Republicans would like us to believe the administration has been caught red-handed lying about the true cause of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya before the elections, after former CIA Director David Petraeus testified behind closed doors at Congress today. Maybe.
It's hard to be sure, given that we don't have the transcript, and Republican and Democrat legislators emerged with opposing interpretations of what he said.
So if you listen to Representative Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, Petraeus "completely debunked" accusations that the White House politicized the Benghazi issue by suppressing intelligence that suggested it was a terrorist attack. (There was motive for muddying the issue: Weeks before the presidential election, the Obama campaign would have preferred not to see their candidate's record on fighting terrorism punctured.) An unidentified official also told the Associated Press that the CIA kept quiet about terrorist involvement so as not to let them know the U.S. was onto them. Ambassador to the United Nations (and potential secretary of state) Susan Rice was reading from declassified, expurgated talking points when she pushed the theory in public that the attack was set off by an anti-Muslim video. So no conspiracy there.
Representative Peter King, a New York Republican, told a whole different story of the testimony. By his account, Petraeus opened a window on a cover-up, saying there was a difference between what the CIA reported and the talking points from which Rice spoke. Key here was that Petraeus said he didn't know who made the changes, suggesting this may not have been a purely technical issue of classification by the CIA. If it wasn't the CIA that made the changes, who did? And why?
It isn't clear yet to me that Petraeus has nailed the case for either side. There is every reason to believe that in the first hours and day or two after the attack, no one knew what exactly had happened. It's probable that the involvement of a CIA safe house -- the so-called annex -- further clouded what the administration was able to say. But Rice was pushing the video theory several days after that fog of war explanation seems adequate.
What's missing here is the bottom line -- not on the politics of who should have said what when, but on what kind of attack this was. While the Libyan militia that allegedly carried it out has a leader with ties to al-Qaeda, and an organized armed attack on a U.S. consulate is by definition a terrorist act, what we know of the nature of the assault doesn't bear the hallmarks of a crack al-Qaeda operation. The consulate was hit by one rocket-propelled grenade and a handful of bullets. The attackers then set fire to the building but didn't seem to be aware that Ambassador Christopher Stevens was inside. He later died of smoke inhalation. That looks a lot like opportunism on the part of an Islamist Libyan militia.
If the White House did cover up what it knew, it shouldn't have done so on any number of counts. Set aside misleading the American people, it should have been possible to explain to the American people that Stevens's death, in a lawless country run by militias after a revolution, was a tragic sacrifice by a diplomat brave enough and committed enough to accept the risk of doing his job without heavy security. This happened on 9/11, but it was not another 9/11.
(Marc Champion is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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