A huge wave of public testimony, reports and documents on what happened in Benghazi now floods Washington, and little of it focuses on the role of Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton before, on, or after Sept. 11, 2012.
Over the past 18 months, there have been at least seven public congressional hearings and three fact-finding reports on the terrorist attack. If not invisible, Mrs. Clinton is certainly portrayed as being only in the background during Benghazi, unaware of key events.
In the early post-Benghazi days on Capitol Hill, Republicans tried to pry “what did she know and when did she know it” information out of witnesses. But in later hearings, her name came up rarely — if at all.
On key questions, there is a dead end. For example, the nation’s two most senior military officials said they never spoke with Mrs. Clinton during the eight-hour crisis in Benghazi, Libya.
The State Department refused to cooperate for a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigation, Republicans say, and her name is not in the final report.
Mrs. Clinton testified that she was never informed about how susceptible the Benghazi diplomatic mission was to attack or about requests for more security officers. On the infamous Benghazi talking points, that process was carried out below her level, she said.
At the recently concluded public hearing of Michael J. Morell, the CIA deputy director who coordinated the “talking points” with State, references to Mrs. Clinton, who leads in polls to be the next Democratic presidential nominee, were made twice as asides, not as to Benghazi facts.
P.J. Crowley, who was Mrs. Clinton’s top spokesman at State in her first year, said Republicans have tried to nail her but there simply is no evidence.
“Benghazi happened on her watch, so she will always have a connection to the attack,” Mr. Crowley said. “There have been some efforts to make it about her, which I suspect will continue despite the lack of evidence.”
Lawyer Victoria Toensing has another view. She said members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence displayed incompetence while questioning Mr. Morell.
“Nobody from the House committee asked about her,” said Mrs. Toensing, who represents Gregory Hicks, the chief of mission in Tripoli that day who was among the first to blow the whistle on lax security in Benghazi and a lack of help from Washington during the crisis. “Was that hearing somewhat incompetent? Yes.”
Mrs. Toensing said the investigative failings pertaining to Mrs. Clinton began much earlier in the search to explain the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and his aide, Sean Smith.
State’s own investigation, by the accountability review board, gave Mrs. Clinton a pass. It never interviewed her on facts and decided that culpability lay at a much lower level, said former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, a co-chairman of the board.
His report said Stevens was in Benghazi that day “independent” of Washington.
“It’s a lie. An outright lie,” Mrs. Toensing said, adding that Mrs. Clinton’s fingerprints can be seen on that point.
“One of the most important facts about her is left out. Why was Chris in Benghazi?” the attorney said. “He was in Benghazi because on the day he was sworn in, Hillary met with him privately [in May 2012] and said she wanted him to go to Benghazi and assess whether it could be made a permanent post.”
Stevens met with Mr. Hicks and “Chris told him about this priority of the secretary’s,” Mrs. Toensing said. After the new ambassador took care of many initial tasks, September became the month he had to act on Benghazi before the fiscal year — and thus money — ended Sept. 30.
“He was there because of Hillary Clinton, and when the [accountability review board] interviewed Greg [Hicks], Greg said that to Pickering,” Mrs. Toensing said.
The review board took notes but did not transcribe its witness testimonies, which would have formed a more complete historical record.
Mr. Hicks has been denied access to the notes, Mrs. Toensing said.
Talking points issued
Mr. Crowley, Mrs. Clinton’s former spokesman, said there is historical precedence for putting a mission in a contested area such as Benghazi. The State Department erected two large complexes in Iraq and Afghanistan amid wars to further the goal of “expeditionary diplomacy.” Mrs. Clinton embraced the strategy, he said.
“This trend helps explain what Chris Stevens was doing in a post-conflict environment in Libya,” Mr. Crowley said. “He understood better than anyone that diplomats cannot hermetically seal themselves off from danger and do the job they were sent to do. Benghazi is about the nature of conflict in the 21st century, not about any one person.”
In January, a second major report emerged on Benghazi. This one, too, was Clinton-less.
The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a bipartisan report that attempted, after months of investigation, to lay out an official chronology of what officials did to prepare for and respond to the attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission. Mrs. Clinton’s name is not mentioned in the report.
The committee’s Republicans wrote in an addendum that the State Department stonewalled the investigation by refusing requests for documents and witnesses.
