Thursday, November 15, 2012

Benghazi attack feeding frenzy

Our Constitutional system was predicated, certainly in James Madison's mind, on a belief that competing ambitions among the various levels (local, state, federal) and branches (executive, legislative, judicial) would act as practical barriers to tyranny by, among other things, highlighting real and potential abuses of power.

The guys meeting in Philadelphia in 1789 to work on the Constitution weren't thinking in terms of political parties as we know them today, though they would develop soon enough. Partisan conflict can and has served some of the same function as other separation-of-powers institutions.

But for that to work, the party pursuing an investigation against a rival party needs to be reasonably reality-based. That's a bit much to expect of today's Republican Party. Since they endlessly pursued Bill Clinton in the 1990s over the Whitewater land deal and only came up with a rather sad love affair, and then used that as a club to impeach the President, their dependence on actual facts to justify jumping up and down and screaming about dirty deals and treason and whatever has decrease rather than increased.

So if any useful facts come out of the current Congressional investigations about the Benghazi attacks, it will probably be more to accident than to careful design of the investigations. Digby reminds us in Benghazi smell test Hullabaloo 11/15/2012 of how the present Republican scandal machine works:

It's also a very common form of right wing scandal mongering. They excel at "smell test" insinuations, ginning up the sense that there must be something very wrong with a flurry of questions, not necessarily related or leading to any obvious conclusion, but always leading to the impression that something very important was being covered up.

And the press inevitably loses its moorings, running around chasing each "lead" never really sure of exactly what they're looking for until the scandal takes on a life of its own. This one is on the verge of becoming one of those scandals, especially now that sexytime's on the menu.

There's no there there. It's exactly how Kevin describes it. But that isn't stopping the press from talking about "benghazi" [sic] as a "massive intelligence failure and cover-up" featuring John McCain every five minutes ranting about "fecklessness" and pretty much taking it upon himself to destroy Susan Rice over nothing. It's what they do.
For the benefit of at least historians, there would be some value in Congress looking carefully at what happened. Back in September just after the attack, I referred to some contradictory aspects of the story as it was then emerging (Varying versions of embassy-attack crisis incidents 09/17/2012):

The Obama Administration is going with the story that the Libya consulate attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens was an outgrowth of a protest of the Innocence of Muslims YouTube trailer and (alleged) film. Our UN Ambassador Susan Rice reiterated that position Sunday. (Ambassador Rice: Benghazi attack began spontaneously NBC News US 09/16/2012) The Libyan government is taking a different position, as Brad Knickerbocker reports in Libya attack: US doubts that Al Qaeda planned ahead 09/16/2012:

Rice’s comments put her at odds with Libyan officials, who continue to insist that the attack that killed Ambassador Stevens and the other Americans was planned well in advance of the protests that began on the anniversary of 9/11 and spread around the world.

"It was planned, definitely, it was planned by foreigners, by people who entered the country a few months ago, and they were planning this criminal act since their arrival," Libyan President Mohammed Magarief said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” Sunday.

So far, Libyan authorities have arrested some 50 individuals suspected of being connected to last week’s attack. President Magarief told CBS the suspects are connected to Al Qaeda, or are affiliates and sympathizers.

"We don't know what are the real intentions of these perpetrators," he said. "They entered Libya from different directions. Some of them definitely from Mali and Algeria."
Nancy Youssef and Amina Ismail report for McClatchy Newspapers (Anti-U.S. outrage over video began with Christian activist’s phone call to a reporter 09/15/20012):

Whether the Benghazi attack was linked to anger over the video remains uncertain – witnesses have said there was no protest preceding the attack – but the trauma of those deaths will likely scar U.S. perceptions for years, and while Saturday seemed calm across the region, the U.S. State Department made clear it fears the violence has not ended.
Later reports indicated that the CIA continued reporting that there was a demonstration over the anti-Muhammad YouTube video but they eventually confirmed that there had not been.

But that doesn't mean that anything nefarious was going on in the official statements. Initial reports on these incidents often get things wrong. Since diplomatic personnel were killed, it's easy to imagine that the CIA would want to be especially careful in putting out revised reports until they were verified. And it also seems plausible enough on the face of it that a well-prepared militia group could have decided on the attack on the US Benghazi consulate after hearing about the video. And the Libyan government presumably had their own reasons for spinning the information a certain way, potentially including trying to give an accurate report.

I'm also intrigued by something that former CIA director David Petraeus' close friend and unofficial spokesperson Paula Broadwell said a couple of weeks ago (Noah Shachtman and Spencer Ackerman, Mistress Revealed CIA Ops as Petraeus’ Mouthpiece Danger Room 11/12/2012):

In an Oct. 26 alumni symposium at the University of Denver, Paula Broadwell said that the CIA annex at the Benghazi consulate came under assault on Sept. 11 because it had earlier “taken a couple of Libyan militia members prisoner and they think the attack on the consulate was an effort to try to get these prisoners back. It’s still being vetted.” (That information was not part of the CIA’s timeline of the Benghazi assault, though Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin did mention it on air. Eli Lake of the Daily Beast reports that the CIA has denied any such detention.) “I don’t know if a lot of you have heard this,” Broadwell prefaced her remarks by saying. [my emphasis]
If the CIA was holding prisoners, that opens up a whole other potential useful and revealing line of inquiry. I don't know the particulars of how it affects official consular status, but it does provide a very substantial and practical reason that a militia might plausibly want to attack the place, whether or not the timing of the attack was affected by the anti-Muhammad video and the other protests around it.

And, as Marcy Wheeler notes in The February 17 Brigade Liberates the Prisoners Emptywheel 11/12/2012 suggests that the Administration may have some interest in covering up "that the militia that was supposedly friendly–indeed, had been friendly and responsive going back some months – was undermining us in this case."

So there are real and substantial questions surrounding the Benghazi attack. But there's good reason to doubt that those are the ones the Republicans will be asking.

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