A Spin Too Far

A recently released email indicates that a White House official was actively involved in shaping the Obama Administration’s depiction of the cause of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi — an attack that killed four Americans, including Chris Stevens, the Ambassador to Libya.  The release of the email was compelled by a court after having been withheld by the Obama Administration for more than a year before being released pursuant to Freedom of Information Act requests.

The email is from Ben Rhodes, an assistant to President Obama and the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications.  It addresses the preparation of Susan Rice, then the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, for her appearance on Sunday morning talk shows to discuss the Benghazi attack and describes “goals” to be achieved.  One goal was to “underscore these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”  Another goal was to “reinforce the President and Administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.”  The email also says that “the currently available information is that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired” rather than being a planned attack.

The Washington Post website says the email “clearly showed a White House top priority was to shield Obama from criticism less than two months before voters decided whether to give him a second term.” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney says the email was not produced previously because it was not directly about the Benghazi attack but rather attempted to more broadly address Obama Administration policy and views about protests throughout the Middle East.

I try not to be naive about modern politics, where the immediate reaction to every bit of bad news is to try to develop a way to “spin” the news to better advantage.  Everyday Americans just need to understand that, for both parties, “spin” rules the day.  Even so, the newly released email is troubling.  Shouldn’t spin end at the water’s edge?  When we are talking about an attack that killed a U.S. Ambassador and three other Americans, isn’t the proper approach to wait until the facts are known, rather than actively shaping the comments of officials toward a story line that the White House thinks would better serve a President who is in the midst of a reelection campaign?

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Trying To Get To The Bottom Of Benghazi

Congressional hearings are underway into the storming of the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the killing of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.  The hearings are interesting — both for what they are telling us about what happened in Libya and within the U.S. government itself as the attacks unfolded, but also for what they are telling us about the twisted, hyper-partisan world of Washington, D.C.

During yesterday’s testimony, which the New York Times described as “riveting,” a veteran U.S. diplomat named Gregory Hicks gave a detailed account of the night of the attack.  Hicks, a 22-year Foreign Service veteran, became the head State Department official in Libya after Ambassador Stevens was killed.  He testified about how a Special Operations team wanted to fly to Benghazi to help but was overruled by officials in Washington, who concluded it could not arrive in time to help.  Hicks also described being “stunned” and “embarrassed” when Administration officials, including UN Ambassador Susan Rice, initially portrayed the attack as a response to a YouTube video and how such comments angered the president of the Libyan National Assembly, who had called the attack a preplanned terrorist act.  Hicks testified that the Libyan government’s feeling of being undercut may have delayed their cooperation with Americans investigating the incident.  Furthermore, he said that when he raised questions about Rice’s comments, he was effectively demoted and led to understand that he should stop asking questions.

The testimony of Hicks and two other officials, Mark Thompson and Eric Nordstrom, indicate that there is still information to be uncovered and lessons to be learned about Benghazi.  When four Americans, including an ambassador, are killed, their deaths deserve a detailed inquiry and a careful evaluation, at the congressional level.  Such an evaluation should determine whether changes in law, security arrangements, staffing, or emergency response procedures are needed to prevent such an incident from ever happening again.

Unfortunately, in our modern government, things are never quite that simple.  The Times story linked above reflects that unfortunate fact, because much of the article is devoted to the “politics” of what should ideally be an apolitical, objective fact-finding exercise.  It’s ludicrous, and disheartening, and it is happening on both sides of the aisle.  Republicans should stop portraying every incident as “another Watergate”; it just allows their opponents to dismiss hearings such as yesterday’s as a politically motivated witch hunt.  And Democrats should stop trying to downplay the significance of Benghazi and resist every inquiry about why four Americans died.  That much, at least, is owed to the memories of those four Americans — and to the many other Americans who serve their country in diplomatic posts in dangerous parts of the world.

The Walls Around Benghazi, Starting To Crumble

Every day, new revelations come out about what happened at the American consulate in Benghazi on September 11.  Each revelation makes the incident more troubling and paints the Obama Administration is an increasingly disturbing light.

We now know that, in the months before the September 11 attack, there were multiple warnings and incidents, at the consulate itself and elsewhere in Benghazi, that made it clear that the area was dangerous and that consulate lacked sufficient security.  Why didn’t our government take steps to either significantly beef up security at the compound or remove our Ambassador and the consulate staff from the unsecure area?  Given the turmoil in Libya, protecting the security of Americans serving there should have been a high priority, but it obviously wasn’t.  The failure to act in response to repeated warnings and prior terrorist activity is astonishingly irresponsible.  Why hasn’t anyone in our government been held responsible for the failure to protect our people against a painfully obvious threat?

