After Hillary Clinton testified before the Benghazi Committee, the consensus was that she had clearly had the better of it. In general, we are inclined to agree with that consensus. In our view, the committee demonstrated once again that such bodies seldom do a good job of interrogating witnesses. Simply as a matter of structure, it is next to impossible to conduct a coherent examination by dividing it into five minute sound bites distributed among questioners with varying skills and levels of preparation and beset by conflicting political motives.
In the Benghazi hearing, much time was spent on inquiring on matters of marginal relevance that were little noted and will not be long remembered. For example, the first series of questions by Congressman Roskam were devoted to showing that Secretary Clinton was a forceful and effective advocate of the United States joining with Britain and France in intervening in Libya in 2011. Well, yes, but it would have been more pertinent to continue by inquiring of the Secretary what analysis and planning she had made, or demanded from others, as to what would happen once Gaddafi was deposed. But even that would have been peripheral to the the central focus of the hearing: the immediate circumstances attendant to the killing of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi in 2012.
There was, however, one subject of the hearing that is likely to to have a longer shelf life: the statements by Secretary Clinton and others in the Administration in the hours, days and weeks following the Benghazi debacle. Glenn Kessler, the “Fact Checker” of The Washington Post, addressed the issue in an October 30 column titled “Is Hillary Clinton a ‘liar’ on Benghazi?” Curiously, however, Kessler immediately shifted his focus from Clinton’s veracity to that of Marco Rubio who, in the third GOP debate, had charged Clinton with lying about Benghazi. Kessler began by quoting Rubio:
Last week, Hillary Clinton went before a committee. She admitted she had sent e-mails to her family saying, “Hey, this attack at Benghazi was caused by Al Qaida-like elements.” She spent over a week telling the families of those victims and the American people that it was because of a video. And yet the mainstream media is going around saying it was the greatest week in Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It was the week she got exposed as a liar.
After analyzing Clinton’s public and private statements, Kessler passed no judgment on Clinton, but awarded Rubio two Pinocchios (“Significant omissions and/or exaggerations”). In our view, Kessler had it backward: the Pinocchios belonged with Secretary Clinton.
The Benghazi hearing produced two previously undisclosed emails from Clinton sent on the evening of the attack and the following day:
11:12 p.m., Sept. 11, e-mail to her daughter, Chelsea Clinton:
Two of our officers were killed in Benghazi by an al Qaeda-like group. . . . Very hard day and I fear more of the same.
Sept. 12, e-mail recounting phone conversation with Egyptian foreign minister:
We know that the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack—not a protest. . . . Based on the information we saw today we believe the group that claimed responsibility for this was affiliated with al Qaeda.
In Rubio’s view, those emails indicated that Clinton must have known that her statements to the public and to families of the victims were false and misleading in linking the Benghazi attack to an inflammatory video. The public statements included the following:
10:08 p.m., Sept. 11, press statement:
I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today. As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack.
Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind. (Emphasis added)
Sept. 14, remarks at transfer of remains ceremony:
This has been a difficult week for the State Department and for our country. We’ve seen the heavy assault on our post in Benghazi that took the lives of those brave men. We’ve seen rage and violence directed at American embassies over an awful internet video that we had nothing to do with. It is hard for the American people to make sense of that because it is senseless, and it is totally unacceptable.
Kessler attempted to defend Clinton’s statements on the ground that “she was very careful to keep the attacks separate from the video; the two incidents do not appear in the same sentence (unlike the controversial televised remarks by then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice).” That defense simply does not wash with respect to Clinton’s statement on September 14 in which she tied the two directly by stating that “some” had sought to justify the Benghazi attack “as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet.” It would be instructive if the Benghazi committee had paused to ask questions as to just who the “some” were and when and from whom she learned that they cited the video as justification for the Benghazi attack. In any case, however, the linkage of the video to the attack in her statement is plain and it is a linkage that Clinton knew did not exist.
