The American people and press have been slapping the suffix “gate” on any real or pretend political scandal since the famous political burglary at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. That “second-rate” burglary was followed by obstruction of justice in several ways; the payment of cash money from illegal campaign funds to silence the burglars hired by Nixon campaign officials, the attempt to have the CIA cut off the FBI investigation by claiming it was a national security operation arising out of the conflicts with Cuba, the destruction of investigative records by high officials of the FBI, perjury, and various other political dirty tricks in support of Nixon’s reelection in 1972. This led to Nixon’s resignation while articles of impeachment were being prepared.
One of the less known fall-outs from the initial “gate,” was that Senator Frank Church, Democrat of Idaho, headed a committee to investigate the intelligence agencies of the United States. The Church Committee was wide-ranging and delved into and exposed such activities as attempts to poison Fidel Castro with his own cigars (like exploding cigars out of the Three Stooges) to the less humorous wire-tapping and letter-opening by FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover who tried to link the Civil Rights Movement to a world-wide communist conspiracy. The Church Committee was certainly controversial in many respects but it was also bi-partisan and investigated abuses in both Democratic and Republican Administrations. There are legitimate doubts as to whether the current House Committee on Benghazi has the same bi-partisan interest or possibly represents the political and constitutional threats of Watergate itself.
Let’s look at a couple of the issues:
The Republican critique of the Administration for not labeling Benghazi a terrorist attack immediately.
Terrorist crises tend to support the president politically. It is interesting that President Obama did not use this event as did his opponent in the initial hours after the attack on our Ambassador. The George W. Bush Administration’s gross mishandling of the Iraq war (and the GOP-controlled Congress’s lack of oversight) and the hyped intelligence case for invading Iraq was far more devastating to our country. Thousand of Americans died, tens of thousands disabled, and trillions of dollars were added to our debt. Many of the same cheerleaders of the War in Iraq are now cynically making a political issue of Benghazi.
Secretary Clinton testified previously, “With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest, or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference, at this point, does it make?” Clinton is right. Whether it was a terrorist group that plotted and planned the attack or a spur-of-the-moment idea of radical Islamist thugs, it was equally reprehensible. The effect is the same.
History has shown that with any such attack– like the ones on our embassies in Iran and Pakistan back in the 1970s, or the attack on our embassy in Cairo on the same day as the Benghazi incident– it’s important to verify facts when talking to the public. Conflicting stories and blatant falsehoods come out in the initial hours and days following such events. Initially, no organization claimed credit for the attack at Benghazi. Even if they had, intelligence reports require corroboration from multiple sources before they are considered reliable. So if one source tells you it was a terrorist attack, you can’t take that to the bank. You must find other sources that either confirm or deny the notion that it was a premeditated attack by Islamist terrorists, rather than a spur-of-the-moment attack like the US Embassy in Cairo.Leadership also has to be conscience of national security reasons, which prohibits full disclosure about the facility in Benghazi.
Was the administration wrong in saying Benghazi might be related to the anti-Islamic film that sparked protests across the Middle East including the assault on our embassy in Cairo? Yes. It turned out that the video protests were unrelated to this event. Ambassador Susan Rice spoke too soon and with limited information. In retrospect there were conflicting reports at the beginning. With the assault the same day in Cairo inspired by the protests against the film, it wasn’t a far stretch to surmise that Benghazi was motivated by the same thing. Why try to crucify Susan Rice over some talking points she gave to the media, which apparently were the best they had, or could explain at that point? The GOP politicized this attack immediately before it was even known that the Ambassador was dead to crassly score political points against President Obama.
The Obama Administration has been far more aggressive (and successful) in pursuing a counter-terrorism agenda than the previous administration (Bin Laden raid, scores of successful drone strikes taking out top Al Qaeda leaders, devastation of Al Qaeda ranks in Pakistan, and successful cooperation with other governments). Yet the public needs to understand that the fight against violent Islamic extremists (not the Islamic Faith) will continue for decades and terrorists will launch successful attacks. Bin Laden successfully launched a global jihadist movement and it is impossible to prevent all terror attacks. Yet we need to do what we can to minimize future terror attacks to diminish the ability of terrorists to conduct attacks, deny them safe havens, disrupt plots when we uncover them, capture/kill them when we can, and try to prevent radicalization of future violent jihadists by changing hearts and minds.
The GOP should focus their attention towards perpetrators and discuss support for eliminating threats, rather than scoring political points against the President. The Republican House voted to cut the State Department embassy security budget prior to Benghazi and ironically attack the administration for not providing enough security at diplomatic posts in Libya. The GOP’s support of sequestration weakens our military and intelligence capabilities and will directly impact our ability to find those responsible and prevent future occurrences. Furloughing personnel involved in these efforts will not help resolve Benghazi.
The Republican leadership alluding that the Administration withheld resources to assist Benghazi.
There was a first response security team at Tripoli that was dispatched immediately to provide additional security (see the timeline of the attack and U.S. response here). In addition to the Tripoli forces, embassy security is comprised of both U.S. and host-country security personnel. Host-country forces are always the first line of defense at every embassy. This is how diplomatic security works all over the world and it is unreasonable to think we can resource a large contingent U.S. troops at each embassy to protect them. Nor would it be necessary given the host-country forces.
Former Defense Secretary, Robert M. Gates, who served under several Republican presidents in various capacities including as Secretary of Defense under President George W. Bush and President Obama, refuted the suggestion that the Pentagon could have scrambled jets or special forces during the attack as a “cartoonish impression of military capabilities.”
“Frankly had I been in the job at the time, I think my decisions would have been just as theirs were,” he said on CBS’s Face the Nation. “Frankly, I’ve heard ‘Well, why didn’t you just fly a fighter jet over and try and scare ‘em with the noise or something?’ Well, given the number of surface-to-air missiles that have disappeared from Qaddafi’s arsenals, I would not have approved sending an aircraft, a single aircraft over Benghazi under those circumstances. And with respect to — sending in special forces or a small group of people to try and provide help, based on everything I have read, people really didn’t know what was going on in Benghazi contemporaneously,” Gates added. “And to send some small number of special forces or other troops in without knowing what the environment is, without knowing what the threat is, without having any intelligence in terms of what is actually going on on the ground, I think, would have been very dangerous.”
Republican administrations frequently deflect the constitutional principle of civilian control over the military to “rely on the generals on the ground.” Yet now, they tend to disbelieve the military explanations that there was no additional aid that could have come to Benghazi in time.
As Secretary Clinton said, “It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again.”
Rather than politicizing the tragic event at Benghazi in an attempt to score points against the 2012 and potential 2016 Democratic candidates, it would be better for the GOP to work with Democrats to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Properly funding embassy security, conducting a bi-partisan investigation, ending sequestration, and preventing any further compromise of our national security is necessary to prevent further attacks on American targets across the globe. What we need are statesmen like Senator Frank Church leading a comprehensive and balanced approach which will save American lives and heal our political divide.