A few months ago, defenders of President Obama and Hillary Clinton cheered when Clinton angrily responded to Sen. Ron Johnson's (R-Wis.) questions about the attack on our consulate in Benghazi and the White House's response by asking, "What difference, at this point, does it make?" This week, both Clinton and Obama may find out — and may soon find themselves in a trap of their own making.
Recall that the attack took place in the middle of the general election, just a couple of weeks after the party conventions. Obama and the Democrats had just argued that the administration's foreign-policy successes, including the intervention in Libya, showed that America had a steady and seasoned commander-in-chief, and that voters should think twice before electing an untried Mitt Romney.
On the ground in Benghazi, however, the truth was that the sudden vacuum of power had liberated not eastern Libya but the Islamist terrorist networks that had long operated there. Militias competed with the weak central government's forces for control of Benghazi, and terrorists ran much of what lay outside of the city. Other Western nations packed up their diplomatic installations and headed back to Tripoli, but not the United States. Instead, the U.S. kept its consulate open while reducing its security forces even in the face of intelligence of increasing danger and escalating attacks on Western assets.
By the time the 11th anniversary of 9/11 rolled around, the stage was set for disaster. Not only had the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton's State Department not prepared one of its most-vulnerable diplomatic outposts for a terrorist attack on the anniversary of al Qaeda's greatest success, they had reduced security and ignored the pleas of their own ambassador to Libya, Chris Stevens. Stevens inexplicably traveled to Benghazi on the anniversary and ended up being the first American ambassador murdered in the line of duty in 33 years.
Only after more than a week had passed would the Obama administration admit what had been painfully obvious: Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists had staged a coordinated attack on the consulate and another on a safe house a few hours later, and an amateurish YouTube video had nothing to do with it. After Congress demanded an investigation, the White House convened the Accountability Review Board to conduct a supposedly independent investigation. That stalled the question of incompetence and cover-up until well after the election, which Obama narrowly won, and interest waned. By December, when the ARB largely let Obama and Clinton off the hook, the story had dropped out of the national consciousness. It seemed as though the administration's strategy to defuse those questions had worked, and that was true for a few months.
However, questions have always percolated about witnesses that never appeared before congressional committees to tell their stories. And a renewed sense that the elaborate stall-and-deny plan had gone awry came last week, when the State Department's inspector general announced a probe into the ARB and its processes. Shortly afterward, whistle-blowers stepped forward and said that the ARB had never interviewed them, even though they had volunteered to tell their stories as witnesses to the attack. At the same time, House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa has finally deposed these witnesses. Their testimony this week could discredit Obama, Clinton, and the entire foreign-policy apparatus.
Chief among these witnesses will be Gregory Hicks, a 22-year veteran of the State Department and the deputy chief of mission in Tripoli. In a portion of the interviews released by Issa over the weekend, Hicks declared that the "jaw-dropping" declaration by Susan Rice about the nature of the attack was entirely false. "I never reported a demonstration," Hicks told Issa, "I reported an attack on the consulate." In Stevens' last known conversation, he told Hicks, "Greg, we are under attack."
Hicks will also tell Congress that the U.S. had forces that could have responded — had they not been ordered to stand down. A unit of the SOCAFRICA command had been scrambled and was ready to board a plane to Benghazi when a phone call interrupted their deployment. "[Col. Gibson] got a phone call from SOCAFRICA which said, 'You can't go now, you don't have the authority to go now,'" Hicks told investigators. "And so they missed the flight.... They were told not to board the flight, so they missed it." Hicks had known that the special-operations unit was necessary, he explained, "because we had already essentially stripped ourselves of our security presence or our security capability to the bare minimum."
Nor will Hicks be alone in enlightening Congress about bizarre decisions by the White House and the State Department during the attack on Benghazi. Mark Thompson, who now serves as deputy coordinator for operations in the State Department's counterterrorism bureau, told investigators that Hillary Clinton and Patrick Kennedy — also fingered by Hicks for earlier security drawdowns — attempted to cut the counter-terrorism group out of the Benghazi response. Thompson's account will be corroborated by another whistle-blower, according to sources within the investigation.
To ask Clinton's question again, what difference at this point would it have made? It's possible that the team could have gotten on the ground in time to repel the second attack, although the timing would have been close. If the hearings focus on this one issue, though, they will miss the real failures in Benghazi.
The administration's intervention in Libya created a power vacuum in eastern Libya, which it refused to acknowledge and which eventually led not just to this attack but the near-sacking of Mali, which was prevented only by the French military. Instead, State under Clinton reduced the security at this outpost while our allies fled the city, even while nearby terrorist attacks increased. No one in State or the White House prepared for the obvious al Qaeda interest in attacking vulnerable American assets on the anniversary of 9/11. When the inevitable happened, rather than putting all our assets in play to fight the terrorists, the first impulse of Obama and Clinton seems to have been to deny that a terrorist attack had taken place at all as a means of covering up the gross incompetence of the past year in Libya.
With the administration beating war drums over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, if somewhat half-heartedly, a full and honest accounting of Benghazi and the Obama administration's Libya policies in general makes a great deal of difference at this or any other point.