Perhaps if the Republicans can’t beat Hillary Clinton fairly in 2016, they can make her so disgusted by the prospect of running that she’ll stay out of the race.
That’s where the Benghazi-Industrial Complex comes in.
Clinton’s 20-year sojourn in public life has been bracketed, jarringly, by two pseudo-scandals, both involving the tragic and less-than-fully-explained death of an important man in Hillary’s orbit. In between there have been assorted smears and public humiliations, including real traumas like Monicagate, the cumulative effect of which has been to make Hillary reluctant to reenter the political game. Or so many of her friends and aides say, and so Republicans must be hoping.
It all began in 1993 – just six months into her term as first lady – with the death of her close friend, deputy White House counsel Vince Foster, whose shocking suicide on a grassy knoll outside Washington fed a never-ending meme of Clintonian perfidy. (Rush Limbaugh still sometimes makes jokes about Hillary’s opponents ending up “in Fort Marcy Park.”) As Clinton left Foggy Bottom two decades later, she was hounded by angry right-wing allegations in the final months of her tenure as secretary of state that the Obama administration had covered up the real reasons for the death of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in the early morning hours of Sept. 12, 2012—in part to fend off Mitt Romney’s campaign criticisms and perhaps even, in the more elaborate version of this conspiracy theory, to protect Hillary’s 2016 ambitions.
There were, and are, legitimate questions about Clinton’s conduct before and after Benghazi. She was, after all, the first secretary of state to lose an ambassador in the field since George Shultz in 1988. According to the conclusions of her own Accountability Review Board, chaired by retired Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering and vice chaired by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen, “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” might have contributed to the four deaths. (Even so, somewhat controversially, the report confined its findings to the failures at “senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department,” Diplomatic Security and Near Eastern Affairs, and did not cite Clinton.) In emotional testimony before Congress just before she left office, Clinton said that she had not personally read an August 16, 2012, cable from Stevens that raised questions about security, and she did not appear to know about a decision to turn down a request for more security in Libya, as detailed in a House Republican report in April of last year. “I didn’t see those requests. They didn’t come to me. I didn’t approve them. I didn’t deny them,” she said.
If all that is true—and it would indeed be unusual for a secretary of state to be personally making decisions about diplomatic security arrangements—it’s fair to ask why Clinton seemed to be too busy to deal with new threats in a critical region or appear herself on TV to discuss the murder of a U.S. ambassador. Sure, we know that Hillary hates doing the Sunday talk shows, but so what? She bore far more responsibility for Benghazi than the unlucky person the administration sent out in her stead, then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, whose shaky performance deep-sixed her own Foggy Bottom ambitions.
But these are issues of competence, not corruption. There is as little evidence that Clinton or anyone else in the administration engaged in a cover-up of Benghazi as there is that Hillary ordered the whacking of her old friend Vince Foster. It is a fantastical notion that continues not just to survive but thrive, in defiance of any application of fact, among the “vast right-wing conspiracy” Hillary decried so long ago.
Last week saw an abrupt resurgence of Benghazi conspiracy-theorizing when the conservative group Judicial Watch released previously undisclosed emails from the White House obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request (headline: “JW Finds Benghazi Smoking Gun!”). This event was followed, like clockwork in a time bomb, by yet another hearing held by Rep. Darrell Issa’s House Oversight Committee. Pursuing their standard playbook dating from the Whitewater years, leading Republicans called for a whole new round of probes.
“We need a joint select committee to find out the truth about #Benghazi — NOW,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tweeted, and the House promptly convened one. Issa melodramatically subpoenaed Clinton’s successor, John Kerry, to explain the administration’s “disturbing, perhaps criminal” behavior in withholding a Sept. 14, 2012, email from Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes.
The Rhodes email, in truth, did little but to lay out an unsurprising and fairly standard strategy for prepping Rice for her TV interviews later that week on Benghazi and other issues. But, innocuous as it was, that didn’t stop the Benghazi-Industrial Complex (call it the BIC, for short) from resurrecting its favorite term: “smoking gun.” “If this is not a smoking gun, proving beyond any doubt, the story told by the administration about Benghazi was politically motivated and fabricated, nothing will ever prove that,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who has been eagerly trying to shore up his conservative credentials to fend off a Tea Party challenger. Rush Limbaugh declared on his radio show that “the memo shows that there was a massive cover-up.”
Let’s face it: The BIC is here to stay, fueled by a mania on the right to somehow, in some way, validate Issa’s declaration that Obama is the “one of the most corrupt presidents of modern times” and, above all, to tarnish Clinton ahead of 2016 by linking the former secretary of state directly to the deaths of Stevens and the others. “Which is Hillary Clinton’s worst scandal?” asked a Tea-Party affiliated site, TownHall.com, conveniently providing boxes to allow participants to check-mark an episode from “her shady history”: Benghazi, Vince Foster, Whitewater or Travelgate. Another Tea Party site went further still, headlining a recent thread, “Hillary Clinton: The Butcher of Benghazi?” and illustrating it with a photoshopped image of her holding up bloody hands. “Someone tweets about Benghazi every 12 seconds. Not every 12 days or every 12 minutes, but every 12 seconds,” National Journal recorded last week, citing the social-media tracking firm Topsy. In the past 30 days, Benghazi and Clinton have been mentioned almost in unison on Twitter, with the former earning 219,325 mentions to Hillary’s 219,163. Benghazi has, in effect, become Hillary’s social-media twin, at least among conservatives.
