It is not enough to say that this is old material, that a special committee is a diversion, that a rehash of the events will not find the Administration culpable when previous attempts failed, that it is time to move forward, to ensure that such killings will never happen again.
There is no question about the latter: we should not let such a tragedy recur, but neither should we allow the cover-up to go unpunished. The former represents a dereliction of duty; the latter, a fraudulent depiction of events for political purposes. A cover-up amplifies the original crime. Loyalty is a worthy trait, but when taken to extremes it becomes a defense of the indefensible. Every Administration has had incidents they would prefer never happened. Most were done not at the insistence of the President, but erroneously on his behalf, an example being a young aide like Ben Rhodes who apparently represented what he believed to be the President’s wishes in an e-mail.
Most offenses are of no great consequence, and disappear into the mists of history. But in a serious incident – as this was, with four people killed including a U.S. Ambassador – it is the cover-up that almost always proves fatal. Yet, Americans are a forgiving people. Admitting mistakes, while hard to do, is almost always accepted. In the early years of the United States, Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton was seduced by the wife of a political enemy. Hamilton publically admitted his guilt; so the planned blackmail attempt came to naught. People are as forgiving today as they were 220 years ago.
Until Benghazi, the best known example of a massive cover-up in my lifetime was that of a second-rate burglary at the Watergate Hotel and Office complex on June 17th, 1972. Nixon was running for re-election. By October 10th the FBI had tied the break-in to the Nixon re-election campaign. Nevertheless, on November 7th Richard Nixon won re-election with one of the largest majorities in U.S. history. In May 1973, Eliot Richardson, the Attorney General-designee, tapped Archibald Cox as a special prosecutor. The October massacre, with Nixon firing Cox and Richardson resigning, occurred on the 20th of the month. Nixon’s White House finally turned over some of the tapes in December, but with an eighteen and a half minute gap. In April 1974, still stonewalling, the White House turned aver 1200 pages of edited tapes. On July 23rd, more than two years after the break-in, the Supreme Court (which included four Nixon appointees, including Chief Justice Warren Burger) ruled unanimously that executive privilege did not apply and all tapes must be turned over. Three days later the House passed the first of three articles of impeachment, charging obstruction of justice. Thirteen days later, on August 8th 1974, Richard Nixon became the first U.S. President to resign. Partisanship did not mar justice, as is the case today.
While the entire episode was exhausting and expensive, it showed that no one is above the law, including the President. We could take pride in the fact that we have a system based on the rule of law and that it works. That it took 26 months from the break-in until resignation is attributable to the gradual traction a story like this takes, the seriousness of the offense, and to the deliberate, snail-like process of the laboring mechanics of government.
Investigations into what happened in Benghazi, a far more devastating episode than a second rate burglary, have aroused unprecedented partisanship and have not attracted the media attention of Watergate.
Stories like Benghazi gain momentum, as they travel from denial to acceptance. That could be happening now with the release last week of an e-mail from President Obama aide Ben Rhodes to United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice urging her to emphasize the internet video as the cause of the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi during which four Americans, including the Ambassador, were killed. She was scheduled to speak on five evening talk shows on Sunday, September 16th. She did so, emphasizing the role of the video in inciting violence. Two days earlier, on the 14th, our erstwhile Secretary of State despicably placed blame for the attack on “an awful internet video that we had nothing to do with.” (It has always seemed odd to me that Mrs. Clinton felt compelled to add “that we had nothing to do with,” as though some might think she did.) Mrs. Clinton uttered those words to the families of the fallen as their bodies were returned to Andrews Air Base and was said despite the existence of an e-mail sent on September 12th by then-acting assistant Secretary of State Beth Jones to top State Department officials in which Ms. Jones stated that the group that conducted the attack was Ansar al Sharia, a group connected with Islamic extremists. In other words, Mrs. Clinton had to have known the truth as to what really happened.
