Why on earth are they still talking about Benghazi?
This was the widespread reaction among liberals (and even some conservatives) on Tuesday after Rep. Trey Gowdy released his 800-page House committee report, the ninth investigation into the 2012 attack in Libya that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Gowdy’s report contained no major new revelations, and Gowdy was accused in the press of opportunistically advancing a partisan agenda. In his defense, he insisted that he just wanted people to look at the facts.
"I simply ask the American people to read this report for themselves, look at the evidence we have collected, and reach their own conclusions," Gowdy said, later adding a direct challenge for the media to do the same. "You can read this report in less time than our fellow citizens were taking fire and fighting for their lives on the rooftops and in the streets of Benghazi."
So I took Gowdy’s suggestion. Despite its length (and some concerned questions from co-workers about my sanity), I read the report billed as the definitive account of the investigation into the deadly 2012 attack on the US compound.
Nothing in it convinced me of a devastating scandal. The scales did not fall from my eyes to expose the secret malevolence of the Obama administration.
But I did come away from it with an appreciation for how Gowdy himself could think the report was doing vital work. After slogging through it, I came to see why Republicans, who already fundamentally distrust the Obama administration, have seized on disclosures that might look minor to Democrats as searing indictments. That tendency — more than any self-conscious partisan gamesmanship — helps explain exactly why this zombified investigation has simply refused to die.
The Susan Rice interview: how two contradictory stories emerge from identical facts
Maybe the best example of what I’m talking about comes in the committee’s interview with Susan Rice, the national security adviser to President Barack Obama.
About 70 painfully boring pages in the report are devoted to discussing Rice’s appearance on five Sunday news TV shows after the attack. All of the recent press about Benghazi has been about Hillary Clinton, but Rice is the real key player here: Clinton’s name, for instance, gets cited a few dozen times in the report's first few hundred pages; Rice’s comes up several hundred times.
The main allegation against Rice is that she went on the national TV show circuit to falsely advance the notion that the Benghazi raid was caused by a "spontaneous" protest over an offensive YouTube video. The accusation, spelled out in the report, is that President Obama wanted to look strong on terrorism with his election against Mitt Romney approaching — and didn’t want the true terroristic nature of the Benghazi attack to contradict that narrative.
Of course, the Obama administration has its rebuttals to these claims: There was a protest over the video around the same time in nearby Cairo; Rice’s CIA talking points did suggest the two events might be linked; and the New York Times has found, repeatedly, that the video really was involved in motivating the attack.
These two very different stories sound incompatible. But both sides take Rice’s interview with the House committee as dramatic affirmations of their views.
The committee, for instance, makes hay of the fact that Rice said there was a "substantial" security force at the Benghazi compound where Ambassador Stevens was stationed.
Here's Rice answering questions from the committee about what, exactly, she meant by a "substantial" security presence:
Rice's refusal to give the precise definition of "substantial" looks to Republicans like an attempt to paper over the inadequacy of the security in Benghazi. But it’s clear from the transcript that Rice saw it as a purposely vague word choice with no greater significance.
Later, Gowdy’s investigators also ask Rice why she said on the Sunday shows that the FBI had "already begun looking at all sorts of evidence" on the attacks, when it had only announced the intention to start an investigation. Again, what sounds to Rice like inconsequential word choice sounds to Gowdy like a deliberate attempt to overstate the administration's handle on the facts.
If you’re predisposed to think the Obama administration would opportunistically invent a boogeyman to distract from terrorism, then Rice’s answers do look awfully suspicious. But if you don’t buy that senior White House staff would falsify a narrative about a terrorist for a small electoral advantage, these questions look like a preposterous witch hunt.
Was Clinton sifting through conflicting information or intentionally talking out of both sides of her mouth?
Secretary Clinton’s role in the matter proves subject to the same dynamic — her actions, while not a matter of factual debate, can look either sinister or anodyne depending on your partisan perspective.
The night of the attack, for instance, Clinton rang Libyan President Mohamed el-Magariaf from Washington, DC, and noted that it seemed likely al-Qaeda-linked groups carried out the attacks:
We have asked for the Libyan government to provide additional security to the compound immediately as there is a gun battle ongoing, which I understand Ansar al Sharia is claiming responsibility for. We also need to provide additional capacity for firefighting as there are reports that the principle officers residence has been bombed or set on fire. We believe that it is important for your government, as well as ours, to condemn this attack in the strongest possible terms and promise these criminals will be brought to justice.