Nor are some conspiracists shy about tying Clinton’s behavior over Benghazi to the never-dying suspicions about her alleged role in Foster’s death. “The Clintons got away with ANOTHER murder,” one Tea Party Command Center commentator, Barry Venables, wrote recently. And the Hillary haters are developing scenarios as crazy as when Dan Burton, then an Indiana congressman, fired a pistol at a large melon in his backyard to prove that Foster had been murdered. Not surprisingly, Fox News has led the way, with host Eric Bolling suggesting in recent days that Hillary staged her concussion in 2012, when she fainted and fell, so that Rice would have to “take the bullet” on TV (never mind that Clinton suffered the concussion two months later), and that the White House cover-up began 20 months ago in preparation for Clinton’s 2016 run. Other Fox commentators gleefully free-associated scandals, likening Benghazi to Watergate. “If only Nixon knew all he had to do was fall down,” radio talk-show host Tammy Bruce tweeted. Fox, in fact, has made Benghazi a permanent part of its programming, mentioning the word on no fewer than 1,101 programs in the past year, according to Nexis. The chyron “Benghazi” is almost as much of a permanent fixture on Fox as “Breaking News” is on CNN.
How does all this connect with the facts? It doesn’t seem to matter that the gradually emerging story about Benghazi has, if anything, only seemed to back the administration’s original account of the violence against Stevens and the other Americans. Recall that the central issue for the critics was — and is — whether the “talking points” mainly drafted by the CIA and provided to Susan Rice for her appearances on the Sunday talk shows accurately reflected what the U.S. intelligence community knew at the time, or whether the administration knowingly misrepresented this intelligence. Accurately summing up the CIA talking points, Rice had said in her TV interviews that the administration believed that the attacks were to some degree spontaneous, partly motivated by demonstrations in Cairo and other cities against a U.S.-made video lampooning the Prophet Mohammad. Still, Rice noted that “extremist elements” might have taken part—again reflecting the intelligence community’s contemporaneous assessment (though Rice might have emphasized the video more than the talking points warranted).
The balance of evidence today, according to intelligence officials and corroborating news reports, is that the terrible events of Sept. 12, 2012, pretty much played out in the way Rice said back then. Authorities still believe that extremist groups opportunistically exploited the anti-American demonstrations in the region to launch the attacks. True, intelligence officials did get one major thing wrong. It took a week or so after Rice’s TV appearances to clarify, for certain, that there had been no protests in Benghazi itself before the assault on the compound—and that, as the office of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said in a statement on Sept. 28, two weeks after Rice appeared, “it was a deliberate and organized terrorist attack carried out by extremists.”
But there is no evidence that the administration substantially misrepresented what it knew at the time. Or that Clinton, Obama, Rhodes or anyone else covered up or even downplayed any evidence of a planned al Qaeda attack—as Republicans have consistently alleged—so that the president could continue to boast of his success against terrorism on the campaign trail. If the talking points were extensively edited after an interagency consultation, that was fairly normal procedure too. Shortly after the Benghazi attacks, Republicans also made much of news reports that the White House and State Department had been tipped within hours that al Qaeda-linked terrorists were involved (“Smoking gun!” tweeted conservative blogger Jennifer Rubin—of course). In fact, however, it took a long time for authorities to identify any actual culprits, and the administration responsibly handed the investigation over to the FBI. (It wasn’t until August of 2013 that the FBI had enough evidence to file the first charges.) Lacking solid evidence, Obama even avoided the temptation of ordering what would have been a politically popular “October surprise”—a counterattack on the terrorists responsible for the assault—before the 2012 election. Another popular meme on the right—trotted out again by Issa at last week’s hearing—is that the Obama administration failed to act militarily to save Stevens and the others, but even the Republican majority on House Armed Services Committee, in a report issued in February, says that is untrue.
And what of the new claims of a cover-up generated by Judicial Watch’s release of the Rhodes memo and other previously undisclosed emails? Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina House Republican named to head the new select committee on Benghazi, told Fox News on Friday that he has evidence that not only is the White House hiding information, “there is an intent to hide it.” But that probably won’t stand up to scrutiny either. An Obama administration official told Politico that the White House didn’t supply the emails previously because Congress never asked for them. A May 2013 subpoena from the Oversight Committee sought any communications between Rice and a specific group of State Department aides, but did not mention senior White House officials such as Rhodes.
That doesn’t add up to much of a scandal. But it’s already too late for the truth. Benghazi has taken on a cultural life of its own on the right. It has become embedded in the Democratic demonology of the conservative base. It is now shorthand for a new generation of right-wing conspiracy-theorizing about the Clintons that Republican candidates know will excite conservative voters; Benghazi has become to the 2010s what Vince Foster and Whitewater were to the 1990s.
And perhaps, in the end, the prospect of facing down accusations over Benghazi alone won’t matter much to her. Between the bloody chaos in Syria, Iraq and the larger Arab world, violence in Afghanistan and the standoff with Russia over Ukraine—despite her effort at a “reset” of relations—Clinton will have a lot else to defend in her record if she runs. Real issues, in other words. With Benghazi or not, any presidential campaign is going to be ugly. But the Benghazi-Industrial Complex is going to be as toxic as anything Hillary has faced since … Vince Foster. Is she ready?