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Investigating Benghazi

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Even before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee announced it would begin hearings on last month’s terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, it was clear to many that important questions needed to be answered.

The initial spin from the Obama administration was that the attack was a spontaneous protest by devout Muslims angered by an anti-Muhammad video. This protest, we were told, was co-opted by al Qaeda terrorists who joined the fray with grenade launchers and bazookas (apparently kept available for use on just such occasions).

But this was all so inconsistent with what was known early on that it seemed to make no sense, and the perception quickly spread that the administration was going out of its way to portray the attack as something that could not have been expected and therefore not a reflection of any systemic failure of the president’s foreign policy.

To be sure, the State Department, in a break with the administration’s line, is now saying it never really believed the attack was unplanned after all. But the bottom line is that an American ambassador was killed, as were several other Americans, and this cannot be left unexplored.

It is hard to understand the mindset of governmental officials who, when confronted with the reality of the attack, seriously believed it was basically a reaction to the video.

For one thing, it happened on September 11. We daresay the first thought any thinking person would have had was that it was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. To believe otherwise would necessarily require some reason to consciously dismiss the obvious. Yet while many are now contending, weeks later, that they initially relied on intelligence available at the time, others to this day are insisting the initial reaction was the correct one.

For another thing, it could not have taken more than a few hours for the U.S. government to determine the video had been circulating for months before the attack, undermining any notion that the riot was ever a spontaneous response to an insult on the honor of Muhammad. Yet that notion persisted at the highest levels of government for several weeks.

Indeed, UN Ambassador Susan Rice gave a series of interviews five days after the attack in which she referred to the attack as having been spontaneous. She maintained that the violence was unplanned and was only later “hijacked” by terrorists that this came from the best information available. But a CIA memo obtained by the Associated Press referred to intelligence information that suggested the demonstrations in Benghazi “were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo” and “evolved into a direct assault on the consulate” by “extremists.”

Significantly, Eric Nordstrom, the former chief security officer in Libya, told House committee investigators that his pleas for increased security prior to the attacks were blocked because of a State Department policy to “normalize operations and reduce security resources” and to keep the number of security personnel artificially low.

In this context, though we are in the midst of a presidential election campaign, we cannot simply dismiss as politics the accusation of the committee’s Republican chairman, Darrell Issa, that the State Department willfully ignored requests from diplomats in Libya to increase security in the months and weeks before the Benghazi attack.

Mr. Issa and other Congressional Republicans say the Obama administration has attempted to discredit the idea that al Qaeda or terrorist groups with ties to al Qaeda were a force to be reckoned with in Libya because it would contradict the administration’s claim that its policies had weakened the terrorist group, especially in the aftermath of the Navy SEAL operation in Pakistan that killed Osama bin Laden. The elimination of bin Laden, of course, has been a centerpiece of President Obama’s claim to foreign policy effectiveness.

We can only hope that Congress will work relentlessly to pinpoint responsibility for the failure to protect the safety of American diplomats and workers in Libya. In addition, the American people are entitled to know whether Americans were sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. And we should know whether there was an intentional misrepresentation of what happened in Benghazi designed to protect the president’s political flank in his bid for reelection.

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