- - Wednesday, January 29, 2014


Words make a big difference in our understanding of events.

The most memorable quote about the deadly and tragic terror attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi was uttered by the secretary of state at a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“What difference, at this point, does it make?” an exacerbated Hillary Clinton said during her testimony that day.

Of course, she was referring to the debate about how the attack on Sept. 11, 2012 unfolded. Was it a spontaneous reaction to a movie produced in America, as the administration initially claimed? Or was it better described as a meticulously planned attack by radical jihadists with ties to al Qaeda? The secretary said that it didn’t matter how it happened or why.

Others haven’t been quite as dismissive.

The New York Times issued an investigative report that supported the administration’s narrative that al Qaeda, its affiliates and its followers were not involved. A much more conclusive and bipartisan study issued by the Senate Intelligence Committee conversely characterized al Qaeda, its affiliates and its followers as being directly involved, and that the attack could have been prevented.

Two investigations with two different conclusions. Does it make a difference?

You bet it does. A national security strategy to ensure the safety of the United States and its citizens against threats described as spontaneous, independent and unpredictable is one thing. A strategy based upon an understanding that threats are planned, organized and continuous requires a completely alternate set of tactics.

It cannot work both ways.

On Sept. 11, 2012, the administration had already bought and sold the narrative that the West was winning the war against al Qaeda. They said al Qaeda was on the run and the Arab Spring uprisings were turning a new chapter in the Middle East and North Africa.

It was the administration’s “Mission Accomplished” moment. Al Qaeda was the enemy and we were winning decisively.

Blaming a video that nobody saw or knew about supported the spin that America was winning, that this was an unpredictable and isolated attack. Conceding al Qaeda involvement would signal that it was not on the run. Instead, it had reached the capacity to do something no one had been able to do since the Carter administration: kill an American ambassador.

The administration has since changed its definition of the enemy as core al Qaeda with its followers and affiliates as just minor league players that don’t need to be taken as seriously.

I suppose that’s one way of looking at a movement determined to destroy the West at all costs and has no respect for innocent human life, but there is another that is more accurate.

The president’s own hand-picked Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies recently testified before Congress that the enemy is “radical Islam.”

At the Investigative Project on Terrorism, we were heartened when Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Dianne Feinstein, on CNN’s “State of the Union,” described the threat that we face as the “very fundamentalist jihadist Islamic community. That is that the West is responsible for everything that goes wrong and that the only thing that’s going to solve this is Islamic shariah law and the concept of the caliphate.”

This, we believe, is the comprehensive definition of the threat that is needed.

Both she and current House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers state in no uncertain terms that the danger we face today from radical jihadists is as great as it was in the days leading up to Sept. 11, 2001. It is on the move in Iraq, Afghanistan, throughout the Middle East, northern Africa and other parts of Africa.

America must recognize the threat that Mrs. Feinstein, Mr. Rogers and the president’s own advisory group articulate. Their words should mark the baseline for developing a strategy to confront, contain and ultimately defeat the threat against America and the West.

It is time to put “What difference, at this point, does it make?” to rest. How we understand and describe our enemies makes all the difference in the world.

Pete Hoekstra is a former chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He is currently the Shillman Senior Fellow with the Investigative Project on Terrorism, specializing in national security, international relations, global terrorism and cybersecurity.



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