Aha, say the Democrats. You see? Clinton couldn’t have possibly been trying to hide behind the video because she herself clearly acknowledged right away that Ansar al-Sharia was to blame.
But to Republicans, this information is but mere proof of Clinton’s dastardly ways. The committee members note that right around the time of the phone call, the State Department put out a press release saying the attack been connected by some to "inflammatory material posted on the Internet." To the Republicans, the difference between Clinton's public statements and her private conversations illustrates that she was intentionally trying to mislead the American people.
"The Secretary’s private comments, however, were different than her public comments," the House report says. "Significantly, she also did not mention the video she referred to in her public statement."
Democrats have their response to this as well. They say the fact that Clinton didn’t mention the video in a two-minute conversation with the Libyan president doesn’t mean she had ruled it out as a possible factor in the attack.
What’s likely to convince you here is less the specifics of what happened and what was said when. Much more influential, most likely, are your preexisting views of Clinton’s motives.
Internal White House communications look awfully suspicious — mostly if you already think they’re to blame
Internal White House emails published by the report appear to confirm the committee’s suspicions that senior aides wanted to spin the Benghazi attack — and Rice’s interview — to deflect attention away from them.
But from the perspective of the Obama administration, those same emails also serve as evidence that it was aboveboard in trying to accurately represent what was known about Benghazi to the public.
Here, for instance, are the "talking points" that Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, helped prepare for Rice ahead of her television interviews:
1. To convey that the United States is doing everything that we can to protect our people and facilities abroad;
2. To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy;
3. To show that we will be resolute in bringing people who harm Americans to justice, and standing steadfast through these protests;
4. To reinforce the President and Administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.
A few days later, however, questions about the timeline persisted. Rhodes authored the following email after an ABC News narrative pointed to inconsistencies between intelligence briefings and Rice’s line on the talk shows:
I believe that we need something tomorrow. There is a narrative that is being aggressively pushed that the White House and Susan Rice deliberately misrepresented facts, which is being confirmed by anonymous intelligence sources and administration officials. In the absence of an affirmative statement that this has been an evolving set of facts guided by our increasing understanding of what took place, that narrative will only harden further. Already, it is a bell that is going to be very difficult to unring.
I believe we have a very credible case that all we have done is follow the facts and inform people of those facts, while prioritizing the need for investigations to run their course. However, that case is being lost amidst the leaks of information (correct and incorrect) and uninformed assertions coming from a variety of places.
Nothing here comes out and says, "Oh, shoot, guys, they caught us!" But you can understand why an already suspicious Republican committee would think something seemed awry.
For one, Rhodes does admit that some of the leaks were accurate. Rhodes doesn’t defend Rice or say she made an honest mistake. He only revisits the video in response to negative media attention. Noting that the administration has a "credible case" doesn’t exactly amount to a full-throated defense of its actions.
But you can also understand why Rhodes would view his email as completely harmless. He never comes close to admitting that the White House misled the public or that Rice orchestrated a cover-up. Rhodes gave her points suggesting Obama’s policies weren’t to blame for the attack — what administration wouldn’t? — and was willing to revise those points once new information emerged.
Partisan turtles all the way down
Some liberals have accused Gowdy and the House committee of acting in bad faith, of deliberately prolonging this investigation not out of any personal belief in it but simply as an exercise in pure partisan opportunism.
After reading the report, I think that probably goes too far.
It’s not that Benghazi represents a real scandal — it doesn’t — or that Gowdy has discovered a smoking gun that proves an Obama administration cover-up. It’s also not true, as conservatives have suggested, that simply reading the facts of the report will lay bare the Obama administration’s corruption for any neutral observer to see.
But I can understand why Gowdy himself became so invested in Benghazi. There are a few hundred pages of heart-rending narratives about the truly heroic efforts from security on the ground to save Stevens. The internal documents don’t prove evidence of a scandal, but they do show an administration reflexively concerned with the politics of a national security emergency.
Some top Obama officials refused to meet with the committee or provide complete access, and it’s natural for that (understandable) decision to be interpreted by the other side as an attempt to stonewall investigators trying to discover the truth.
Both sides, in other words, can be acting in good faith to use the same facts to retreat into their own corners. They don’t have to be uniquely malevolent to do so. They just have to be normal actors in American politics.