Earlier this week, the White House released some documents relating to its response to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. It was compelled to do so by a Freedom of Information Act request from the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch. Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) called one of the documents — an email from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes — the "smoking gun" Republicans have long sought.
But smoking guns are evidence of a crime. What crime did the Obama administration commit, legally speaking or otherwise? Rhodes' Sept. 14, 2012, email has the subject line "RE: PREP CALL with Susan," regarding a scheduled appearance by Susan Rice, then U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on Sunday talk shows three days later. Here are the talking points that have Republicans excited:
As Slate's David Weigel notes, based on emails released a year ago, the CIA originated a set of talking points six hours before Rhodes' email saying that "the attacks in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo." In Cairo, hours before the Benghazi terrorist attack, protesters had scaled the walls of the U.S. Embassy and replaced the U.S. flag with a black one used by Islamist militants — in response to a YouTube video, Innocence of Muslims. Similar protests broke out elsewhere in the Muslim world.
Rice, in her Sunday appearances, said that the "best assessment" of the U.S. intelligence community and the White House was that the Benghazi attack started out as "spontaneous — not a premeditated — response to what had transpired in Cairo," before being hijacked by "extremist elements." She focused on the video, and didn't call the attackers who killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three U.S. security personnel terrorists.
"That's the scandal," says Weigel, "that by giving the video all this credit, the administration was distracting people from the real story that terrorism was surging again. Even though the subsequent 19 months have seen no more attacks on embassies. Even though reporting at the time said the excuse for the protests was said video."
Here's Sen. Graham's version of what's scandalous about Benghazi:
If the crime is that the Obama administration, two months before a presidential election, was concerned with putting the best face on the attack, Team Obama is probably guilty. But the emails do not suggest that the administration lied to the American public, let alone orchestrated a vast cover-up of some massive intelligence or policy failure.
So far, as Marc Ambinder suggested last year, this seems like a battle over "diction." Does it matter if the CIA didn't use the word "video" but Rhodes did, several hours later? Or that Rice called the attackers "extremist elements" rather than al Qaeda-affiliated "terrorists"? Should the White House have released the Rhodes email earlier, even though (as White House Press Secretary Jay Carney slyly noted) it didn't deal specifically with Benghazi?
The answer to that last question is probably yes. White House reporters aren't very impressed with the Obama administration's transparency, and the White House hasn't exactly done a great job getting its own story straight on Benghazi.
Maybe that's fed the Benghazi-gate inferno, but it still leaves this question for Republicans: In a best-case scenario, what will this endless investigation prove about the Obama administration? That it tried to stage-manage a Sunday talk show trifecta, or influence talking points from the intelligence community? That it's guilty of spin, or failing to use the word "terrorist" enough? That Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton weren't publicly angry enough about the murder of an ambassador they both liked and respected — and sent to Libya?
If Republicans want to hang the murder of Ambassador Stevens and the other three Americans around Obama's neck or use the Benghazi attack to sink a 2016 run by Hillary Clinton, they should at least come up with a narrative that makes an iota of sense to the large number of Americans who assumed that Benghazi-gate was settled, politically speaking, in the 2012 presidential race.
Or more coarsely, as former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor would have it, "Dude, this was like two years ago."