“We surmise that this lack of forthrightness stems from a desire to protect individual political careers, now and in the future, and the Department’s reputation, at the expense of learning all the facts and apportioning responsibility,” the Republican senators wrote.
Then there are the long-debated “talking points,” President Obama’s first report to the nation about what happened in Benghazi.
The White House-State Department-CIA back-and-forth emails that produced the Sept. 16, 2012, talking points contain no reference to the secretary of state. Her fingerprints do not appear during two days of intense exchanges during which Clinton aides rejected various CIA versions. In the end, the CIA produced a brief statement that blamed protesters — an assertion Republicans say fit the president’s re-election campaign themes but not the facts.
The CIA’s first version turned out to be accurate, but under internal and outside pressure during two days, all references to al Qaeda and Islamic terrorists were removed.
‘She’s definitely culpable’
As Mrs. Clinton worked that late afternoon on Sept. 11 and into the night, no U.S. military help ever arrived at a CIA annex under attack for eight hours. Two former Navy SEALs were killed in their effort to protect CIA officers and huddled diplomats who were rescued from the burning compound.
Retired Army Gen. Carter Ham, who led U.S. Africa Command at the time, has stated that no one from State on Sept. 11 ever asked for a military rescue attempt.
Mrs. Clinton’s role in that lack of a request? Gen. Ham was not asked that question when he appeared in secret before a House Armed Services subcommittee in June, according to a declassified transcript.
Mrs. Clinton’s inner circle is known to be fiercely loyal. When CNN attempted to produce a Clinton documentary that would likely be favorable, all 100 aides and Democrats contacted refused to cooperate. Director Charles Ferguson canceled the project.
“I discovered that nobody, and I mean nobody, was interested in helping me make this film,” Mr. Ferguson wrote in The Huffington Post.
Larry C. Johnson, a former CIA official and State counterterrorism official, said the same thing that happened to Mr. Ferguson happened to Benghazi investigators.
“It’s part of the ‘protect Hillary’ deal. That’s what’s going on,” Mr. Johnson said. “But she’s definitely culpable. The security at the annex and so-called consulate was the responsibility of the State Department. Libya was one of the top five foreign policy priorities for the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton. She didn’t do anything. That’s the point.”
In her own words
Mrs. Clinton’s aides also tried to control post-attack information coming out of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli.
When Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, visited the embassy, a State Department attorney — referred to by one Republican as a “spy” — was not allowed in his briefing because his security clearance was not high enough.
The next thing Mr. Hicks knew, he was getting a phone call from Cheryl Mills, Mrs. Clinton’s chief of staff.
“She was very upset,” Mr. Hicks told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
An example of a brief and unsuccessful attempt by Republicans to find Mrs. Clinton culpable occurred in February 2013 at a Senate Committee on Armed Services hearing.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican, noted Stevens’ cable to the State Department on Aug. 15, one month before the attack, in which he said the Benghazi compound could not sustain an assault.
At the witness table sat the nation’s two highest military officials: Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Joint Chiefs chairman. Asked whether they discussed the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi with the secretary of state, both men said they had not.
Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, asked what conversations the men had with Mrs. Clinton between the first attack on the diplomatic mission and the next morning when the CIA annex was shelled. Mr. Panetta said he and Gen. Dempsey never spoke with Mrs. Clinton during those critical hours.
When Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, asked whether it was true that Mrs. Clinton never saw Stevens’ Aug. 15 warning, Gen. Dempsey answered, “Well, I don’t know that she didn’t know about the cable.”
Asked whether he would be stunned if she never saw it, Gen. Dempsey responded, “I would call myself surprised that she didn’t.”
For now, the lone source for a detailed account of what Mrs. Clinton did and did not do regarding Benghazi is — herself.
In January 2013, as her four years as secretary of state came to an end, she sat alone before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to tell the Benghazi story as she saw it.
About Stevens’ request for more security, she said: “The specific security requests pertaining to Benghazi, you know, were handled by the security professionals in the department. I didn’t see those requests. They didn’t come to me. I didn’t approve them. I didn’t deny them.”
On the talking points, she said: “I wasn’t involved in the talking points process. As I understand it, as I’ve been told, it was a typical interagency process.”
On what she did that night at her desk in Foggy Bottom, she testified: “I participated in a secure videoconference of senior officials from the intelligence community, the White House and DOD. We were going over every possible option, reviewing all that was available to us, any actions we could take.”