“Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some Americans? What difference — at this point, what difference does it make?”
That was how then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton famously brushed off the question of when she knew that the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11 that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were, in fact, a terrorist assault and not a “protest” of an anti-Islam video that got out of hand.
Clinton’s fans, in and out of the press, loved her defiant response, and they should be ashamed of themselves for it.
What Clinton was really doing there was deflecting attention away from the fact that she lied. We now know, thanks to Wednesday’s congressional hearings and reporting by The Weekly Standard’s Steve Hayes, that administration officials knew from the outset the video had nothing to do with it. Intelligence sources on the ground in Libya and officials in Washington knew that it was a terrorist attack from the beginning. The video was a “non-event in Libya” according to Gregory Hicks, the man who inherited Stevens’ duties after the ambassador was killed by al-Qaeda-linked militants. The false video story was simply imposed from above by Clinton, President Obama and their subalterns.
Let’s return to that lie in a moment.
The hearings exposed another lie. Obama and Clinton have insisted that they did everything they could to help the Americans besieged in Libya; they just couldn’t get help to them in time.
That’s simply untrue.
But even if that were true, it would still be a self-serving falsehood.
If you see a child struggling in the ocean, you have no idea how long she will flail and paddle before she goes under for the last time. The moral response is to swim for her in the hope that you get there in time. If you fail and she dies, you can console yourself that you did your best to rescue her.
But if you just stand on the beach and do nothing as the child struggles for life, saying, “Well, there’s just no way I can get to her in time,” it doesn’t really matter whether you guessed right or not. You didn’t try.
The White House and State Department insist they guessed right, as if that somehow absolves them of responsibility. They would have sent help if they could have, they claim, but they simply weren’t ready to deploy forces on Sept. 11, the one day of the year you’d expect our military and intelligence agencies to be ready for trouble in the Middle East, particularly given that before his murder, Stevens warned of security problems in Benghazi.
But we know the administration ordered others who were willing, able and obliged to come to the consulate’s rescue to “stand down.” They in effect told the lifeguards, “Don’t get out of your chairs.”
Though an unmanned drone was there to capture the whole thing on video, which must have been reassuring as the mortar rounds rained down.
Leon Panetta, who was the secretary of defense during the attack, mocked critics who wanted to know why the Pentagon didn’t scramble any jets from Italy to the scene. “You can’t willy-nilly send F-16s there and blow the hell out of place. … You have to have good intelligence.”
Never mind that real-time video of the attack is pretty good intelligence. An F-16 doesn’t need to blow anyone to hell to have an impact. As military expert and former assistant defense secretary Bing West notes, “99 percent of air sorties over Afghanistan never drop a single bomb.” Just showing up is often intimidating enough.
What motivated the White House and the State Department to deceive the public about what they did is unknown. Maybe it was incompetence or politics or simply understandable bureaucratic confusion.
But we do know they deceived the public. Which brings us back to the lies over the video. In the wake of Benghazi, the country endured an intense debate over how much free speech we could afford because of the savage intolerance of rioters half a world away. Obama and Clinton fueled this debate by incessantly blaming the video — as if the First Amendment was the problem.
Clinton and Obama both swore oaths to support and defend the Constitution. But after failing to support and defend Americans left to die, they blamed the Constitution for their failure. That’s what difference it makes.
(Jonah Goldberg is the author of “The Tyranny of Clichés,” now on sale in paperback. You can write to him in care of this newspaper or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or via Twitter @JonahNRO.)