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May 09, 2013 12:02 PM Fish or Cut Bait Time

By Ed Kilgore

I’ve been struggling all morning to figure out what if anything to say about yesterday’s House GOP hearings on Benghazi!. Conservatives are for the most part very excited because the first fingers have been pointed directly at Hillary Clinton, while enough evidence of early internal warnings the attacks were al Qaeda-orchestrated has arisen to lift the central claim of a “coverup” from pure fantasy to an argument over the meaning of the term. More importantly for the case for treating Benghazi! as anything other than a right-wing fever dream, Republicans finally have witnesses from outside their own camp to support at least some of their contentions.

But reaction to yesterday’s events from outside the conservative movement and the GOP have been almost uniformly “meh.” Kevin Drum deployed one of my favorite terms for a sound and fury signifying little, “nothingburger.” The National Journal’s Michael Hirsh probably spoke for many observers in saying the hearings scored a few technical points about administration incompetence, but were missing their intended goal almost entirely:

[T]he obvious Republican effort to turn this inquiry into the Democratic (Obama) version of the Iraq intelligence scandal that has tarred the GOP since the George W. Bush years — led by that least-credible of champions, the almost-always-wrong Darrell Issa — is just not going to amount to much.

But my favorite non-abrasive comment (I’m sure by day’s end I’ll read a lot of fine abrasive comments) is from Andrew Sabl at The Reality-Based Community, who simply begs Republicans to make up their minds what they are actually pursuing here:

Look, I’m not a Benghazi expert. I’m willing to entertain the possibility that there’s something here that the media aren’t telling me. But before I evaluate the case, I need to see some concrete charges. My challenge to conservatives is to tell me, very simply, the following:
(1) What, in your view, was the crime? Who did what and which law did it break? No crime, no cover-up (in the usual sense).
But the idea seems to be that what was “covered up” was not crime but incompetence. (That stretches the former meaning of “cover-up,” but never mind.) So:
(2) Who failed competently to perform his or her job, in which concrete ways? Which decisions are we talking about, by whom, at what time, and on what grounds should we believe that a competent person in the job in question would have had to make a different decision? Again, failure to devote unlimited resources to guarding every consulate at all times does not constitute an incompetent decision but rather precisely a competent one. And a judgment (apparently held by the diplomats on the ground at the time) that there was a tradeoff between high security and diplomatic effectiveness is also, absent conclusive arguments to the contrary, quite defensible. We need more.
(3) What information was covered up, and how? What facts do we (a) now know to be the case that (b) were previously concealed from view by (c) illegitimate threats or undue influence (as opposed to agency politics as usual, whereby those higher up would rather sweep mistakes under the rug but grudgingly tolerate subordinates who air them)?
Unless all three of these elements in (3) are present, there was no cover-up—at most a halfhearted attempt at a cover-up, or an honest difference of opinion about facts. And unless number (1) or (2) is present, there was nothing to cover up.
At this point in the career of a scandal, or attempted scandal, there are often disagreements over whether the charges are true. But I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a scandal where I don’t even know what they are.

This confusion reflects the more systemic confusion among Benghazi! enthusiasts about the ultimate meaning of the events they find so gripping. Are they saying the United States should have instantly relaunched the Global War On Terror in response to the sacking of the consulate? Do they claim Barack Obama would have lost the 2012 presidential election had he and his team “come clean” about what they knew? Or is it simply a matter of “allowing” the deaths in Benghazi? If so, that kind of raises retroactive questions about the far greater number of deaths “allowed” by Ronald Reagan in Beirut in 1983 despite specific warnings from his own Secretary of Defense, not to mention the vast number of deaths attributable to the Bush 43 administration’s dismissal of warnings from the State Department about the consequences of occupying Iraq.

Sabl’s absolutely right: we should be well past the fishing-expedition phase of this investigation. Let’s have some specific charges and some clarity about the case, or nobody outside the Republican Party is going to pay attention any longer.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • Bokonon on May 09, 2013 12:46 PM:

    The lack of systemic, linear thinking here is what you get when the "scandal" is based on pre-made conclusions ... which are driven by assertions and sound bites on talk radio and the conservative media ... which are themselves constantly under revision ... and all of which are then in search of new facts to back them up.

