The Politics of Benghazi

Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi. It has become the battle cry of congressional Republicans as they continue to politicize a human tragedy in order to energize their base and tarnish the reputation of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Republicans accuse the administration of a cover-up and negligence for failing to provide adequate security at the diplomatic compound in Benghazi. Democrats accuse Republicans of playing politics with Benghazi and for irresponsibly cutting the budget for State Department security.

On September 11, 2012, four Americans were killed, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, in an attack by armed militants on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, and later a nearby CIA annex. The incident took place on the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and two months before the 2012 presidential election. President Obama had frequently touted his anti-terrorism record during the campaign.

On September 12, President Obama called the attacks an outrageous act, "No acts of terror will shake the resolve of this great nation...Today we mourn four Americans who represent the very best of the United States of America." He continued, "We shall not waver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act. And make no mistake, justice will be done."

The following Sunday, Susan Rice, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, appeared on five network public affairs programs. Ambassador Rice said that the administration had no evidence that the attack was preplanned but it was investigating.

"Based on the best information we have to date...(it) began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what transpired some hours earlier in Cairo, where...there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by a hateful video...(In Benghazi) We believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons."

Rice's explanation immediately came under fire from leading Republicans, who said the attack was preplanned by extremists with links to al Qaeda. They accused Ambassador Rice of misleading the American public in order to protect the president's strong on terror image. They also criticized the administration's response during the attack, and the lack of security that had been in place prior to the assault.

Following the attack, the administration increased security at its diplomatic missions, announced that the FBI would investigate, and increased surveillance to hunt for the attackers. The State Department's Accountability Review Board released harsh findings in December 2012. It found, "Systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department...resulted in a special mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took pace."

While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton quickly implemented corrective measures, she has come under continuous criticism for Benghazi. In January 2013, she told a congressional hearing, "I take responsibility. Nobody is more committed to getting this right. I am determined to leave the State Department and our country safer, stronger and more secure."

In the 18 months following Benghazi, Politico reports Congress held 13 hearings and 50 briefings, and 25,000 pages of documents have been turned over to congressional investigators. The New York Times conducted an exhaustive investigation and reported, "The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs." As to the hateful video, titled Innocence of Muslims, the Times reported that the attack was "fueled in part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam."

Meanwhile, last month the conservative group Judicial Watch released 100 pages of documents it had obtained from its Freedom of Information Act request. They included an email from White House adviser Ben Rhodes that spelled out talking points to be used at the time by administration spokespersons. He wrote, in part, "To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader policy failure." While every administration has issued talking points, especially during a crisis, Republicans saw this as a smoking gun.

As a result, House Speaker John Boehner has said he will create a special select committee to investigate the attacks. In response, some Democrats are considering boycotting the committee, but House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi has said she is open to the suggestion. "If this review is to be fair, it must truly be bipartisan," meaning an equal amount of Democrats and Republicans, she said in a written statement.

As Republicans hope to win control of both houses of Congress in the midterm elections this November, they see Benghazi as an issue that will mobilize their voters to the polls. They have intensified their attacks on the administration to a fever pitch, in part to damage Secretary Clinton, who is likely to be the Democratic candidate for president in 2016.

Benghazi has turned into an investigation about talking points. It has become a political rallying cry for Republicans, who see it as the gift that will keep on giving all the way to November 2016, while overlooking similar such incidents under Republican presidents.

Lost in their vitriol is the memory of four Americans who gave their lives in service of their country. Benghazi was a terrible tragedy. But these brave victims deserve to be treated with more respect.