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Rand Paul takes liberty with the truth in attack on Hillary Clinton's handling of Libya

Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks to guests gathered for the Republican Party of Iowa's Lincoln Dinner at the Iowa Events Center on May 16, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) speaks to guests gathered for the Republican Party of Iowa's Lincoln Dinner at the Iowa Events Center on May 16, 2015 in Des Moines, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

More than any other Republican presidential candidate, Rand Paul has taken Hillary Clinton to task on Libya. In a new book, Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America, released Tuesday, he argues that Clinton was wrong to push for war, didn't have a viable plan for stabilizing Libya, and failed to heed warnings about the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi.

The Clinton folks take the charges seriously enough that Correct the Record, an operation built to support her campaign, released a 1,151-word response to Paul Tuesday afternoon.

The Benghazi story and the larger US engagement in Libya can be hard to follow, and there's room for disagreement on the questions of whether the US should have been there in the first place and whether Clinton should have been more aware of, and responsive to, requests for more security.

Paul said at Clinton's hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in early 2013 that he would have relieved her of her job if he had been president at the time of the Benghazi attacks, which killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in September 2012. So it's no surprise he's got a harsh assessment of her work.

But the book sometimes takes liberty with the truth. Altogether, Paul paints a pretty partisan picture of Clinton's handling of Benghazi. There are parts of that picture that are fair and accurate. But Paul also omits exonerating evidence, repeats claims that have been contradicted by investigators and fails to place the bulk of the blame for the attacks where it belongs: On the terrorists.

  • "Then there's Hillary's war in Libya," Paul writes in a chapter called "Defending America" in which he faults President Barack Obama for ordering airstrikes "at Hillary's request" in "direct contradiction to the Constitution, which explicitly reserves the power to declare war to the legislature." The first part is fair in that it is an assessment of the judgment Clinton showed in pushing for a US-backed coalition to pulverize Muammar Qaddafi's forces. The second part doesn't hold up as well because the War Powers Act gives the president broad authority to use military force, for prescribed periods of time, without congressional consent. Whether the president had the right to continue the military operation without explicit backing from Congress is an open question.
  • "Both parties are to blame for this," Paul writes. "Just a year before Hillary's war in Libya, Senators McCain and Graham were there, celebrating Gaddafi's newfound cooperation with America, and taking a victory lap with him over ridding his country of weapons of mass destruction. ... Then just a year later, Senators Graham and McCain were stridently joining Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in a chorus clamoring for a war to take out Gaddafi." This is a criticism that lacks context. Yes, the US pushed Qaddafi to give up his nuclear program and cited Libya as a success when he did. But, by the Graham, McCain and Clinton were calling for a bombardment of Qaddafi's forces, he was promising to decimate the people of Benghazi. Paul mentions the march on Benghazi but portrays Qaddafi as something of a protagonist bent on killing only terrorists. It's unfair to expect elected officials to maintain the same view of a world leader no matter what he or she does.
  • The bulk of Paul's criticism is reserved for the State Department's failure to beef up security despite warnings that the situation in Libya was getting out of hand. "I wish Hillary Clinton had paid more attention to Ambassador Chris Stevens's cry for help. I wish she'd been more responsible in providing adequate security, and I wish she had acted more decisively in Benghazi," Paul writes. "But she didn't answer the call, and half a world away Americans were murdered." He blames Clinton for that, even though the official Accountability Review Board put together by Clinton found that the buck for security decisions stopped a couple of tiers down from her in the department's hierarchy. As important, the requests rejected by State officials were primarily aimed at maintaining US security forces in Tripoli, which is several hundred miles from Benghazi. If US officials in Libya had gotten all they asked for, there might have been a couple more security officers at the Benghazi compound the night of the attack. Experts have said that wouldn't have made a difference in defending against the onslaught. "Having an extra foot of wall, or an extra half-dozen guards or agents would not have enabled us to respond to that kind of assault," Eric Nordstrom, the chief of security at the Tripoli embassy, told a House committee. The truth is the State Department should have paid more attention to increased attacks on diplomatic facilities and personnel from around the world
  • Paul insists that Clinton should have been paying attention to the diplomatic cables addressed to her from Stevens and others, in contradiction of her assertion that she couldn't read the more than 1.4 million cables a year with her name on them. "I wonder how many of those came from a war zone?" Paul writes. "I realize that the Secretary of State receives lots of cables from diplomats, that she might not need to personally read every cable from Switzerland or Bulgaria, but Libya was one of the most dangerous spots on the planet." Correct the Record fired back Thursday with a passage from Clinton's own book, Hard Choices, in which she says it would be unusual for the secretary to read such dispatches. "First, that’s not what the sender intended. … Second, it wouldn’t make sense. The professionals charged with security should be the ones making security decisions." In hindsight, Clinton should have been more aware of the danger on the ground in Libya. But the idea that a secretary of state should spend significant chunks of time reading diplomatic cables is absurd.
  • Paul contends that a special forces unit was told to stand down by either the State Department or the military when trying to board a flight from Tripoli to Benghazi. "One response is that it was not a stand down order but a don't go order. Try explaining that to the families of the victims." Intentionally or unintentionally, Paul fails to take into account both the timeline of events and the mission the special forces would have undertaken had they made the flight. That plane didn't land until after the firefight at the CIA annex had ended. Greg Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Libya at the time, later testified that the primary goal for special forces would have been to "make sure the airport was secure for their withdrawal."

The Defense Department timeline shows a special forces team wouldn't have made it to Benghazi in time to defend the CIA annex.

The Wall Street Journal/highlighting by Vox

  • Importantly, Paul makes a distinction between the flap over administration talking points and the attacks on the US compound and a nearby CIA facility. "I knew, like most of us knew, that the talking points and the heated shouting on both sides that followed them were the antics of politics," Paul writes. "That I could put behind me." That's important because Republicans' arguments about Libya have been distracted by a focus on whether the administration mischaracterized the cause and nature of the attacks. That matters far less than whether America should have been in Libya in the first place or whether the administration could have, and should have, done more to protect the compound. But, incongruously, Paul also criticizes Clinton for saying the motives of the attackers mattered less than the preparation for and response to the assaults.

The book's attack on Clinton is a bit sloppy for Paul, who, to his credit, has generally been smarter than many of his colleagues in trying to turn the outcome of the US intervention in Libya into an argument against Clinton's candidacy. There are plenty of reasons to challenge Clinton on Libya. Paul says the policy she promoted there has turned the country into a "jihadist's wonderland." And that's a credible line of attack. But Paul seems intent on suggesting Clinton had a much more direct role in security decisions than any investigation has shown. That's where his book falls short.