On September 11, 2012, a State Department outpost in Benghazi, Libya was attacked by a local Al Qaeda affiliate, killing four Americans including the Libyan ambassador. At the time, there were protests erupting at American embassies around the Muslim world over a disgustingly insulting YouTube video about the Prophet Muhammad. Initial media reports out of Benghazi were that the Americans were killed as a result of one of those protests getting out of hand. But what the CIA knew at the time, and the media would discover within a couple weeks, was that the attack had actually been carried out by the Al Qaeda affiliate. Again, it was initially thought that the Al Qaeda affiliate had used a protest outside the American facility as cover to attack; it was eventually determined that there wasn’t actually a protest that night. The motives of the Al Qaeda affiliate are somewhat obscure; it was initially thought that they were acting in response to the assassination of a particular high-ranking leader within Al Qaeda, although more recently it has come to light that the attack was at least partly in response to the video.
Okay, so there are some important issues that we should be discussing about that attack. Three come to mind, in particular:
- Motive. Why was the American Ambassador attacked? Was he targeted, in particular, or was the attack aimed at the facility itself?
- Prevention. Should we have known before hand about the attack? Was there something that we could have done to prevent it?
- Security. Why was the attack successful? Could reasonable security measures have been taken to prevent the deaths of those four Americans?
Those questions are being asked by both the CIA and the State Department, and I hope that we can learn the appropriate lessons to prevent such an attack from happening again.
But there is a fourth question being asked, and is the most high-profile of all the questions being asked, which really puzzles me:
4. What did the American Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice know and when did she know it?
Notice that in my description of the attack, I did not mention the United Nations or Ambassador Rice. That’s because she wasn’t there. Nor was she in the chain of command; the Libyan ambassador is technically an equal to the Libyan ambassador, albeit one that works on a different continent. Both answer to the Secretary of State, the President, and occasionally to Congress.
Ambassador Rice enters the picture a few days after the attack, when she made the rounds on the Sunday Morning talk shows to discuss the attacks. The Administration asked her to go on (I’m guessing it’s because she was the most high-profile member of the State Department who they could get on short notice) and gave her a list of talking points that were approved by the CIA. At that point, the CIA knew about the involvement of the Al Qaeda affiliate (they hadn’t yet determined that an unrelated protest hadn’t been going on at the time, and knew very little about motive), but were apparently worried about making that information public at that time without compromising other assets. (Apparently they got their information from a wiretap and didn’t want to alert the bad guys that we were listening in on their calls.) So the National Intelligence Director, after consulting the CIA, changed the talking points to omit any direct reference to Al Qaeda. So when Ambassador Rice went on those shows, she blamed the attack on “extremists” who used the protests about the video as cover to attack the embassy. She has since acknowledged that she was wrong about their being a protest on that day; other than that, the talking points (and Ambassador Rice’s interview) were reasonably accurate.
So now a number of Republicans, most notably Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham, have questioned whether Ambassador Rice ought to be confirmed if–and this is still an if–President Obama were to nominate her for Secretary of State. They have accused her of lying to the American people, and therefore of being unqualified to be Secretary of State.
So, the first question is did she lie? Did Ambassador Rice knowingly give false information to the American people on those shows? From everything we know right now, the answer is “no”. The talking points themselves were a bit vague and a bit misleading, and at times she might have speculated about some minor details that she really knew nothing about. But there is zero evidence that she knew anything about the attack other than what was in those talking points, and she seemed to be making a faithful effort to explain those talking points to the American people.
The second question is does it matter? Lying on a news program is not a crime, nor is it grounds for impeachment. Senator McCain has appeared on almost two dozen such shows during 2012 alone–I seriously doubt that he has been entirely truthful every time. McCain has said that should Obama instead nominate John Kerry for Secretary of State, then Kerry would have McCain’s full support. John Kerry once ran for president; during that time he surely went on a Sunday news program and mislead the American people about something or another. The current Secretary of State is Hillary Clinton, whom McCain has praised for doing a good job; she has also surely lied to the American people on any number of occasions.
The fact of the matter is that sometimes diplomats have to lie; lying is not disqualification. In fact, the ability to lie with a straight face might even be considered a job requirement.
So what’s this really about? Why are people asking meaningless questions about someone who was not at all involved with the Benghazi attacks, instead of asking legitimate questions of people who were involved? I’ve heard four theories proposed (none of which are mutually exclusive):
1) McCain and Graham really want Kerry to be the next Secretary of State, and are therefore trying to scuttle Rice’s potential nomination. Maybe they want Kerry because he and McCain are old friends. Maybe they want Kerry because if he is nominated, there has been some talk that Republican Scott Brown might run for Kerry’s vacated MA Senate seat.
2) McCain and Graham have another problem with Rice that they cannot articulate very well. In particular, many people in Washington apparently dislike Rice personally because she does not, apparently, suffer fools lightly–a trait that has rubbed some people the wrong way before. She has also worked in a number of Democratic campaigns over the years, and likely made Republican enemies in the process.
3) This is a way to attack the Obama Administration’s handling of Benghazi, without attacking the president directly (which might look like sour-grapes in the face of a recent Republican election defeat).
4) McCain and Graham are trying to stay relevant on the major foreign policy issues of the day, despite the fact that neither has any real power in a Democrat-controlled Senate; by jumping out in front of Rice’s nomination, they get lots of publicity and attention which they can use to gain influence over future foreign policy issues.
I honestly don’t know–although I’d put the least stock in the fourth explanation. But the whole thing does seem odd. I can appreciate political theater as much as the next guy, but this has got to be one of the dumbest shows we’ve seen in a long time.