The Three Benghazi Timelines We Need Answers About
Every White House sooner or later succumbs to the temptation to cover up an embarrassment.
By JAMES ROSEN
‘I do not think,” Nixon campaign aide Jeb Magruder told the Senate Watergate committee in the spring of 1973, “there was ever any discussion that there would not be a coverup.” Mr. Magruder’s lament aptly described the bureaucratic impulse to hide inconvenient facts that seizes every modern White House at some point. His testimony was brought to mind by the growing number of high-profile Republicans accusing the Obama White House of engaging in a coverup in the Benghazi case.
Much remains unknown about the terrorist attacks that killed U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans on Sept. 11. To fill in those gaps, three separate probes—by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the State Department’s Accountability Review Board, and various congressional committees—are now under way. But in our warp-speed information age, enough evidence has already accrued to the record to lead even dispassionate observers to ponder whether the term “coverup” applies.
William Safire, the late New York Times columnist—and one of the few senior Nixon aides to escape Watergate unsullied—once defined coverup broadly to include “any plan to avoid detection of wrongdoing . . . an act to conceal a mistake.”
Today, the issue is not so much the withholding of information as the denial of the obvious: The stubborn insistence by top Obama administration officials on an interpretation of events starkly at odds with the plainly correct conclusion of terrorism. When White House Press Secretary Jay Carney finally acknowledged that the terrorism conclusion was “self-evident” after he had spent the previous eight days pressing a wholly different account of events, Mr. Carney’s admission carried strong echoes of Nixon-era Press Secretary Ron Ziegler declaring that his earlier Watergate statements were “inoperative.”
Any coverup is attended by competing timelines: the acts of transgression, and the subsequent efforts to conceal or mislead or delay knowledge regarding those events. A famous theme of the Watergate hearings was the quest of investigators into the coverup to find out, as the saying became, what did they know and when did they know it?
The Benghazi episode is best viewed as a series of three timelines. When fully exposed, the facts of the “pre” period before the attacks will tell us how high up the chain, and in which agencies, fateful decisions were made about security precautions for the consulate and annex in Benghazi. We also stand to learn how the planning for the attacks could have been put in motion without being detected until too late.
Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb, who oversees diplomatic security, testified before the House on Oct. 10 that she and her colleagues had placed “the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11 for what had been agreed upon.” While not the stuff of a perjury charge, this testimony cannot be true, given the known outcome of the Sept. 11 attack on the consulate and the pleas for enhanced security measures that we now know Foggy Bottom to have rebuffed.
The second Benghazi timeline encompasses the five or six hours on the evening of Sept. 11 when the attacks transpired. A State Department briefing on Oct. 9 offered an account that was riveting but incomplete. When all of the facts of these hours are compiled, we will have a truer picture of the tactical capabilities of al Qaeda and its affiliates in North Africa. We will also learn what really happened to Amb. Stevens that night, and better appreciate the vulnerabilities with which our diplomatic corps, bravely serving at 275 installations across the globe, must still contend.
The third and final Benghazi timeline is the one that has fostered charges of a coverup. It stretches eight days—from 3:40 p.m. on Sept. 11, when the consulate was first rocked by gunfire and explosions, through the morning of Sept. 19, when Matthew G. Olsen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, publicly testified before the Senate that Benghazi was a terrorist attack.
Mr. Olsen’s testimony effectively ended all debate about whether the attacks had grown out of a protest over an anti-Islam video. Three days before Mr. Olsen put a stop to the blame-YouTube storyline, U.N. Amb. Susan Rice, echoing Mr. Carney, had gone on five Sunday TV chat shows and maintained that the YouTube video has spurred the violence.
If the Obama White House has engaged in a coverup in the Benghazi case, the ostensible motivation would bear some similarity to that of all the president’s men in Watergate. Mr. Obama faces a rendezvous with the voters on Nov. 6, and in a race much tighter than the Nixon-McGovern contest of 1972. In such a circumstance, certain kinds of disclosure are always unwelcome.
As with the Watergate conspirators, who were eager to conceal earlier actions that related to the Vietnam War, the Obama team is determined to portray its pre-9/11 conduct, and particularly its dovish Mideast policies, in the most favorable light. After all, no one wants to have on his hands—even if resulting from sins of omission and not commission—the deaths of four American patriots. Or as Mr. Obama told Jon Stewart on Comedy Central this week, the deaths were “not optimal.”
Ms. Lamb, in her congressional testimony, said that from her command center in Washington she was able to track the lethal events of Benghazi in something akin to real time. She was in constant communication with the agent on the consulate grounds who first notified Washington that an assault—”attack, attack,” the agent said—was under way. Ms. Lamb also said that the State Department was receiving a steady stream of data on the afternoon of Sept. 11 indicating that terrorism was afoot. Such admissions are what have given rise to charges of a coverup.
“Everyone had the same intelligence,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told Fox News last week. But that also appears untrue. How information immediately made known to an assistant secretary of state could somehow be withheld for eight days from the secretary of state herself—and from our U.N. ambassador, from the director of national intelligence, from the analytic corps at the Central Intelligence Agency, from the president’s chief spokesman, and from the president himself—now forms the central question in the Benghazi affair.
In Tuesday night’s debate with Mitt Romney, President Obama claimed to have “told” the American people that Benghazi was a terror attack the very next day, Sept. 12, when speaking from the Rose Garden. The assertion was untrue, despite moderator Candy Crowley’s ruling to the contrary. The president had only spoken generally of terror attacks, and Benghazi would have been understood to fall under that umbrella only if it had been acknowledged as a terror attack.
On Sept. 12, that was not the administration’s line. Not until his afternoon appearance on “The View” on Sept. 25—the “two weeks” of delay that Mr. Romney alluded to in the debate—did the president offer Americans an explanation of Benghazi that made no reference to a protest over a video. The YouTube connection had figured prominently in his Benghazi pronouncements as late as Mr. Obama’s Sept. 20 appearance on Univision, and even in his address to the United Nations General Assembly on the morning of Sept. 25.
“The business of intelligence has become politicized,” says an intelligence source with knowledge of the Benghazi episode, “regardless of which party is in charge.” This is an enduring legacy of Vietnam and Watergate. Now, as then, American voters horrified by loss of life in a time of war will cast ballots without having all the facts that might inform their choice.
Mr. Rosen is chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and author of “The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate,” (Doubleday, 2008).