On Thursday, Hillary Clinton will face the House Select Committee on Benghazi in one of the more highly anticipated congressional hearings of the year.
The battle lines are already clearly drawn. Republican lawmakers want to pin accountability on Mrs. Clinton for the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed four Americans at a woefully insecure diplomatic outpost in eastern Libya.
The former secretary of state’s defenders on the Democratic side will try to portray the whole investigation as a political witch hunt designed to tarnish Mrs. Clinton’s 2016 election chances, drawing as evidence some controversial comments on that point from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy.
But on the pages of this newspaper over the last three years, many indisputable and important facts about the Benghazi tragedy have been laid bare. Here’s a quick user guide to help you sort fact from fiction, spin from truth and politics from policy.
• FACT: Mrs. Clinton was a primary driver inside the Obama administration behind the decision to help Libyan rebels unseat Moammar Gadhafi from power in 2011, but her main argument for military intervention — that an imminent humanitarian crisis or genocide was about to occur — was never corroborated by U.S. intelligence or human rights groups.
The Washington Times earlier this year reported that the Pentagon was so concerned that Mrs. Clinton was going to war on false pretenses that it opened a secret channel to the Gadhafi regime to try to negotiate a peaceful resolution and avoid NATO intervention.
Those conversations were recorded and the tapes obtained by Times reporters Jeffrey Scott Shapiro and Kelly Riddell. They show the Pentagon’s own intelligence asset told the Libyans they believed President Obama was being fed misleading information from Mrs. Clinton’s State Department to justify military action.
U.S. intelligence officials confirmed they could not corroborate Mrs. Clinton’s claims that Gadhafi was about to harm large numbers of civilians, thus necessitating military action. As one intelligence official put it, “intelligence wasn’t driving the decision” to go to war. Some compared Mrs. Clinton’s effort to sell the Libyan war to President George W. Bush’s inaccurate WMD arguments for the Iraq War.
Likewise, human rights groups told The Times they knew of no imminent massacre or genocide.
• FACT: The U.S. State Department was aware of a U.S.-led covert effort to arm Libyan rebels in their fight against Gadhafi even though there was a United Nations ban on weapons transfers at the time.
The Times reported Wednesday that documents recovered from the burned-out Benghazi compound show State officials were monitoring several arms shipments from U.S. and other dealers to third-party countries that were destined for the Libyan rebels. In one case, State even approved a shipment to Libya from a California arm dealers before abruptly canceling it.
State officials and Mrs. Clinton have not provided an answer as to how the U.S. could justify facilitating such weapons shipments in the face of the U.N. ban or if any of the weapons shipments ended up in the hands of anti-American jihadis.
• FICTION: The State Department or CIA operated a covert network that repurposed weaponry in Libya and Syria to help rebels fights Bashir Assad.
This widely distributed theory has not been corroborated, and in fact was outright rejected by a House Intelligence Committee investigation chaired by then-Republican Rep. Mike Rogers back in 2014. The committee found “no evidence that the CIA conducted unauthorized activities in Benghazi and no evidence that the IC shipped arms to Syria.”
What is true is the State Department did operate a buyback program to gather back weapons that had made it into Libya during the revolution, with a particular focus on collecting surface-to-air missiles (SAMS) and MANPAD launchers. In addition, the CIA was spending time in Libya trying to monitor other countries’ and groups’ efforts to send weapons to Syria.
• FACT: The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi and the nearby CIA annexes was a terror attack that involved some preplanning and included members of al Qaeda-related groups.
The original storyline that the attack was the outgrowth of a spontaneous protest over an American anti-Islam video has been disproved. U.S. intelligence has concluded that a varied group of Islamist Libyans conducted the attacks and that part of their motivation was likely an edict from terror leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri to avenge the recent U.S. drone strike that killed a top Libyan leader inside al Qaeda. Part of the evidence that the attack was planned and orchestrated by terror elements includes security footage and the fact that the attackers used precision mortars.
• FICTION: The Obama administration had no basis for ever suggesting the video or a spontaneous protest were at the heart of the attack.
This is not true. There were clear conflicting reports coming in from intelligence during the early hours after the attack, some of which pointed to an organized attack and some pointing toward a spontaneous mob inspired by the anti-Islam video.
Within 72 hours of the attack, there was growing consensus in the intelligence community of al Qaeda-linked involvement, and the CIA’s own team in Libya had ruled out any spontaneous protest. But CIA headquarters did not officially rule out the role of the video and a spontaneous attack for nearly two weeks.
That said, the U.S. intelligence community also has concluded the early and unequivocal storyline that the attack was solely a spontaneous attack tied to the video also was flawed and inaccurate given the early indications of some terror group involvement. And any accounts given after the CIA’s official conclusion on Sept. 24, 2012, ruling out a protest would clearly have been misleading.
• FICTION: The U.S. military and/or CIA rejected air support or ordered an aircraft to stand down.
This widely reported rumor has likewise been discredited, in part because the Pentagon and CIA have said they had no assets in the region that could have even reached Benghazi quickly.
The House Intelligence Committee, however, does relay one anecdote that may have led to some of the rumors. It is true that a CIA officer made a call for air support from a Spectre gunship he believed was in the area during the attack, but that request was never relayed because a commanding officer knew the aircraft was not nearby.
• FACT: The Benghazi consulate had every reason to fear it was a likely target for a terror attack and was woefully unprepared to repel such an attack because officials at the State Department in Washington turned down multiple requests for additional security resources.
Of all the original storylines offered by the State Department in the early days after the attack, the claim by top officials that Benghazi had adequate resources for the threat level it faced has been the most widely debunked.
From the Accountability Review Board to the House Intelligence Committee, damning evidence has emerged that Washington failed to get the necessary resources to protect its employees in the face of increasing dangers and attacks on Western interests in the city.
As the former Green Beret who assessed security at Benghazi and pleaded for more resources told The Times: “Washington decided they weren’t sending any more security resources, period. It was a ‘you are on your own’ strategy.”
That decision left State officials still working in the city scrambling for other alternatives, like extra support from private guards, the CIA and the emerging new Libyan government. Those proved too inadequate when the attack occurred, although there is ample evidence that a handful of CIA officers, contractors and military special forces fought valiantly and were able to save many lives.
• FICTION: All the post-Benghazi security reforms have been completed at State Department outposts across the world. This is not true three years later. In fact, only 26 of the 29 ARB recommendations have been completed. Better security surveillance systems are still a year off in some high-risk locations, and the department admits it has not completed one of the single most compelling recommendations it received: to decrease its reliance on foreign governments to provide security to U.S. personnel in danger zones.
In addition, one of the separate recommendations offered by State’s inspector general — that special standards be created to judge the security of compounds in high-risk, high-threat locations — has been outright rejected by the department.
That said, there is widespread agreement that State has made substantial progress in fortifying its installations around the world, including hiring 150 new security agents, improving training, growing Marine security contingents and improving the ability to combat fires like the one that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens.