The Dumb Politics Of Benghazi

Tea Party protests. Agency deception. White House confusion. Partisan smoke, and few straight answers, on the campaign trail.

MENTOR, OH — A handful of protesters turned up at two of President Obama’s campaign rallies yesterday, holding signs with pictures of the four Americans who died on September 11, 2012, in Benghazi, Libya. Other signs demanded the media “cover” the story; that we should feel “shame” for ignoring it; and a few more poster boards accused the administration of a “cover-up.”

Rolling by the protesters on the Obama campaign bus, I didn’t get a chance to talk to the them. They made clear that they were members of a Tea Party chapter who’d joined the coordinated conservative effort to use the attacks in Libya as a partisan blade to carve up the president.

Over the past month, the right’s impressive effort to exploit Benghazi has stretched from the House Oversight Committee on Capitol Hill — whose Republican majority has employed Wikileak-like tactics in their zeal to blow up Obama, releasing scores of unredacted documents, suddenly unconcerned with revealing sensitive information about what now appears to a large-scale intelligence gathering operation at the U.S. outpost — to Fox News and Glenn Beck’s new digital empire of red meat and ratings.

Whatever the motives, one thing is clear: The tragedy in Benghazi has had an impact on the 2012 race, first in rattling the Obama campaign for a few weeks with the steady stream of troubling news, and now in energizing the Republican base, giving them a newsy issue to stick it to the White House. Whether or not it will be decisive on Nov. 6, will, obviously be determined in three days.

Let me lay down this premise, six weeks after that bloody night in the latest dysfunctional Muslim country we decided to mess with: Benghazi, besides being an embarrassing, preventable, and tragic event for the country, has made almost everyone who touches it look like total, self-interested, hacks. The State Department, the CIA, the Pentagon, the Romney campaign and the White House have formed a circular firing squad, trading volleys of leaks to prove that it was someone else’s fault. Yes, Secretary Clinton did assume responsibility (a month later) and Obama did the same (a day after Hillary), but the scale and intensity of bureaucratic infighting indicates that no one really thinks they should get the blame.

There are few credible voices left on this issue. We only have the anguish of the victim’s families, who have an honesty in their grief and rage that puts the Washington cover-your-ass game to shame. Their anger is understandable — suffering a traumatic loss then being thrust into a media storm, not knowing who or what to believe — and still very raw. Patricia Smith, the mother of slain State Department employee Sean Patrick Smith, told a San Diego paper that "Obama murdered my son...I firmly believe that." That's hard to ignore or dismiss.

The other credible voices are those of the journalists who’ve been doggedly pursuing the story, even when it wasn’t very popular to do so.

Most others in the government should probably follow Bob Gates' advice to Tom Donilon on the Bin Laden raid: "Shut the fuck up." (Though, as a reporter, I'll say: keep firing away! This issue has revealed the opportunism in much of Washington’s past uproar over leaks of classified information, from the prosecution of Wikileaks chief Julian Assange to the treatment of alleged leaker Bradley Manning to the two leak investigations currently being undertaken by the FBI. It’s not okay to leak classified information… Unless it protects our bureaucratic interests, appears to be the lesson here.)

The revelations of the past few days have also confirmed what many of us in the media figured from the beginning: that far from being a benign diplomatic mission, Benghazi was a hub for American spies. Ambassador Chris Stevens, we were told, was in town to open a “cultural center.” Yep. The heavy CIA presence--23 of 30 American officials evacuated from the city were reportedly there working for the CIA under diplomatic cover--explains a lot. Clinton's reluctance to take the fall for the Agency; the White House mismanagement of the messaging (don’t want to throw the CIA’s secret squirrel stuff out there); the fact, that, according to White House sources, the intelligence community did present them with the suggestion that the attacks were a spontaneous demonstration against an anti-Muslim film — an apparent move to deflect blame away from the agency’s failure to see the assault coming.

The White House, my sources say, would like to put out the definitive timeline of what happened, combining all the narratives from each agency involved. (I’ve learned they’ve been working on one.) But it’s a damned if they do, damned if they don’t situation at the moment. The administration, rightly, believes that any good faith effort in getting all the information out there will immediately be skewed by fevered politics in the days before an election, adding fuel to a story they’d prefer to wait until after the vote to return to.

And, as I mentioned, the media has more or less done a bang up job. After a few weeks of not really diving in, there’s a full on press, with the top reporters across the board pushing hard for details. The idea that the press isn’t covering the story — as the conservative protesters and professional ref-workers would have it — is absurd. The main sources of information that the right has been using to hammer the White House have been the media. When protesters heckle reporters, or wave signs in our faces, or Tweet their demands for coverage, the only appropriate response is to direct them to Nexis/Lexis.

Not that the media has been perfect. The New York Times and the AP agreed not to report the fact that two of the Americans who were killed were really working for the CIA. That decision parallels the case of Raymond Davis's killing in Pakistan, where the paper actually reported Davis was a diplomat, while knowing he wasn’t. This probably should stop — it’s generally not the best journalistic practice to actively help our covert agencies maintain their cover stories.

And in fact, if as Rudy Giuliani says, Obama should resign over Benghazi, there’s a few other folks whose early retirement he should demand — including Gen. David Petraeus, whose key role in this tragedy is becoming increasingly apparent, or Hillary Clinton, whose department still failed to provide increased security. (Did they think the Agency had it under control?)

Another delicate question that is difficult to ask in public, but which has been much-discussed behind the scenes: How much responsibility should Stevens, a brave man and now a martyr to America's best diplomatic instincts, bear for what happened? If, as reported, he still enjoyed jogging along the Libya streets, that would indicate a lax or unrealistic attitude to how Americans are actually perceived that might have trickled down through the ranks.

But with only 72 hours left until the presidential election, we can expect that the serious questions won't get serious answers until the partisan smoke can clear. "The investigation is ongoing," an Obama campaign spokesperson told reporters listening in on a conference call while on the press bus in Dubuque, Iowa. The administration, he said, was "in the process of getting to the bottom of this."

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