    It is literally being constructed backwards.

    It is also irrational. And also fueled by a scary level of anger (particularly the "Obama murdered four Americans" stuff). Try pointing out the embassy attacks that happened under the last administration to your conservative friends, and wait for the volcanic explosion.

  • Epicurus on May 09, 2013 12:50 PM:

    Imagine, if you will, the Democratic Party responding to 9/11 as the GOP is attempting to deal with Benghazi today. Wouldn't last for two minutes before the world would have condemned them for it. Howcum the GOP gets a pass? Silly question, I know...

  • Marvin on May 09, 2013 12:56 PM:

    I too have had a hard time ascertaining what exactly the loyal opposition would have us believe to be the crime or the cover-up. I take it that their line is this: the administration initially ran with the story that the attacks were a spontaneous reaction to the video rather than a pre-planned Al Qaida plot because the former would be less politically damaging in the midst of a presidential re-election campaign.

    I just don't get that at all. It doesn't seem to me that one attack on a foreign embassy in 4 years, whether it was mob violence or a terror plot, would have any effect on the campaign. If the Dems could gain seats after the embassy attacks in Africa in 98 and if George W Bush could keep his job after 9/11, what was the perceived political downside to Benghazi that would lead the administration to lie about the motive and opportunity of the perpetrators?

    Put differently: there's no cover up because there's nothing to cover up.

  • Anonymous on May 09, 2013 12:58 PM:

    Why don't most Americans care about Benghazi!? It happened in overseas country that was recently in a civil war. Secondly, the big story always centers around the administration reaction and talking points. This is incomptence with a bit of the fog of war.

    If you don't want Benghazi!, then stop invading other countries.

  • jjm on May 09, 2013 12:58 PM:

    Were there congressional "hearings" after SEVEN U.S. Embassies and Consulates were attacked under George W. Bush?

    2002: U.S. Consulate In Karachi, Pakistan, Attacked; 10 Killed, 51 Injured.

    2004: U.S. Embassy Bombed In Uzbekistan.

    2004: Gunmen Stormed U.S. Consulate In Saudi Arabia.

    2006: Armed Men Attacked U.S. Embassy In Syria.

    2007: Grenade Launched Into U.S. Embassy In Athens. From The New York Times:

    2008: Rioters Set Fire To U.S. Embassy In Serbia.

    2008: Ten People Killed In Bombings At U.S. Embassy In Yemen.

  • Mimikatz on May 09, 2013 1:02 PM:

    I think finally that what is happening is the same old projection. GOPsters know in their hearts that BushCo was horribly incompetent in dealing with 9/11 and Iraq, and so they believe that Obama and by extension Hillary must also have been incompetent, and of course they tried to cover it up because that's what the GOP would have done. So like the boy looking for the pony in Reagan's anecdote, they are sure that if they shovel enough sh*t they will find the pony. And as always, they believe their own hype because of the force of repetition.

    This is particularly true of the spectacularly incompetent Darrell Issa. In fact, the degree to which GOPsters take this seriously is inversely proportionate to their actual intelligence.

  • FriscoSF on May 09, 2013 1:05 PM:

    I think there were about 100,000 more people killed in Iraq

    Did they ever find those WMDs ?
    Did they evern find out what the sign 'Mission Accomplished' meant ?

    Maybe Congress should investigate

  • pamelabrown53 on May 09, 2013 1:21 PM:

    Imagine, if you will, that all 11+ embassy/consulate attacks under dubya would have produced the same relentless fervor. Of course, "mistakes were made" which is why each and every attack requires a thorough internal review to make improvements. Call it Monday morning quarterbacking. The only aspect of this tragedy that is truly appalling is the republican's attempt to politicize it. Then, again, it looks to me that the GOP has lost any interest in actually governing.

    It past time for this scandal without a cause to be over: republicans, make some charges or go back to naming Post Offices and voting to repeal Obamacare.

  • Dredd on May 09, 2013 1:38 PM:

    I think they are fishing for bait, because fishing season has not opened yet.

