The Libyan City That’s a U.S. Partisan Flashpoint
On Sept. 11, 2012, four Americans were killed in attacks on a diplomatic compound and a CIA outpost in Benghazi, Libya. The events of that night had been the subject of seven investigations that produced tens of thousands of pages and led to changes in U.S. diplomatic security worldwide. Then, in May 2014, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives voted along party lines to create a special committee to investigate further. Republicans had said there was an effort by the White House to protect President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign by falsely claiming that the attack was a spontaneous reaction to an anti-Muslim video rather than a planned act of terrorism. Democrats said the committee’s mission was to exploit a tragedy to discredit Obama, boost Republican fundraising and undermine Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate who was U.S. secretary of state at the time of the attack. Two years later, the committee issued its report. It won’t be the last word on what happened.
The Republicans who led the House Benghazi select committee released an 800-page report in June 2016. While the report questioned Clinton’s judgment, saying she should have recognized that extremists posed a risk to U.S. officials in Libya before the attacks, it found no new evidence of wrongdoing by her. Democrats on the committee released their own report that said the investigation, which cost taxpayers $7 million, unveiled little new information while targeting Clinton politically. The committee issued subpoenas in March 2015 for more Clinton e-mails after it was reported that she used a personal e-mail account while she was secretary of state; Clinton testified before the committee in October 2015. Prior to the Benghazi select committee’s investigation, the attack had already been reviewed by Congress, news organizations and the State Department’s independent Accountability Review Board, which blamed mid-level officials for inadequate security measures. The Republican-led House Intelligence Committee released a report in November 2014 following its own two-year investigation. That report repudiated “the swirl of rumors and unsupported allegations” over the Benghazi assault and found there was never a “stand-down” order blocking rescue efforts, though other Republicans questioned that report’s accuracy.
In August 2011, Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was driven from power with the help of NATO airstrikes. In June 2012, Chris Stevens, who had been in Benghazi as the U.S. liaison to Libyan rebels during the uprising, took up his post as ambassador in the capital, Tripoli. He traveled to Benghazi in September to meet with militia leaders to discuss security — and died of smoke inhalation in the safe room of the U.S. diplomatic compound after it came under attack. In a series of television interviews on Sept. 16, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, said the “best information” available showed that the attack began as a “spontaneous reaction” to an anti-Muslim video on the internet, as had been the case earlier that day at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. In fact, intelligence agencies had preliminary evidence that individuals linked to al-Qaeda were involved, but wanted that withheld from the talking points prepared for Rice to protect classified sources and to avoid compromising any FBI investigation into the attack on Americans, according to the findings of the Senate Intelligence Committee. That conclusion is disputed by the panel’s Republicans. A definitive account of what happened and why remains elusive. Investigations by Congress and news organizations suggest that the attacks were the work of Islamist militias including Ansar al-Sharia, a group inspired by al-Qaeda, and involved a combination of planning and spontaneous anger over the video.
Initially, Congress united in bipartisan demands for accountability and changes to safeguard diplomatic missions. That quickly gave way to partisan skirmishing, as “Benghazi” evolved into Republican political shorthand for suspected duplicity by the administration. In 2014, dissenting Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee concluded that officials sought to “frame the story” in a way that wouldn’t contradict the president’s campaign claim that al-Qaeda “had been decimated and was on the run.” Obama has accused the Republicans of pushing “phony scandals.” Clinton campaign staffers saw evidence of this in comments made by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy in September 2015 linking Clinton’s declining poll numbers to the investigation. The American public is likewise divided: Polls have shown most Democrats disapprove of the Congressional hearings on Benghazi while Republicans are for them. In the meantime, Congress has paid scant attention to events in Libya, where the chaos after Qaddafi’s fall allowed militant groups, notably Islamic state, to take root.
The Reference Shelf
- The U.S. House Select Committee on Benghazi report on the attacks.
- The U.S. House Intelligence Committee report on the attacks.
- The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s review of the attacks.
- The U.S. House Armed Services Committee report on Benghazi.
- The U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs report on Benghazi, “Flashing Red.”
- New York Times article, “A Deadly Mix in Benghazi,” based on several months of investigation.
First published June 17, 2014