In addition, the information that has been dribbling out about the incident makes the initial “spontaneous mob” explanation offered by the Obama Administration especially inexplicable.  The people involved in the incident itself — from the State Department people who were following the incident in real time, to the people who received the frantic phone calls and messages from consulate personnel, to the military personnel and intelligence operatives who apparently tried to respond — understood that the incident was a planned and coordinated terrorist attack, not a reaction to a YouTube video about Mohammed.  Indeed, there was no apparent factual basis for believing the attack was an angry response to an obscure video.  So why did the YouTube video ever get blamed for the incident?  Who pushed the YouTube video story, instead of telling us the truth?

Today Kish and I watched Meet the Press, and we shook our heads when the Obama Administration spokesman tried to reassure us that the investigation of the incident is proceeding.  Really?  It’s been two months since four Americans were murdered, apparently needlessly.  Does it really take so long to figure out why warnings weren’t heeded, and who made the decision to ignore them?  And how can it possibly take two months to determine who came up with the phony YouTube video explanation for the carnage?  If our government can’t move more nimbly than this, what does it tell you about the capabilities of our government?

I hate to think that, with the election now only two days away, the Obama Administration is stonewalling and trying to run out the clock on a terrible failure that produced four dead Americans.  However, I’ve heard no other reasonable explanation for the fact that the Administration has not moved aggressively and quickly to figure out what happened, tell the American people the truth, and take whatever steps are necessary to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.  Is there another explanation?

The Final Debate

Tonight, in Florida, President Obama and Mitt Romney have their final debate.  This debate will focus on foreign policy and — as UJ notes in his post today about the Middle East — there is a lot to talk about.

The debate will follow the same format as the first debate.  There will be six 15-minute discussion pods on topics selected by the moderator, Bob Schieffer of CBS News.  The moderator will open each segment with a question, each candidate will have two minutes to respond, and the moderator will guide a discussion of the topic for the remainder of the 15 minutes.  The six topics selected by Schieffer are:  “America’s role in the world,” “Our longest war — Afghanistan and Pakistan,” “Red Lines — Israel and Iran,” “The Changing Middle East and the New Face of Terrorism (I and II),” and “The Rise of China and Tomorrow’s World.”  The moderator reserves the right to change the topics depending on developments, and the order of the topics also can be changed.

It will be interesting to see if there is a change in tone for tonight’s debate.  The last presidential debate was heated, with some very sharp exchanges.  Hyper-aggressive posturing by the candidates may be acceptable when domestic policy is being discussed, but foreign policy is a different arena.  Although the candidates obviously will be thinking of how their statements will affect the presidential race, they also need to be mindful of the foreign audience that will be watching the debate.  I’m sure the people of Israel, for example, will be carefully reviewing the discussion during the “Red Lines:  Israel and Iran” segment.  The candidates will need to speak clearly and be cautious in their comments and (of course!) avoid the devastating gaffe.  I’m sure both the President and Mitt Romney have been practicing the pronunciation of the names of foreign leaders.

For those of us here in America, Libya obviously has been in the spotlight.  Every day, revelations raise new questions about our security arrangements in Benghazi, our lack of a response while the attack was ongoing, and our conflicting and misleading statements after the attack ended.  Another big topic will be Afghanistan and Iraq, where so many of our sons and daughters have served for so long and so many families have suffered devastating losses.  What can we do to make sure that the gains obtained through their service are protected, while extricating ourselves from conflicts that seem never-ending?

It’s a dangerous world out there.  In addition to the rise of Islamic fanaticism and the always unsettled Middle East, there is the ongoing, hair-trigger stand-off between North and South Korea, a resurgent Russia eager to flex its geopolitical muscle, a European Union that seems to be collapsing under the weight of its fiscal irresponsibility, and tensions between China, Japan, and Taiwan about the sovereignty of islands, among many other issues.  UJ’s post notwithstanding, I don’t think President Bush can be blamed for all of these issues — and even if he could, laying blame on a President who has been out of office for four years does nothing to solve the problems.  In tonight’s debate I’ll be listening for thoughtful discussion of these issues and reasonable solutions, not finger-pointing.

Candy Crowley’s No-No

Moderating last night’s slugfest of a “town meeting” debate between President Obama and Mitt Romney was no enviable assignment.  Did CNN’s Candy Crowley overstep her proper role when she intervened during the candidates’ disagreement about Libya?  I think she did.

The exchange came as the candidates were arguing about the Obama Administration’s statements that the attack on the consulate in Benghazi was precipitated by a YouTube video, and specifically whether the President had labeled the attack an “act of terror” in remarks he made shortly after the attack.  When Romney tried to pin the President down on that point, the President responded that Romney should get the transcript.  Romney replied that it took the President 14 days to call the attack a terrorist act.  Crowley then interjected that the President “did in fact” call it an act of terror, the President said “”Can you say it a little louder, Candy?” and the Obama supporters in the audience applauded — and thereby broke the rule that the audience should not respond to any statements.  A transcript of the full debate can be viewed here.