Kessler’s claim is slightly more plausible with respect to Clinton’s Sept. 14 remarks. There he observed that “Clinton devotes one sentence to the “heavy assault” in Benghazi and then another sentence about the ‘rage and violence’ over the ‘awful Internet video’” and that “she does not say they are connected.” Still he admitted that listeners may a have “gotten the impression” that they were.
Indeed, listeners might well have gotten the impression of a close connection and, we suggest, were intended to. As many have noted, the Administration was in a pre-election mode wherein a key element was the claim that al Qaeda had been virtually eliminated as a threat. Spontaneous protests over an inflammatory video fit more comfortably with that narrative than a pre-planned attack with heavy weapons. That was the line taken in White House talking points and emphatically pursued by United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice appearing on five talk shows the following Sunday. If Clinton had in fact so carefully parsed her own comments to refer to the video without making an explicit connection, it may bring back memories of another Clinton raising the lawyer-like question of “what the definition of ‘is’ is.”
In any case, there is an indisputable contradiction between Clinton’s private emails and her conversations with the victims’ families. As Kessler acknowledged:
Charles Woods, the father of Navy SEAL Tyrone Woods, told Fox News: “I gave Hillary a hug and shook her hand and she said, ‘We are going to have the filmmaker arrested who was responsible for the death of your son,’” Woods said, reading the account from his journal.
Kate Quigley, sister of Glen Doherty, told CNN:
“I met her when we were at Andrews Air Force base. She spoke to my family about how sad we should feel for the Libyan people because they are uneducated, and that breeds fear, which breeds violence, and leads to a protest. . . . When I think back now to that day and what she knew, you know, it shows me a lot about her character that she would choose in that moment to basically perpetuate what she knew was untrue.”
In response to those comments, Kessler offered no explanation, merely observing that “It’s hard to reconcile these statements by the relatives with the careful phrasing Clinton used in public.” The obvious “reconciliation” is that Clinton saw less reason to be careful in private remarks that she did not anticipate becoming part of a public controversy. Kessler asked the Clinton campaign for an explanation, but received none. Although he acknowledged that Clinton’s remarks to the families “gave him pause,” he argued that Rubio still did not “have enough evidence to label Clinton a liar.” We beg to differ. We would relieve Senator Rubio of his Pinocchios and give them over to Secretary Clinton, adding one on the way to make an award of three (“Significant factual error and/or obvious contradictions. This gets into the realm of “mostly false.”)
We would not want to leave the impression that The Washington Post Fact Checker has a fundamental bias in favor of Secretary Clinton. On November 9, Kessler awarded Clinton three Pinocchios for her statement to the Benghazi committee that 90 to 95 per cent of her emails were in the State Department system. And on previous occasions she had been awarded multiple Pinocchios, including four (“a whopper”) for her colorful but wholly fabricated account of having come under sniper fire after landing at an airport in Bosnia. So, we are inclined to view this exercise as an aberration, but it is a reminder that “fact checking” sometimes has a subjective element.
Going forward, attention will be centered not only the statements by Secretary Clinton analyzed by Glenn Kessler, but on statements she may not have made. Did she make any objection to the statements by Ambassador Rice on the Sunday shows on September 16? Rice’ statement on Face the Nation, for which The Washington Post would immediately award two Pinocchios the very next day, was typical:
Based on the best information we have to date … it began spontaneously in Benghazi as a reaction to what had transpired some hours earlier in Cairo, where, of course, as you know, there was a violent protest outside of our embassy sparked by this hateful video. But soon after that spontaneous protest began outside of our consulate in Benghazi, we believe that it looks like extremist elements, individuals, joined in that effort with heavy weapons of the sort that are, unfortunately, readily now available in Libya post-revolution. And that it spun from there into something much, much more violent…. We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.
As further information developed, it would become evident that Ambassador Rice’s statement was a whopper worthy of a full four Pinocchios. But if the inaccuracy of her statement was immediately obvious to The Washington Post, it must not have escaped the attention of Secretary Clinton who would have recognized the contradiction with her own emails. Did Clinton raise an objection or seek an explanation from Rice or from the White House? The Benghazi committee did not inquire, but perhaps in the fullness of the 2016 campaign we will find out.