Fitting that the House held hearings within 24 hours on both the Benghazi attack and the Boston marathon bombing. The two seemingly disparate events, separated by time and distance and sophistication, share much in common. By the close of each sorry episode, four people had died. The villains in each case considered themselves soldiers of Allah fighting a holy war against America. In both instances the political correctness of government officials prevented discovery of the truth. Benghazi and Boston are symptoms of the same disorder. They are twin studies in evasion.
On Wednesday the House Oversight Committee held its well-publicized hearing on the events in Libya on September 11, 2012. Do not get lost in the weeds of response times and autopens and security budgets and reports of weapons shipments. The issue here is simple. What makes Benghazi a scandal is the Obama administration’s concerted effort in the days and weeks after the attack to downplay the Qaeda connection.
After Gregory Hicks’ testimony there can be no doubt that the highest levels of the State Department were soon aware Qaeda affiliate Ansar al-Sharia was responsible for the raid on the American consulate. This was the first time a U.S. ambassador had been killed since 1979—also in an act of Islamic violence—and the president and top officials refused to tell the public who was behind it. A spontaneous protest, they said. Outrage at a video. Keep calm and carry on.
Tom Bevan provides the damning details. "The president and his administration clearly misled the public about what happened on September 11, 2012," he concludes. Of that there can be no doubt. Clinton blamed the video. Rice blamed the video. Carney blamed the video. Obama blamed the video. They all blamed the video even though State Department official Beth Jones had identified Ansar al-Sharia as the culprit within a day of the assault. Even though the initial timeline, revealed last week by Stephen F. Hayes, from the director of the national intelligence said the same thing.
The man who made the video is imprisoned. "The first person in this country jailed for violating Islamic anti-blasphemy laws," observes Rich Lowry. Yet the terrorists who plotted and carried out the rampage are free. Indeed, for all we know some of them may have struck again, killing at least 39 people including 3 Americans, in the January attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria.
Meanwhile the response by most on the left to the evaporation of the administration’s Benghazi story has been one giant, collective shrug. A chorus singing, so what? The situation was messy. It’s next to impossible for government officials, in the middle of 57 varieties of crisis at any given moment, to form a coherent and accurate picture of events. Mistakes, as they say, were made. You say well-coordinated terrorist effort; I say blowback from an amateurish anti-Mohammed flick. Stop politicizing a national tragedy already. "What difference at this point does it make?"
Only the most significant one: Determining the identity and motive of an assailant is essential for historical accuracy, for criminal investigation, for foreign policy, and for grand strategy. No doubt an honest appraisal of who is to blame and why would bring some small measure of relief to the families of those killed, and to the officials on the ground.
There is also the matter of reprisal. The president spoke eloquently and promised, not for the first or last time, to bring the perpetrators to justice when he and Secretary Hillary Clinton met the caskets of the four victims at Dover Air Force Base last September. But justice could not be served for as long as the government believed, publicly or internally, that these men had died while caught up in a spontaneous protest. Every mystery story contains a red herring. In the Benghazi affair the red herring is The Innocence of Muslims.
The consequences for foreign policy are plain. A superpower cannot target a mob, it cannot declare war on a spontaneous protest, and it cannot align its grand strategy toward containing and securing the homeland against "an awful Internet video that we have nothing to do with." The best it can do in such circumstances, or so the upper echelons of the State Department would seem to believe, is take events as they come. Encourage cross-cultural understanding. Avoid inflammatory or divisive rhetoric.
But the implications would be far different if a global terrorist movement with the strategic aims of ejecting America from the Middle East and imposing sharia law across the region were behind the attack. In that case, 9/11/12 might underscore the persistence of al Qaeda despite administration pronouncements that it had been decimated, and despite the vice president’s insistence, less than a week before the attack, that the president deserved reelection because Osama bin Laden is dead and GM is alive. It might spark fear. It might suggest that the decision to remove Muammar Qaddafi from power and then keep only a light footprint—more like a toe-print—in Libya may not have been the best idea. It might cause American voters to wonder whether drone strikes and annual Eid and Nowruz greetings from the White House are really the best ways to deal with the Muslim world.
Looking back, a cynic would say that for this administration there really was no other way to characterize what happened in Benghazi but as a spontaneous protest to an anti-Islam video. For the truth to be revealed in the middle of a competitive election would have too many disquieting resonances, too many unknown effects. The specter of jihad must be muted and diffused. These are the same people, remember, who replaced the concept of "terrorism" with the euphemism "man-caused disaster," who labeled Nidal Hassan’s jihadist rampage in Ft. Hood, Texas, an incidence of "workplace violence." Who could doubt they’d blame the stupid videotape.
These are the same people, the Washington Free Beacon’s Bill Gertz reports, who have instituted a cultural change at the FBI that seeks "to dissociate Islam from terrorism, a policy critics say fails to properly identify the nature of an enemy engaged in waging religiously inspired war and insurgency against the United States and its allies." It was the same politically correct blindness that led so many in the media and government, in their absurd search for a "motive" in the Boston bombings, to downplay the religious dimension of Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s plot against America, to willfully describe the bombers as "lone wolves" despite their ideological allegiances and familial ties to overseas militants. Gertz’s sources suggest political correctness even may have played a part in the inability of the U.S. counterterrorism establishment to heed warnings from the Russians about the older Tsarnaev, whose every action in the run-up to the attack screamed, "Call the police."
In both Benghazi and Boston we have watched as the certified version of events is gradually torn apart. The story of the video and Benghazi has been forever superseded by Gregory Hicks’ narration of the attack. (Even the Times called it "riveting.") National Intelligence Director James Clapper’s farcical claim that "the dots were connected" in the Boston attack looks more fatuous by the hour. The FBI gave Tamerlan Tsarnaev the all clear after meeting with him and, we learned Thursday, failed to convey the warning of the Russian government to the Boston Police Department. The dots were not connected. That is why four people are dead.
The certified versions of events did not survive scrutiny because they were based on magical thinking: That Islamic terrorism is something America can wish away or keep at arm’s length through the judicious use of drones and special forces. It is not. The problem cannot be evaded. It must be confronted.
Government officials and the journalists who mind-meld with them would do well to study the experience of the New York Police Department, which has prevented 16 plots on its city since September 11, 2001, through aggressive and proactive surveillance and intelligence work into neighborhoods where there is reason to believe terrorists may hide. What the NYPD teaches is applicable from Benghazi to Boston: The first step in fighting terrorism is to call it by its name.