Were Crowley and the President right in their interpretation of the Rose Garden statement?  The official White House transcript of the remarks is available here, and I think the interpretation of those remarks is highly debatable.  The President did mention “acts of terror” — in paragraph 10 of the 13-paragraph statement — by saying:  “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.”   But is that lone reference, which refers to multiple “acts of terror” and restates a time-honored presidential theme so oft-repeated that has almost become a platitude, really labeling the Benghazi attack a terrorist act?  Moreover, the President earlier states, in the fourth paragraph:  “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.  But there is absolutely no justification to this type of senseless violence.”  The statement about “denigrat[ing] the religious views of others” seems to be a reference to the YouTube video, and typically you would not call a planned terrorist act “senseless violence.”

My point is not to argue who was right or wrong in their characterization of the statement, but rather to note only that it is a debatable issue and to observe that Crowley stepped outside of her proper role in her interjection.  By purporting to state what the President “in fact” did, Crowley presumed to act as a judge.  She tossed the President a lifeline of sorts — which the President eagerly grabbed by asking Crowley to repeat herself — and she caused partisans in the audience to violate the “no applause” edict.  I think Crowley herself realized that she had blundered, because she immediately tried to even the ledger by saying that Romney was right in some of his criticism.  The proper course, however, would have been to say nothing, and let the people decide for themselves.

Crowley’s interjection was unfortunate for a larger reason: it feeds into an increasingly prevalent view that the news media is biased and can’t be trusted.  People who have that view and watched last night’s debate will conclude that if a member of the media can’t refrain from stating their personal interpretation even while moderating a presidential debate, the media can’t be trusted, period.  That’s bad for our country, because we need the press, warts and all, to ferret out the news and report it — and for that process to work we need for people to believe that the press is doing so fairly and objectively.

Many Questions To Be Answered, Publically And Quickly (IV)

I’m glad to see reports that Senate Democrats are joining their Republican colleagues in asking the Obama Administration to answer questions about what happened in Libya that led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.

As the story from The Hill linked above shows, the Obama Administration’s story about the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi remains vague and unfocused; today Administration aptly described the Administration position as “evolving.”   The Administration seems to have backed away from its initial position that the attack was the result of unplanned demonstrations about a YouTube video, and has begun to use words like terrorism and even, apparently, al Qaeda to describe the attack.  It’s long past time that full disclosure should be made, including communications between Ambassador Stevens and the U.S. State Department about security and terrorism issues in Libya and planning related to security at U.S. installations.

As the participation of Senate Democrats indicates, what happened in Benghazi is not a partisan political issue.  Instead, it is a national security issue, a sovereignty issue, and also an issue of fairness to American diplomatic personnel across the world.  We need to ensure that our people are adequately protected and that our government is reacting prudently and appropriately to threats and warnings.  As far as I am concerned, meaningful congressional hearings into the disastrous Benghazi incident cannot begin soon enough.

Many Questions To Be Answered, Publicly and Quickly (III)

We continue to get news about the murderous attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya and its aftermath — and none of the news is good.

The Obama Administration now concedes what seemed obvious from the outset:  that the attack in Benghazi was not a mob action but instead was a terrorist attack.  That leaves the question of why the Administration and its spokespeople, like the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, insisted for days that the attack was purely a response to The Innocence of Muslims YouTube video.

It’s also become clear that the burnt-out shell of the consulate was left unprotected for days, making the place ripe for loss of intelligence information.  Three days after the attack, for example, CNN found a journal kept by murdered U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens on the floor of the consulate.  The U.S. State Department has criticized CNN’s use of the journal, but the fact that it was found days after the attack by people wandering through the consulate raises serious issues about the competence of the State Department and its security arrangements.  Weren’t procedures in place to destroy sensitive information?  Why wasn’t the area secured more quickly?  If CNN was able to find the journal by rummaging around the site, what classified information might have been acquired by the terrorists who plotted the attack?

Finally, the New York Times has an article about the catastrophic effect of the Libyan attack on U.S. intelligence gathering activities in the Middle East.  As a result of the attacks a number of CIA operators and contractors had to bug out, leaving the U.S. as if it had its “eyes poked out.”  The large CIA presence in Benghazi puts the inadequate security arrangements in sharper focus, and heightens concerns that the names of confidential informants and sources, tentative conclusions reached by our agents, and other significant intelligence information may have been acquired by al Qaeda or other terrorist organizations.  If Benghazi was a major intelligence-gathering center, shouldn’t the security arrangements for the U.S. operations have been far more robust?

The State Department has created a “review board” to examine the attacks, and the FBI is apparently investigating.  That’s all fine, but Congress needs to get involved and begin prompt hearings into the incidents in Libya and Egypt — and, particularly, the many apparent failures in U.S. operations there.  We need to determine whether advance warnings were ignored, why our security arrangements were so woefully inadequate, why we were unable to secure the area for days after the attack, and what we need to do to ensure that such planned attacks on U.S. installations cannot happen again.

Many Questions To Be Answered, Publicly And Quickly

Many Questions To Be Answered, Publicly And Quickly (II)