There are, it would seem, at least three questions that need answering: Was Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, provided adequate protection in the days and weeks leading up to September 11, 2011? Could the U.S. military have intervened in time to save some lives? Why did the Obama Administration, including the Secretary of State, insist on laying blame on an internet video when intelligence on the ground in Libya, including that from State Department officials, recognized the attack as a pre-planned military attack by Islamic militants? Protestors do not use mortars and RPGs (rocket propelled grenades).
Over the weekend House Speaker John Boehner announced that he would establish a House Select Committee with subpoena power to look into the events leading up to the killings in Benghazi and the subsequent cover-up. It is expected to be a twelve-member panel with seven Republicans and five Democrats. Congressman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) and a former prosecutor is expected to chair the committee. While Mr. Boehner has been criticized by conservatives for not creating such a committee earlier, the very fact that he has moved cautiously should give some credence to the idea he does not appear to be acting injudiciously.
What is saddening about this whole unhappy chain of events is that if the truth had been told at the start – if no story had been fabricated as to the cause none of this would have happened – we would have moved on. Unfortunately concerns about the campaign dictated subsequent events. Several times during the 2012 election Mr. Obama had said Osama bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda is on the run. Somebody made the hasty decision that the truth as to what happened in Benghazi would have influenced, and possibly changed, the outcome of the election. Who that person (or persons) was remains a mystery, though Mr. Rhodes’ e-mail suggests he played a role, as did those to whom it was sent, which includes the elusive and morally challenged Jay Carney.
In my opinion, the truth would not have changed the outcome of the election. First, people respect honesty. It is unexpected and appreciated, especially when it comes from a politician. Second, people inevitably rally around the President when the Country is under attack. The attack on the Consulate, by an estimated 400 militants, constituted what most people would consider an act of war. It is possible that Mr. Romney would have tried to take advantage of a President who was unprepared for such an attack, but it seems to me more likely he would have been caught in a moral bind. Mr. Obama only dug the hole deeper as he insisted on the role of the video for the next couple of weeks. A lie, once told, takes on a life of its own making it more difficult to kill than the Lernaean Hydra.
Benghazi matters because the truth matters. Democracy is fragile and relies on trust. People must trust their leaders. I am not so naïve as to believe that people never lie. Of course they do. And politicians more easily and more frequently than most. But most lies are harmless. Nevertheless, the relationship between the electorate and those who represent them has to be based on trust. A lie gets worse as it ages, so it is always better to set the record straight as soon as possible. As a child I once threw a ball through our dining room window. My mother told me I would have to tell my father what I had done. The journey from the house to my father’s studio, a distance of perhaps fifty yards, seemed like a trek through several time zones. Head down, I slowly made my way across the backyard. When I finally opened the door of the studio and mumbled what I had done, my father seemed unperturbed. “Thank you for telling me,” he said. I sprinted back to the house, now more comfortable with a slight breeze wafting through the broken dining room window.
No one person can conceivably handle all the details of running a campaign, not to mention the job of managing the Executive Office. But leaders set the tone of their Administration. Aides are there to help carry out the specifics of an agenda outlined by the President; thus the importance of character in the person we elect, and, hence, his or her responsibility for events when they go wrong. Politicians, no matter who they may be, get harmed when aides lie on their behalf. The truth has a way of emerging, especially in this day of videos, twitter feeds, instant messaging and e-mail. “You can run,” went the old saying, “but you cannot hide.” A good Presidential assistant cannot be a sycophant. He or she must keep apprised of the long term needs of the President and the country, as well as the President’s immediate needs. The individual must not fear to be a bearer of bad news nor be afraid to recommend courses of action that may be contrary to conventional thinking.
This is the sixth piece I have written on this sorry episode, the first a week following the attack, the last on the first anniversary. The only thing that has changed has been an increase in the stonewalling by the White House that has perpetuated a lie and delayed justice to those who died that day. Mr. Obama’s aides let him down, as did his Secretary of State and UN Ambassador, but we cannot forget that the President sets the tone for his Administration. That is why Mr. Obama is ultimately responsible. The truth matters, which is why Benghazi matters.
The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.
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