As Scott notes below, Beth Jones, then the Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, stated in an email that she told Libya’s ambassador on the morning of September 12, 2012 that the Benghazi attack was conducted by “Ansar Al Sharia [which] is affiliated with Islamic extremists.” So the State Department’s view within hours of the attack was that this was terrorism, not a protest over a video run amok. (Let’s remember that State’s man on the ground in Libya, Gregory Hicks, testified that the video was “a non-event in Libya”).
What was the CIA’s view? Its Libya station chief, the CIA’s man on the ground, told the Agency that the attack was “not, not an escalation of protests.” Clear enough? As the then Secretary of State’s husband might say, it depends on what the meaning of “not, not” is.
Finally, what about the Department of Defense? The military man assigned to monitor intelligence during the attack, Gen. Robert Lovell, testified before Congress yesterday. His statement as to the nature of what was occurring on Sept. 11, 2012 was unequivocal:
We didn’t know how long this would last when we became aware of the distress nor did we completely understand what we had in front of us, be it a kidnapping, rescue, recovery, protracted hostile engagement or any or all of the above. But what we did know quite early on was that this was a hostile action. This was no demonstration gone terribly awry. . . .The facts led to the conclusion of a terrorist attack.
Thus, Sharyl Attkisson is correct when she states that, although the administration claims that its line on Benghazi was based on “the best intelligence available at the time,” its attempts to portray the incident as the work of protesters, not terrorists, was contradicted by the best intelligence available at the time.
What difference does it make now? For one thing, it might make a difference in the identity of our president now. One of President Obama’s must powerful arguments for reelection was the alleged success of his anti-terrorism policy. As Ben Rhodes’ newly released email shows, the White House’s goal in discussing the Benghazi attack was to “underscore” the absence of a “broader failure of [that] policy.”
If the Benghazi attack had been understood from the beginning as contradicting Obama’s campaign narrative of success against terrorism, the presidential race, which polls showed to be very close at the time when Obama and Romney debated foreign policy (including Benghazi), might have tilted in Romney’s favor. It’s true that Obama was forced away from the “protest” story as the campaign progressed. And with the help of Candy Crowley, he was able to claim that he wasn’t shifting his story. But by muddying the waters, Obama controlled the damage.
Team Obama made a characteristically shrewd political decision to hide the ball on Benghazi story in order to protect its campaign position. It knew there was risk associated with this move, but understood that the consequences associated with that risk, if they came to fruition at all, would be experienced after the election. Thus, the risk was certainly worth taking.
There have been adverse post-election consequences for Obama, but not major ones. Will there be major consequences now, in light of the new documents? Probably not.
Will Benghazi have major political consequences if Hillary Clinton runs for president? Possibly. But that’s not Obama’s concern.