version of Central Intelligence Agency talking points developed after the onslaught no longer included any mention of al-Qaida allies as participants. Vigorous email lobbying by State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland also had scrubbed wording that, she wrote, “could be abused by members (of Congress) to beat up the State Department for not paying attention to warnings” of al-Qaida threats in Benghazi.
The administration instead settled into the narrative that an Internet video insulting to Muslims had provoked the attack. “What we do know,” the president said at a Sept. 20 forum hosted by Univision, “is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists. …” In a Sept. 25 United Nations speech, he cited the video six times.
Thus commenced the Washington free-for-all: Democrats have sought to change the subject to improving security for U.S. diplomats overseas; Republicans have sought to embarrass the administration for its actions before, during and after the murderous assault.
The political became the heart-wrenching with last week’s measured accounts from three State Department officers testifying under oath before a House committee. The inescapable conclusion — unchallenged by the administration — is that as the eight-hour Benghazi horror unfolded, one or more U.S. officials decided not to scramble F-16 fighter jets for an intimidating overflight, or to dispatch an already mobilized Special Forces team from the capital of Tripoli.
The Benghazi debate receded momentarily as Gregory Hicks, then our No. 2 diplomat in Libya, evoked the lonesomeness of learning in Tripoli that however futile a Benghazi rescue effort might be, the U.S. wouldn’t attempt it. “My reaction,” he softly and slowly told the hushed hearing room, “was that, OK. We’re on our own. …”
Hearing that from a witness as composed and compelling as Hicks, the House members of both parties looked startled and, briefly, humbled.
That’s a sensible posture for all Americans to adopt. Benghazi is a mystery screaming to be explained.
We wish that the administration would be fully transparent and advance all of us from speculation to knowledge. If anyone in the White House, the Defense Department or State Department urged candor about Benghazi from the get-go, that testimony hasn’t been heard. Instead, the administration has reacted grudgingly — Friday’s testy White House briefing included — to news reports or congressional actions.
We’re left with consequences of Benghazi decisions that, as we’ve argued in five editorials, need to be explained to Americans — the families of Doherty, Woods, Smith and Stevens included.
That an election was nigh didn’t necessarily dictate the decisions of administration officials. Of course they had Nov. 6 in mind; how could they not? Nor do congressional Republicans want answers solely for political ends. A Senate committee in December reached a verdict alarming to citizens of all persuasions: “Despite the inability of the Libyan government to fulfill its duties to secure the facility, the increasingly dangerous threat assessments, and a particularly vulnerable facility, the Department of State officials did not conclude the facility in Benghazi should be closed or temporarily shut down. That was a grievous mistake.”
Similarly unexplained: the decision not to make even desperate military attempts at a rescue, and the decision to mute early intelligence about al-Qaida allies who had killed a U.S. ambassador.
The president greeted the Senate report with a promise that last week’s revelations make more crucial: “We’re not going to be defensive about it. We’re not going to pretend that this was not a problem — this was a huge problem.”
Agreed. Uncovering the truth should be a bipartisan mission: A decade go, the 9/11 Commission showed how an investigation devoted not to blame but to preventing future debacles can help Americans fix systemic flaws and move forward.
Never again should we as citizens let the Americans who endanger their lives to represent all of us — Democrats, Republicans, independents — be left to murmur, “OK. We’re on our own. …”