CNN spent an hour of prime time Tuesday night to air a special anchored by Erin Burnett, “The Truth about Benghazi.” They claimed to have learned two vital lessons from their supposedly extensive investigation of that tragedy: It must never happen again, and politics trumped patriotism.
Really? That’s it? Are you kidding? The smiling, earnest naivete of Ms. Burnett suggested a graduate student who worked, you know, like really hard at the library all weekend — but apparently didn’t get within spitting distance of a reasonable conclusion.
First of all, Ms. Burnett may have noticed that her program aired just as American embassies in the Mideast were shuttered against a resurgent terrorist threat that Susan E. (Second Time’s the Charm) Rice is crisis-managing in her debut as national security adviser. Or that Vice President Joe Biden’s election-year litany — al Qaeda is dead and General Motors is alive — has been updated. Now it seems that al Qaeda is alive, and Detroit has gone belly-up.
Do those developments really support the conclusion that the aftermath of Benghazi was all about election-year politics, and no one should be held responsible? Those assertions also resemble the conclusions of the Accountability Review Board, chaired by retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering and now widely regarded as a whitewash. You may remember that no one over at State walked the plank or was even seriously disciplined as a result of all Mr. Pickering’s fact-finding.
Like CNN on Wednesday evening, the review board made reasonable noises, but couldn’t reach a conclusion any better than a proverbial room full of economists. Cynical observers such as, say, Rep. Darrell E. Issa have even voiced suspicions that the main purpose of the board was to provide political cover for State Department bureaucrats and their esteemed then-secretary, Hillary Rodham Clinton. To ensure scrupulous objectivity, CNN even interviewed Mr. Issa — but mostly asked him about the use of Benghazi as a Republican fundraiser or — even worse — a poison pill against a future presidential run by Mrs. Clinton.
The greatest surprise was that CNN was bold enough to air a special on Benghazi — another of the “phony scandals” President Obama again criticized during a campaign-style appearance on Tuesday. However, why would the network — purporting to set out the whole truth on the tragedy — somehow overlook the work of its own reporter, Jake Tapper? On Aug. 1, Mr. Tapper reported, “Sources now tell CNN dozens of people working for the CIA were on the ground that night, and that the agency is going to great lengths to make sure whatever it was doing, remains a secret.” The hush-ups have included the aggressive use of polygraphs and even, according to Rep. Frank R. Wolf, Virginia Republican, the use of nondisclosure agreements. Mr. Tapper even suggested that the reason behind the secrecy may have been that “the U.S. agencies operating in Benghazi were secretly helping to move surface-to-air missiles out of Libya, through Turkey, and into the hands of Syrian rebels.”
If that’s true, then Benghazi may not be Watergate at all but Iran-Contra, the arms scandal that nearly ended the presidency of Ronald Reagan. If the Benghazi diplomatic facility was actually being used to warehouse arms shipments to Syrian rebels, then that fact immediately raises a whole new set of issues. Among the most important: Were those arms shipments legal and did they occur within the guidelines set by Congress? Was Congress even informed that Operation Fast and Furious was being extended mysteriously to Syrian rebels? If the United States was mounting such a sensitive operation — with life-and-death implications for many different actors and agendas — then why on earth was that facility left so badly unprotected? While intelligence often tends to be ambiguous, defending a uniquely sensitive facility is Job One, especially against a background of steadily rising violence. On Sept. 11, it should have been a no-brainer.
Former CIA Director Michael V. Hayden called interagency coordination “team ball” but refused to second-guess those involved, either the military forces who took 24 hours to get boots on the ground or the FBI, which took a full month to arrive. At what point do we connect the dots and ask: Who is the chief executive that all these government departments work for? Mr. Obama even suggested the answer when he defended Mrs. Rice last fall, urging her congressional critics to “have that discussion with me.” OK, Mr. President, why not discuss it with a Watergate-style investigation that Mr. Wolf is calling for?
Col. Ken Allard, retired from the Army, is a former NBC News military analyst and author on national security issues.