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Why is Benghazi such a big deal politically?

Hillary Clinton served as Secretary of State during Benghazi, and both she and former President Barack Obama took a lot of the heat for the attack.

Obama came to the State Department in Washington, DC, to meet with staff after the killing of US Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and 3 staff members at the US Consulate building in Benghazi, Libya.
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Since the attack, Congressional Republicans and conservative media have spent a lot of time scrutinizing what happened in Benghazi and the Obama administration’s response. Typically, their premise is that they believe the Obama administration may be covering something up: the true extent of al-Qaeda’s involvement, whether the administration did all it could to stop the attack, and whether the administration downplayed or manipulated the facts in order to protect its image.

As the presidential campaign wears on, these questions are likely to resurface with a focus on Hillary Clinton, who was Secretary of State at the time and is the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination.

One reason Benghazi accusations against Obama have so resonated among critics is that, for them, these charges embody what they see as a long list of scandals confirming the administration’s dishonesty and inability to treat terrorism as a real threat. This has become a political reality that has shaped US policy in real ways.

Rep. Darrell Issa, the Chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, has held a number of hearings investigating Benghazi. Issa’s investigative campaign is the public face of a broader House effort on Benghazi that has been personally coordinated by Speaker John Boehner.

Some allegations of Obama administration misconduct have gotten tremendous media attention, only to be contradicted by independent investigation. Fox News has aired, at least 85 times, accusations that the Obama administration ordered security forces to stand down from defending against the Benghazi attacks. This claim has been largely discredited, most notably in a report released by Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee in February 2014.

In October 2013, “60 Minutes” aired a special report on Benghazi that appeared to confirm some of the allegations about the administration’s’ response to the incident. The report was championed by some Republican lawmakers, but it was later discredited when its central source — a security contractor employed by US agencies in Benghazi — as revealed to have fabricated his story.

Of course, some of the criticisms have been affirmed by independent investigations. For example, the bipartisan Senate Intelligence report provided evidence that the attackers had more ties to al-Qaeda elements than the administration’s narrative suggests.

Often, these media controversies become part of the larger controversy. In many ways, they are extensions of the still-ongoing argument about whether the Benghazi scandal is a legitimate and perhaps major scandal or something cooked up to attack Obama and Clinton.

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