Don’t Blow It on Benghazi: The Focus Must Be Obama, NOT Clinton
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.
Peggy Noonan wrote on Friday, the Wednesday testimony before Rep. Darrell Issa’s investigative committee has punched through public apathy:
“The Benghazi story until now has been a jumble of factoids that didn't quite cohere, didn't produce a story that people could absorb and hold in their minds. This week that changed. Three State Department officials testifying under oath to a House committee changed it, by adding information that gave form to a growing picture. Gregory Hicks, Mark Thompson and Eric Nordstrom were authoritative and credible. You knew you were hearing the truth as they saw and experienced it.”
In addition, Noonan added, the testimony demolished MSM attempts to dismiss the hearings as nothing more than a “Republican investigation.” As she wrote of the three witnesses, “Not one of them seemed political,” adding, “They put the lie to the idea that all questioning of Obama administration actions in Benghazi are partisan and low.”
Indeed, some in the MSM have become cognizant of this new reality: The front page of the Washington Post featured a heart-wrenching photograph of Dorothy Narvaez Woods, the widow of Tyrone Woods, as she watched Gregory Hicks give his detailed first-person account, under oath, before the Issa committee. In Mrs. Narvaez Woods’ mournful but attentive face, the rest of us could see the agonizing human toll of this entire matter--not just the tragic incident of eight months ago, but also the frustratingly stubborn attempts to obstruct the true course of justice.
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.
The original incident in Benghazi was plenty serious, too, of course. And so Barack Obama could have--and should have--gone to the country and told the truth. He could have declared, “Our country has been attacked by vicious terrorists. We will continue to hunt them down and kill them. We will win the war on terror.” I am no fan of Obama, but if he had done so, the country would have cheered his resolve, and I would have, too. Indeed, it’s most likely that the voters would have rallied around him.
That’s what happened to one of my heroes, John F. Kennedy, who rebounded in the wake of the disastrous invasion at the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, in April 1961. Many historians point out that the planning for the ill-fated anti-Castro operation had begun long before JFK took office, just three months earlier. So it might have been possible for JFK to try to shift the blame for the debacle onto his predecessor, Dwight Eisenhower, or on to others in the national security establishment.
But Kennedy would have none of that kind of weaseling. In an April 21, 1961 press conference, Kennedy told the world, “There’s an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan....I am the responsible officer of this government.” JFK took it like a man, and the American people loved him for it--his popularity soared.
So, quite possibly, Obama could have done the same thing. 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.
That’s what my old boss, Jimmy Carter, did in 1979, when he was confronted with another attack on US diplomats, the Iranian hostage crisis. Cynics back then called it the “Rose Garden Strategy,” alleging that Carter was campaigning from the White House Rose Garden. But that wasn’t the case. Whatever some might think of Carter, there was no artifice to him when it came to taking his White House job seriously. I was there as a close adviser, although I was never involved in the actual national security deliberations--that’s the way Carter wanted it, no politics.
In the wake of the hostage seizure on November 4, 1979, Carter simply decided that the hostages were more important than politics or his own re-election, and so he spent most of his time working the issue from the Oval Office or the Situation Room. During that tense year, Carter consulted closely not only with foreign leaders, but also with the bipartisan leadership of the Congress. Others, including me, would be left to sort out the politics for him--the 39th President was going to do his job as he saw it.
So if Carter’s taking his commander-in-chief duties seriously counts as a “strategy,” fine--let’s have more such strategies. Let’s have more presidents who focus on the requirements of their oath of office, not the desire to win 270 or more votes in the electoral college.
So back to Obama, a very different kind of president. As we know, Obama chose not to follow the Carter approach--or the approach that any serious-minded chief executive would have followed. No, Obama is Obama, and so he did what he always does: He gave a nice little speech, and then he got back to his one and true first priority, politics.
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?
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 reaonably 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.
Next: The Eerie Parallels Between Benghazi and Watergate