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May 10, 2013 10:00 AM Benghazi—An Honest Plea for Specific Charges

By Andrew Sabl

Wednesday’s hearings over Benghazi (or as Ed Kilgore is fond of calling it to stress conservative hype, Benghazi!) seem to have been a big nothingburger in terms of actual scandal. As Steve Benen puts it,

Eight months after the attack itself, I know Republicans think there’s been a cover-up, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is they think has been covered up. For all the talk of a political “scandal,” no one seems capable of pointing to anything specific that’s scandalous. For all the conspiracy theories, there’s no underlying conspiracy to be found,

Steve, as a progressive blogger, is admittedly biased. But reading Andrew Stiles’ report on National Review Online I get exactly the same impression. Per Stiles, and stripping away the rhetoric and the table-pounding calls for “more questions,” the testimony of Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Tripoli at the time, revealed the following:

(1) Susan Rice was wrong to call the attacks on the Benghazi consulate a possible result of the infamous anti-Muslim video. But Rice was describing, in real time and with proper caveats, what she thought was the case at the time, and everyone official has long since admitted that her initial, tentative take was wrong. So: who cares?

(2) The State department didn’t want Hicks to meet with a Republican congressional delegation on the subject, and an official without clearance tried but failed to horn in on the meeting. This will surprise anyone who has never read a book or article about a government agency, or known anybody who worked for one, but—really? Reading against the grain, it becomes clear that Hicks did meet with the Republican delegation, which got all the information it needed. Indeed, he told all kinds of investigators everything he had to say.

(3) Cheryl Mills, “State Department general counsel and former chief of staff to Secretary Clinton,” demanded an account of the above meeting and “sought to keep [Hicks] on a tight leash.” Now, like it or not, the U.S. has a system of political appointees in executive departments, and the Secretary of State is kind of expected to have subordinates whom she trusts. As for seeking a report of the meeting—a bit aggressive, sure, but again there was no cover-up; Hicks was able to tell whomever he wanted whatever he knew.

(4) Hicks was demoted to desk officer. He thinks it was because he was too aggressive on Benghazi. I wonder what his superiors think. In any case, this is at most hardball management but no crime.

(5) “The three witnesses present at Wednesday’s hearing were repeatedly referred to as whistleblowers” (by Republicans). But just as in that parable about calling the horse’s tail a fifth leg, that doesn’t make them whistleblowers. That word denotes someone who exposes crimes or acts of malfeasance that have been covered up. But the testimony itself, from the accounts I’ve read, exposed no coverup, and no crime.

That’s it. On the other side, we also learn, from this conservative account, that the State Department’s Accountability Review Board, which took Hicks’ testimony, absolved Clinton of any blame for poor security. (Hicks didn’t get to see the classified report, but I’ve seen no accounts from those who have, including partisan Republicans, that suggests a whitewash.) As a matter of fact, we learn—regarding the substantive matter supposedly at issue—nothing about State having even been responsible for poor security, as opposed to an ex ante decision regarding limited resources that was defensible at the time but turned out badly.

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. I know that this blog has a fair number of conservative readers. And perhaps other sites will pick this up. I hope so, and if so: answers, please. Specific ones, point by point. Then we’ll at least have something we can argue about.

Update: Yes, I know my bemusement on this isn’t new. The “nothingburger” label I got from Kevin Drum’s post, which can be added to the above links and many others. But I haven’t seen the demand for specifics laid out in numbered points and subpoints before. And sometimes that helps. If nothing else, conservatives may have to ask themselves whether they’ve been sold a bill of goods by conservative media outlets selling a scandal vaguer than they realize.

Second Update: I’d like to stress that I’m engaged in an exercise in arguendum: even if the conservative slant on Benghazi is accurate, there has been no “cover up” that I can see. A less partisan account, e.g. that of the New York Times, casts doubt on that slant to begin with. For one thing, having a department lawyer be present during congressional investigation visits was, allegedly, a longstanding State policy. This should be easily verifiable (or disprovable). For another, State claims that Hicks has not been demoted but given a temporary job, at the same salary, pending a transfer he requested. I’m more dubious about this—clearly Hicks thinks he’s been wronged—but we should note that Hicks’ account has not gone unchallenged.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-based Community]

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Andrew Sabl is a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.
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