  • monoceros4 on May 09, 2013 1:42 PM:

    None of this is at all surprising nor, at this point (sadly), particularly disillusioning. I'm quite old enough to remember the build-up to the impeachment attempt on Pres. Clinton. There, too, the Republican charges against Clinton were kept vague and ill-defined as long as possible. I remember being told in all serious by some Republican acquaintance of mine that the lack of any definite evidence of any particular crime didn't so much matter as the notion that "where there's smoke there's fire".

    It remains to be seen whether the GOP can keep this Benghazi obsession rolling until it achieves the necessary critical mass. Once the press comes to regard the defining characteristic of the Obama presidency as being beleaguered by accusations of scandal, as ended up happening with Clinton, then the Republicans will be able to start dragging in more of their pet accusations against Obama into the light. Hell--if this carries on long enough we'll see "birtherism" seriously debated in Congress, I guarantee it. Fortunately, for the moment, the ginned-up Benghazi "scandal" hasn't achieved the necessary traction.

  • Joe Friday on May 09, 2013 2:25 PM:

    "Republicans finally have witnesses from outside their own camp to support at least some of their contentions."

    News to me.

    Only ONE of their witnesses was actually in Libya at the time, and he was over 600 miles away in Tripoli.

    It's all Woulda-Shoulda-Coulda nonsense from armchair generals.

  • Quaker in a Basement on May 09, 2013 2:44 PM:

    Save your breath, Ed. Some Muslims killed some Americans, so that's automatically conservative fap material.

  • jonh on May 09, 2013 3:32 PM:

    Whatcha wanna do?
    I dunno, wadda you wanna do?
    I dunno. Wanna investigate Benghazi??
    Yeah, I spose. Better than just sittin around.

    ---------

    Really, the GOP has no positive agenda; GWB gave them everything they wanted -- except for eviscerating Social Security -- and they they're still unfulfilled. Who'da thunk?

    War was going to make them happy. Uhuh. They think that just one more war will do the trick, but the U.S. isn't going for that bait.

    They thought that enriching the aristocracy and keeping the laboring classes in their place would make them happy. Hasn't worked. And their hopes for trying just a little more redistribution never caught on.

    Destroying the social programs? Ain't gonna happen. In fact, now we have Obamacare, and I think that, deep down, they realize thet, if Obamacare doesn't work, the next step isn't the status quo ante or cash-on-the-table-before-the-doctor-lifts-a-finger; the next step is single payer.

    Have you heard anyone recently suggest scrapping minimum wage laws?

    Not enough people thought that criminalizing the birth control pill was a good idea.

    And don't bring up gay marriage.

    So Benghazi is what they have. It's the safe place they can go to feel secure and comfortable.

    -------------------

    Also, I think they are very annoyed by the fact that there are no big Obama scandals. (Google it for a giggle.) If they ever do re-take the white house, their first scandal will be like sweet lemonade to a thirsty public.

  • boatboy_srq on May 09, 2013 5:29 PM:

    @jonh:

    GOP POV: OF COURSE there’s a cover-up. There was massive executive malfeasance. After all, it’s what we would have done…

  • Peter C on May 09, 2013 5:36 PM:

    Ever since Watergate, the Republicans have carefully developed a scandal-elevation mechanism, hoping to catch the Democrats in an equivalently horrible scandal. They’ve built a network of ‘breathless’ reporters and ‘shocked’ experts and ‘outraged’ pundits and ‘dogged’ special prosecutors and ‘serious’ committee chairmen. They’ve reserved the hearing room once a month just in case. It’s all expensive, but they treat it like a business and, hey, they can afford it.

    In the Clinton years, they were employed 24/7 with ‘Whitewater’ and ‘Jennifer Flowers’ and ‘Vince Foster’ and ‘Travel gate’ and ‘Cattle Futures’. Most of it was a complete bust, but it kept them employed. Finally, they hit pay-dirt with the blue dress. Physical Evidence! The threat of DNA testing! IMPEACHMENT! Frustratingly, everything but a resignation and perhaps ‘pardongate’. They were SO CLOSE!

