Benghazi — government cover-up or right-wing conspiracy theory?
WASHINGTON (CNN) — Republicans call it a government cover-up similar to what forced Richard Nixon to resign. Democrats call it a right-wing conspiracy theory.
The fallout from the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans continues more than 19 months later, with further details this week that raised questions about how the Obama administration responded to the violence less than two months before the President’s re-election.
Few issues reveal the hyper-partisan politics of Washington more than the ongoing debate over an issue now known simply as Benghazi.
On Thursday, House Speaker John Boehner accused the administration of defying a subpoena by previously failing to turn over newly disclosed documents. The chairman of the House Oversight Committee, GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of California, said the transgression was “in violation of any reasonable transparency or historic precedent at least since Richard Milhous Nixon.”
At the White House, spokesman Jay Carney shot back that Republicans continued trying to reap political benefit with what he called conspiracy theories about a Benghazi cover-up.
“What we have seen since hours after the attack, beginning with a statement by the Republican nominee for president, is an attempt by Republicans to politicize a tragedy, and that continues today,” Carney told reporters, later adding that “what hasn’t changed has been the effort by Republicans to … claim a conspiracy when they haven’t been able to find one.”
Here are some answers to questions about the latest twists in the story:
What happened in Benghazi?
In September of 2012, a demeaning video made in the United States about the Prophet Mohammed got posted on YouTube and sparked protests at U.S. embassies in the Muslim world.
On September 11, the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, an assault occurred at a U.S. compound in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The Obama administration initially blamed the Benghazi attack on a protest against the video that escalated into a full-blown tactical assault. As details emerged in ensuing days, it became clear that an al Qaeda-affiliated group took part in what was a coordinated terrorist attack instead of a spontaneous demonstration.
Then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton created a special panel called an Accountability Review Board to investigate what happened. The group led by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen and retired U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering criticized aspects of diplomatic security and made 29 recommendations, all of which were accepted by the State Department.
Why all the controversy?
Coming less than two months before the presidential election, the Benghazi attack quickly became a political flashpoint.
President Barack Obama had campaigned heavily on his decision to approve the mission that killed Osama bin Laden and boasted of putting the al Qaeda leader’s organization “on the run.”
On September 16, five days after the Benghazi attack, then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice went on Sunday talk shows and said the assault grew out of a protest against the controversial video.
Republicans immediately challenged the administration’s version of what happened, calling it an attempt by the Obama administration to hide a major security breakdown that signaled the broader failed policy in the region.
Obama won re-election in November, but Republicans have mounted congressional investigations into what happened in Benghazi and why Rice gave an incorrect explanation to the American people.
What is the Benghazi email everyone is talking about?
On Tuesday, a conservative group called Judicial Watch made public State Department documents it received in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.
One of the documents was a previously undisclosed email on September 14, 2012, from Ben Rhodes, a national security official specializing in communications, that listed talking points for Rice about the protests that had erupted at U.S. embassies and compounds in the Muslim world.
Among the goals listed in the Rhodes email was to “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.”
Republicans contend the email proves White House manipulation of the messaging for political purposes in the immediate aftermath of Benghazi, despite the administration’s contention that Rice relied on talking points provided by the CIA for the sake of uniformity of messaging.
“This is all about an effort to convince the American people that the president of the United States had everything under control,” GOP Sen. John McCain said Thursday.
Carney, under persistent questioning from White House journalists, argued the Rhodes email referred to the broader topic of protests throughout the Muslim world, rather than the specific Benghazi attack.
Is this new or just more of what we already knew?
The existence of the Rhodes email is new, and that provides Republicans with a fresh front in their attacks on the administration over Benghazi.
Labeling the situation a “defiance of the House’s subpoena power,” Boehner called it “the most flagrant example yet of the administration’s contempt for the American people’s right to know the truth about what happened when four Americans died in a fiery terrorist attack.”
He called for Secretary of State John Kerry to come to Congress to explain “why he defied an official congressional subpoena,” and added that the congressional investigation would continue until all the facts emerge.
However, the messaging contained in the Rhodes email is the same as included in previously released documents, such as the CIA talking points that Rice relied on. Carney noted that the only reference in the Rhodes email to Benghazi — denying that there was actionable intelligence ahead of time of an imminent assault — was lifted from the CIA talking points.
I thought the government promised to release all information?
The Obama administration previously pledged to release all pertinent information on Benghazi sought by Congress. Carney noted Thursday that it turned over 25,000 pages of documents and that various officials testified at a series of hearings.
Asked why the Rhodes email obtained by Judicial Watch hadn’t been turned over previously, Carney said it came under a FOIA request that differed from the congressional subpoenas from Issa’s committee.
Underlying Carney’s explanation was that the Rhodes email referred to the broader issue of protests rather than the specific Benghazi attack, which was the focus of the subpoenas. The talking points supplied by Rhodes were intended to prepare Rice for possible questions in her talk show appearances, he said, calling the document a normal duty of a communications officer in any government.
Republicans questioned that explanation, noting the Benghazi attack would clearly be the dominant topic that Rice would face and arguing the administration clearly knew that.
What’s the upshot of all this?
For Republicans, the issue resonates with their conservative base, especially the accusation that the Obama administration failed to provide proper security for American diplomats and was unable to send military assets to respond to the Benghazi attack.
GOP calls for a special investigative committee are increasing, and a hearing by Issa’s committee on Thursday heard from a retired Air Force general on duty at U.S. Africa Command that night who complained that the military should have tried to save the Benghazi victims even if the effort would have been futile.
When Republican Rep. James Lankford asked Brig. Gen. Robert Lovell “did we have their back that night,” Lovell responded: “Obviously not sir.”
Some Republicans seek a special congressional committee that would investigate the issue, allowing them to frame the final years of Obama’s presidency on their terms.
“It is time for a bipartisan, bicameral select committee to investigate the entire Benghazi fiasco and tragedy and it needs to be done soon,” McCain said Thursday.
Democrats eager to get past the issue portray Republicans as driven by partisan desire to hurt Obama. Carney referred repeatedly Thursday to what he described as GOP conspiracy theories regarding Benghazi that have failed to pan out.
Is there more than meets the eye?
In Washington, always.
The issue gives Republicans perhaps their lone line of attack against Hillary Clinton, the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016 if she decides to run.
A new poll Thursday showed Clinton’s strong standing. The Quinnipiac University survey from Florida had Clinton topping former two-term Gov. Jeb Bush, the leading potential Republican contender in the nation’s most populous swing state.
Because Clinton was secretary of state when the Benghazi attack occurred, Republicans have sought to depict her as inattentive to security needs of diplomatic staff.
At Thursday’s House Oversight Committee hearing, Lovell described how he and others desperately considered possible deployment of a rapid-force team to Benghazi, but needed a State Department request that never came.
“Were they doing what they were trained to do or were they sitting around and waiting for the State Department and Hillary Clinton to call them up and say do something?” GOP Rep. Jason Chaffetz of Utah asked him.
However, the Republican chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Howard “Buck” Mckeon of California, issued a statement later Thursday that said his panel investigated the matter and found “no evidence that Department of State officials delayed the decision to deploy what few resources (the military) had available to respond.”
Democrats face what analysts expect will be a difficult mid-term election in November, with little chance of winning back the House from Republicans and facing the possibility of losing their majority in the Senate.
GOP calls for a special investigation could give Democrats a rallying point to motivate voters to prevent giving Republicans control of both chambers of Congress.
CNN’s Jim Acosta and Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.