Hillary Clinton, “Sid Vicious,” and Libya

The New York Times presents an account of Sidney Blumenthal’s memos to Hillary Clinton concerning Libya. For the benefit of our younger readers and those with short memories, I should say that during Bill Clinton’s presidency, Blumenthal was probably the slimiest of Team Clinton’s operatives, earning the nickname Sid Vicious.

For example, according to Christopher Hitchens, once Blumenthal’s good friend, vicious Sid spread defamatory stories about Monica Lewinsky. Hitchens swore in an affidavit that Blumenthal had told him this. Blumenthal denied both smearing Lewinsky and admitting it to Hitchens.

I was never a fan of Hitchens. But I’d back him in a swearing contest with Blumenthal 100 times out of 100.

I’d also back Hitchens in a war of words with almost anyone. In a review of Blumenthal’s book The Clinton Wars, which Hitchens titled “Thinking like an apparatchik,” he described Bill Clinton’s use of Blumenthal this way:

He threw away the plum and kept the pit, of which this book is the ground-up residue.

Blumenthal reprised his role as Clinton hatchet man during the 2008 campaign. Team Obama came to despise Blumenthal so much that President Obama barred Hillary Clinton from giving him a spot at the State Department.

Which brings us to 2011 and Libya. According to the New York Times account, a group of U.S. businessmen who hoped to do business in post-Qaddafi Libya retained Blumenthal. From all that appears, the Clintons’ hatchet man had zero experience with Libya or with the businesses the Americans hoped to establish there.

Plainly, Blumenthal was retained because of his connection to Secretary of State Clinton. The Times points out that the projects contemplated by the U.S. businessmen — creating hospitals and building schools — would have required State Department sign off (but they never got that far).

Blumenthal began writing memos to Hillary Clinton about the situation in Libya. The existence of such memos became known due to the efforts of a Romanian hacker. Otherwise, given Hillary’s document non-retention policy, the memos probably would never have come to light.

According to the Times, Blumenthal sent at least 25 Libya memos to Hillary. One of them praised the efforts of Libya’s new prime minister to stabilize his government by choosing officials experienced in dealing with Western governments and businesses.

Blumenthal singled out one official as particularly influential. But he did not disclose that his business associates were hoping that this official would finance their projects.

In this instance, Blumenthal’s “intelligence” seems to have been driven by a business agenda. And, indeed, the Times reports that much of the information Blumenthal provided to Clinton “appears to have come from a group of business associates he was advising as they sought to win contracts from the Libyan transitional government.”

Did Hillary Clinton take Blumenthal’s “intel” seriously? You bet. According to the Times, she frequently circulated his memos to her chief of staff, Jake Sullivan, and told him to distribute them to other State Department officials. They were often sent to U.S. diplomats in Libya, including the ambassador, the late Christopher Stevens.

But the quality of Blumenthal’s “intel” appears to have been poor. Some of it consisted of rumors that diplomats knew to be false. “Not infrequently,” says the Times, Hillary’s subordinates responded to the memos with “polite skepticism.”

Sullivan once derided a Blumenthal offering as a “conspiracy theory.” Such theories have long been Blumenthal’s stock-in-trade. As The Guardian said of Blumenthal’s book Clinton Wars, “conspiracy theorists everywhere should read Sidney Blumenthal’s version of Clinton’s presidency.” No wonder Hillary (“vast right-wing conspiracy”) Clinton likes his work.

Stevens himself challenged Blumenthal’s assessment that the Muslim Brotherhood was poised to do well in 2012 parliamentary elections. As it turned out, the Brotherhood fared poorly.

The Times report will add to Blumenthal’s legacy as one of the most unsavory characters in American political history. But what are its implications for Hillary Clinton?

First, I doubt that Blumenthal’s pathetic intel can, on the current record, be tied to Hillary Clinton’s decision to support the toppling of Qaddafi. The Times says that some of Blumenthal’s memos predate the death of Qaddafi. But I gather from the report they don’t predate our intervention. According to the Times, the American businessmen for whom Blumenthal worked became interested in Libya only after it looked like Qaddafi was done.

This doesn’t mean that Blumenthal’s memos did not influence other important (but lesser) decisions by Secretary of State Clinton. But nothing in the Times report shows that this was so. Perhaps Trey Gowdy’s investigation will shed light on this matter.

Second, Clinton will be criticized for the irregularity of using a back channel source. However, as a general matter, I don’t have a problem with this. Her response to the Blumenthal story is correct in principle: Top government officials shouldn’t necessarily rely exclusively on what their bureaucrats tell them. Trusted outsiders may have something to offer.

But third, Clinton showed incredibly poor judgment in thinking that Blumenthal’s reports added value. As shown above, Blumenthal had a business interest in Libya and was getting his information from business associates.

Did Clinton know about Blumenthal’s business interest? The Times apparently is unable to say.

If she did know, then it is inexcusable that she burdened her underlings with Blumenthal’s musing. But even if she didn’t know, her reliance on Blumenthal is problematic.

Former CIA official Paul Pillar told the Times that Blumenthal’s reports aped the style of official government intelligence reports but without assessing the motives of his sources (for obvious reasons). Thus, “the sourcing is pretty sloppy in a way that would never pass muster if it were the work of a reports officer at a U.S. intelligence agency.”

On their face, then, Blumenthal’s reports were unworthy of the attention Hillary Clinton paid to them. And everyone who read them seems to have recognized this — except Hillary.

Finally, let’s keep in mind that President Obama had banned Blumenthal from a role at the State Department. Yet Hillary let him into the tent.

Does the Blumenthal story constitute a serious Hillary Clinton scandal? Based on what we know so far, I would say no. But at a minimum, it represents another count in the case against Clinton’s judgment and, arguably, even her competence.

And it may add to the sense of Clinton fatigue many may already be experiencing (inevitably, Blumenthal turns out to have been employed by the Clinton Foundation while he was providing “intelligence” to Hillary).

At this point it’s more than fair to wonder (1) whether Hillary can do anything by the book and (2) whether there is any instruction from her boss, the president of the United States, that she didn’t try to skirt.