One of the biggest hurdles in Hillary Rodham Clinton’s potential path to the White House may have become easier to clear.
An extensive report Sunday in The New York Times casts doubt on Republican claims that al Qaeda played a key role in last year’s deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya. The article lends badly needed credence to the White House version of events and might remove some of the blame from the former secretary of state’s shoulders as she gears up for a 2016 presidential run.
A top House Republican went so far Sunday as to suggest that there may be a coordinated effort to help Mrs. Clinton — who is widely thought to be seeking the Democratic presidential nomination and leads her Republican counterparts in most polls — escape the shadow of Benghazi.
“I find the timing odd,” Rep. Mike Rogers, Michigan Republican and chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said of The New York Times piece and its political ramifications during an interview on “Fox News Sunday.”
Although he wouldn’t go much further, Mr. Rogers said, “I find it interesting that there is this rollout of stories” related to Benghazi.
The New York Times report says al Qaeda did not infiltrate Benghazi and backed up the initial White House claim that the event largely was spontaneous, wasn’t planned by al Qaeda’s central leaders and was fueled at least in part by outrage over anti-Islamic videos produced in the U.S.
The piece makes clear that the facts on the ground in Benghazi were murkier than what has been portrayed by both sides, and that neither Republicans’ nor the administration’s account is entirely accurate.
Democrats quickly used the report to dispute Mr. Rogers, Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and others who have cited Benghazi as evidence that President Obama has not dismantled al Qaeda to the degree he claimed en route to winning re-election last year.
“I hope Chairman Issa and others have learned a lesson from this. Chairman Issa and members of that committee crusaded for over a year on what was really a fairy tale, claiming that the administration knew all along al Qaeda was involved and wouldn’t admit it,” said Rep. Joaquin Castro, Texas Democrat and a member of the House Armed Services Committee. Mr. Castro appeared on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on Sunday.
As secretary of state at the time of the assault that claimed the lives of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans, Mrs. Clinton has been a key target of Republicans who accuse the administration of failing to secure American assets and personnel in Benghazi and willfully hiding the truth for their own political benefit.
The reporting, to some degree, could shield Mrs. Clinton from charges that she participated in what critics have called a cover-up.
While not targeting Mrs. Clinton by name, Republicans on Sunday said parts of the article conflict directly with information in other reports and the sworn testimony of Americans on the ground in Benghazi.
“People from this administration, career professionals, have said under oath there was no evidence of any kind of reaction to a video and, in fact, this was a planned attack that came quickly. That’s the evidence we have,” Mr. Issa said on “Meet the Press,” referring to testimony from U.S. diplomats who described the anti-Islamic video as a nonevent in Libya at the time.
Other Republicans also disputed the notion that al Qaeda wasn’t involved. They noted that terrorist groups with clear connections to al Qaeda took part in the assault.
Even some lawmakers sympathetic to the administration say it’s misleading to suggest that al Qaeda had nothing to do with the incident.
“Intelligence indicates al Qaeda was involved,” said Rep. Adam B. Schiff, California Democrat and a member of the House intelligence committee.
Despite the latest report, Mr. Schiff said, he does not believe the State Department and Mrs. Clinton specifically are entirely absolved.
“I don’t think The New York Times report is designed to exonerate the security lapses within the State Department that left our people vulnerable,” he said in an appearance on “Fox News Sunday.”