    No-drama Obama has been incredibly frustrating for them – no sex scandals, no corruption. NADA! ZILCH! ZIPPO! How are College Republicans ever to make a name for themselves? How can they move up in the organization? The next boy wonder languishes as a mere ‘turd bud’ unable to blossom! How can they hold impeachment hearings before the end of the term? They haven’t even gotten a special prosecutor in place yet! TIME IS RUNNING OUT!

    Then, FINALLY, blood in the sand (ooooo!), conflicting statements (ahhhhhh!), the fog of war! It’s their BIG CHANCE! All hands on deck!

    One of these days, they’ll realize they've got another bust on their hands. But for now, the whole staff have stars in their eyes and the only thing they can hear is the roar of the crowd that haunts their dreams.

  • Diane on May 09, 2013 6:43 PM:

    I thought the "crime" was not admitting that Al Queda was involved and failure to use the work "TERROR" in every sentence for the next 6 months ..... or did I miss something?

  • Doug on May 09, 2013 8:30 PM:

    Diane for the win! But possibly not in the way she thinks, Let me expand:
    Republicans were in charge on 9/11 and it yet *still* happened. And then, instead of calling those attacks what they really were: criminal, GWB & Co used them as an excuse for Iraq. While there *is* a slender legal foundation for the invasion of Afghanistan, there was absolutely NONE for Iraq. It was only by deliberatly trying to confuse acts of criminality with acts of war, that the Bush administration was able to get away with what it did.
    The policy of the Obama administration, on the other hand, is to treat terrorist acts as what they are: criminal. If *that* sort of reasoning is allowed to become the majority view, then Republican motives for their actions in regard to Afghanistan and Iraq, their refusal to treat captured prisoners as POWs and a lot more, run the risk of actually being looked at by the general, *voting* public.
    Therefore, "Benghazi" *has* to be shown as a failure in the "Great War on Terror" and that the failure was due solely to the present administration treating criminal acts as criminal acts and *not* an act of WAR!!!!!
    Otherwise, all those big, brave manly deeds by the Bush administration run the risk of appearing to be, at best, the actions of cowardly little children who, in their fear of the Big Bad Terrorists, dumped load after load into their diapers (and on the Constitution), or worse, a cynical, partisan attempt to destroy ANY opposition (see: Rove, Karl and "permanent majority") while rewarding contributors (see: Halliburton, Xtian, etc).
    Neither view improves Republican electoral chances...

    (I *said* I was going to expand on her statement...)

  • Steve J. on May 10, 2013 12:33 AM:

    Do they claim Barack Obama would have lost the 2012 presidential election had he and his team “come clean” about what they knew? Or is it simply a matter of “allowing” the deaths in Benghazi?

    This is pretty much Sean Hannity's claim, as fas as I can tell.

  • James M on May 10, 2013 2:25 AM:

    Great posts. I have 2 observations:

    1. Selective Attention Disorder

    I took a rather unique class in college called The Anthropology of Law. One of the attributes of a law is the intention of 'universal application': the idea that the law will be applied to all similar cases. I notice, however, that the principles of modern U.S. conservatives are remarkably selectively applied. The needless deaths of U.S. military personnel, due to incompetent strategy or neglect (remember the shortage of properly armored transport vehicles able to withstand roadside IEDs?) was no big deal. However, the death of 4 overseas diplomatic personnel is a tragedy beyond comprehension.

    2. Fox News

    The damage that Rupert Murdoch had done to American politics in incalculable. He has created a 24/7 propaganda station for 'conservative' causes, unbound by any of the normal rules of objectivity or accuracy. Until the Democrats find some counterbalance to Fox News and conservative talk radio there will be an endless stream of Benghazis.

  • Wally on May 10, 2013 10:29 AM:

    Late comment - may not even be read.

    The question I've had from the very beginning is, If the administration knowingly misled us about what happened in Benghazi, what did they hope to gain?

    Would the public have reacted differently to the immediate news that Americans were killed in an organized attack than if they were killed by a mob? Doesn't make sense to me.

    Were they trying to cover up the fact that security hadn't been increased as requested? But that information was in dozens of emails and paper files. There was no way to hide it.

    So why would administration officials huddle and say, "We can't say this was an attack, we have to say it was a mob"?