On Saturday night, State Department spokesperson Philippe Reines slammed CNN for its “disgusting” handling of Ambassador Christopher Stevens’ diary. The diary helped confirm, as the network reported, that Stevens had been worried about the threat of an Al Qaeda attack, and even feared his own name was included on a hit list.
The blockbuster news contradicted the line the State Department and the administration had been pushing since the horrible tragedy took place almost two weeks ago: that there was no intelligence of a coming attack. In fact, the Ambassador himself was aware of a persistent high level threat against him.
“Perhaps the real question here,” CNN responded to the State Department criticism, “Is why is the State Department now attacking the messenger.”
That is the real question, and State Department’s bizarre criticism of CNN gives clues to the answer. Foggy Bottom is now in full-on damage control mode, with the primary goal of keeping Hillary Clinton’s legacy in Libya — and in Washington — intact.
The election-year focus on President Barack Obama meant that the White House had at first been catching most of the heat for the tragedy in Benghazi. It’s certainly true the explanations from White House spokesman Jay Carney and UN Ambassador Susan Rice have strained common sense — mainly, the idea that the attack could be blamed solely on an anti-Islamic video, and that there was a protest outside the consulate at 10 p.m. (there reportedly wasn’t,) among other misleading details. That initial story has crumbled, and it took Robert Gibbs to get the Obama administration back on message on the Sunday shows today.
But in reality, the fiasco appears to be largely — if not entirely — a State Department botch. It was the State Department that failed to provide its ambassador adequate security; it was the State Department that fled Benghazi in the aftermath of the attack, apparently failing to clear or secure the scene, leaving Stevens' diary behind; and it was State that had taken the lead on the ground after the Libya intervention.
“When it comes to specific critiques about the attack, if either [the White House or State] should be getting blamed, it seems to me the primary one to be getting blamed should be State itself more than the [White House],” says one former State Department official with extensive experience in the region. “I mean if you take away the 'buck stops here' parsing of this stuff, if Stevens was issuing warning or expressing concerns he was doing so primarily through his own chain of command. The security on the ground belongs to State.”
And though the Department of State savaged CNN for reporting on the diary, BuzzFeed has learned that the department wasn’t even aware that Stevens' personal diary existed before the cable channel told them about it.
“I can't speak to the question of whether Amb[assador] Stevens had ever told family, friends or close colleagues he was keeping a journal, I just don't know,” State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland emailed BuzzFeed. “But were we aware as a State team that a journal existed that had not been return/recovered with the body? The answer is 'no.'"
The State Department also denies that any classified information was compromised at the site. But considering the department's claim that it wasn't even aware of the possibility of an attack and other critical information concerning the assault, it's an assertion that should be greeted with skepticism.
That spokesperson Philippe Reines now jumped into the fray in such a public way shows just how much pressure Clinton is feeling. Reines, a longtime and aggressive Clinton loyalist, has served for nearly four years in Foggy Bottom exclusively to protect and promote Clinton’s image. All press requests that have anything —anything at all — to do with Clinton must go through him, according to State Department officials who work with him, a break in precedent from previous secretaries of state.
“He’s always positioning Hillary for next big thing,” as one official told me last year.
Reines' personal involvement in responding to CNN this weekend — deflecting the blame of the department’s failure to secure the personal effects of a fallen ambassador to a cable network — can be read as more or less an expression of Hillary Clinton’s id.
There is a tragic human cost to what happened: the unbearable pain and grief the family and friends of the four Americans, compounded by intense media scrutiny and competing cover-your-ass agendas within the U.S. government. To publish material against a grieving family’s wishes is a tough call. But in this case, CNN behaved responsibly, and was clearly within any reasonable journalistic standards. Some of the best reporting out of Libya so far has been from CNN’s Arwa Damon —the network’s veteran no-bullshit war correspondent, fluent in Arabic, who is one the best in the business.
Behind the trauma of what happened, however, there are huge questions of politics, policy, and legacy at stake.
On politics, the crass question has been whether what happened in Libya will hurt Obama’s re-election chances. And despite administration officials' delivering inaccurate information, it’s unlikely to have much of an impact. Obama’s polling on national security issues has been solid, and unless the situation continues to unravel in headline grabbing ways, or Mitt Romney manages to make it a centerpiece of a debate, it may well be swept away with the rest of foreign news before November.
But on policy, what happened in Benghazi raises serious concerns about the actual success of the Libya intervention. It’s not a slam dunk, as previously advertised by Clinton. (“We came, we saw, he died,” she said upon hearing news of Qaddaffi's death.)
As one senior U.S. government official who’d visited Libya told me earlier this summer: “It’s not Iraq, but it’s not good, either.”
The question of legacy — who gets the credit for Libya, who gets the blame — has been a contested space between the White House and the State Department from the beginning. It was in Ryan Lizza’s story in the New Yorker — a story that captured a distinctly State Department perspective — where the infamous anti-Obama “leading from behind” quote originated. The piece also laid the groundwork for the narrative of Clinton's rock star-like revival, though it was at the expense of the president. The New Yorker story was published months before Qaddaffi had fallen, and in glow of the conflict’s aftermath and perceived success among the foreign policy community, State Department officials tried to paint Libya as a Clintonian initiative. (Exhibit A: posing for a Time cover.) The White House, meanwhile, tried to make it clear that President Obama was the true driving force behind the intervention.
Now Clinton’s tenure at Secretary of State is winding down while Obama’s re-election campaign intensifies. With the stunning revelations in the Ambassador's personal diary, the continued failure to get the Libya story straight, and Team Clinton’s over-the-top response to any questioning of the official narrative, Clinton’s State Department legacy is at risk of being permanently tarnished.