Monday, May 20, 2013 | 2:01 a.m.
Yes, Virginia, there is a Benghazi scandal.
The scandal is that Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., and some Republican colleagues are dishonoring the memory of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans by making a political circus out of their deaths.
As chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Issa is ready to manipulate the pain and anger of relatives and colleagues of the victims but shows little interest in making U.S. diplomats safer. The hearing he held last week ignored the real issues raised by Benghazi in favor of promoting conspiracy theories about “talking points” that administration officials used after the tragedy.
The Benghazi-mongers think they’ve found a new Watergate, even though their claims fall apart upon examination. “I’d call it a cover-up,” intoned Sen. John McCain, who should know better, on ABC’s “This Week.” They distort, or ignore, the real issues raised by the attacks — Why was security so inadequate? How can it be improved? — in favor of theatrics.
So let’s look at which Benghazi issues are real — and which are not.
Atop the nonissue category are the famous “talking points.” Here are the key details: Shortly after the attacks, the deputy head of the House intelligence committee asked the intelligence community for some talking points on what had happened so that he could publicly comment without revealing any secrets (including the fact that the Benghazi “consulate” was mainly a CIA station).
Bureaucratic caution, and a CIA-State Department tussle over which agency would take more heat for the tragedy, led to a set of watered-down talking points that mentioned “extremists” but not terrorists. Then-CIA head David Petraeus testified in November that any reference to al-Qaida was removed to avoid tipping off the perpetrators, which was verified in emails released Wednesday by the White House. Yet, Republicans still insist there was a nefarious White House plot to withhold the “truth.”
Much more relevant is the question of why security at the Benghazi facilities was so inadequate. Here, too, political posturing has muddied the facts.
An accountability review headed by Adm. Mike Mullen, former head of the Joint Chiefs, and retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering slammed senior State Department officials for relying on local militias for security, and for ignoring requests for more guards at the Tripoli embassy.
Three senior State Department officials were forced out (perhaps the sweep should have included Undersecretary for Management Patrick Kennedy). But Issa charged that the review was “flawed,” even though senior officials have almost never been fired in many previous cases where U.S. personnel were killed abroad because of official lapses, including the 1983 Marine barracks bombing in Beirut, or the 1998 bombings by al-Qaida of two U.S. embassies in East Africa.
Issa could have used the Mullen-Pickering review as an excuse to rethink Republican efforts to cut funding for State Department security, a critical issue as the department expands its security personnel dramatically in the wake of Benghazi, but faces sequester cuts. Instead, Issa focused on the political, on whether former Secretary of State (and potential 2016 candidate) Hillary Clinton was to blame for Benghazi “because it was on her watch.”
On another critical issue — why rescue efforts were so tardy — Issa again chose circus over substance. The Pentagon insists it had no forces readily available to dispatch to Benghazi. The nearest AC-130 gunship was in Afghanistan, Delta Forces commandos were in Fort Bragg, N.C., and there were no armed drones within range of Libya. The U.S. Africa Command has no rapid strike force to respond to emergencies.
This inability to respond raises serious issues about readiness. Then-Sen. John Kerry was correct to ask late last year whether the military needs to play a greater role in protecting diplomats in dangerous regions.
But rather than examine such questions, Issa insisted, despite Pentagon denials, that the military could have sent planes to relieve Benghazi. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who has served under Republicans and Democrats, called Issa’s idea a “cartoonish impression of military capabilities.” Given the number of surface-to-air missiles in jihadi hands, Gates said he would have nixed such a mission, which couldn’t have saved the men on the ground.
That won’t stop the Benghazi-mongers from hinting that the White House deliberately let Stevens die. Nor will it shame them into working in bipartisan fashion to prevent future attacks. That’s the real Benghazi scandal, right there.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.