The Senate's Benghazi report is explosive — but it doesn't prove there was a cover-up
The Senate Intelligence Committee finally released on Wednesday a long-delayed report on the embassy attack in Benghazi, Libya, and the top-line findings are a harsh critique of both the intelligence community and the State Department.
In the most jarring conclusion, the bipartisan report concludes the attacks could have been stopped.
"The attacks were preventable, based on extensive intelligence reporting on the terrorist activity in Libya — to include prior threats and attacks against Western targets — and given the known security shortfalls at the U.S. Mission," the report says.
The report goes on, in great detail, to lay out how poor communication between intelligence agencies and the State Department allowed the threat of an attack to go undetected. And it finds that, despite warnings about the increased likelihood of an attack, the State Department failed to increase security that could have mitigated the damage.
What the report does not find, however, is evidence to substantiate the most politically-charged claims surrounding the attacks: That the Obama administration tried to cover up the involvement of terrorists. On the contrary, it says the intelligence community was wrong from the outset, and that the White House only passed along the incorrect information it received before the talking points were revised.
"[I]ntelligence analysts inaccurately referred to the presence of a protest at the Mission facility before the attack based on open source information and limited intelligence, but without sufficient intelligence or eyewitness statements to corroborate that assertion," the report says. "The IC took too long to correct these erroneous reports, which caused confusion and influenced the public statements of policymakers."
In other words, it wasn't a cover-up; it was bunk intel.
Then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice claimed days after the attacks that they were the result of "spontaneous demonstrations" over an anti-Muslim film. That the administration later walked back that claim and admitted the attacks had terrorist origins, some believed, indicated there was a cover-up afoot.
In an appendix to the report, the Democrats on the committee lament that "no issue related to Benghazi has been as mischaracterized as the unclassified talking points prepared by the Central Intelligence Agency."
The Majority believes that the CIA talking points were flawed but — as discussed in the report — painted a mostly accurate picture of the IC's analysis of the Benghazi attacks at that time, in an unclassified form and without compromising the nascent investigation of the attacks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In retrospect, the talking points could have and should have been clearer. As discussed below, omissions and wording choices contributed to significant controversy and confusion, as did an erroneous reference to "demonstrations." In addition, the Administration was slow to provide details explaining the drafting and editing process that produced the talking points. Speculation and conspiracy theories about the details could have been mitigated if the factual record of how the talking points were produced was provided sooner to this Committee and to the public. [PDF]
To be sure, the harsh words about the State Department are quite serious on their own, cover-up or not. And Republicans will still use those findings to assail the president and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) is already roping her back into the story and questioning her leadership.
The GOP members on the committee say in their own statement appended to the report that "one of the biggest failures is the Administration's complete refusal or inability to attain accountability — from the attackers themselves and from those U.S. Government officials who made poor management decisions relating to the Benghazi facilities."
So even though the report disputes cover-up claims, don't expect the Benghazi story to go away just yet.