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Published: Sunday, December 23, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Benghazi questions, State Department answers

When terrorists attack Americans, Washington should always follow this simple rule: Blame the terrorists first.
Retired Adm. Mike Mullen stuck to that rule when he rolled out an independent review, led by former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, on the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. special mission in Benghazi, Libya, that led to the murder of four Americans -- Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. "The attacks in Benghazi were security related," Mullen said, "and responsibility for the loss of life, the injuries and damage to U.S. facilities, rests completely and solely with the terrorists who conducted the attacks."
Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Ohio, did not follow that rule Thursday during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing on the report. Johnson hectored Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, as he demanded, "Who made these decisions that got four Americans killed?" The answer is: the terrorists.
What happened that night? The review told the story of uncommon heroism in a lawless outpost, where attacks on U.S., British and medical personnel had become routine. The Libyan delegation asked for more trained U.S. security for Tripoli and Benghazi, but Department of State officials declined; Benghazi "was not a priority for Washington."
Thus, the Benghazi mission had to rely on local militia members who were armed but also engaging in work stoppages to protest their pay and work hours. A group of unarmed locals guarded the main gate, but they weren't reliable and previously had left the gate unlatched.
Stevens was aware of the risk, but he went to Benghazi on Sept. 10 anyway. He went to a public dinner that night but stayed on mission grounds on Sept. 11 because it was the 9/11 anniversary. After Stevens and Smith retired for the night around 9 p.m., dozens of men armed with machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and other firepower attacked the compound with no warning. In short order, they entered the compound and set a fire that killed Stevens and Smith as the unarmed security team vanished.
Having tried to save Stevens and Smith, the five remaining diplomatic security agents reached an annex just before midnight. Around 5 a.m., a team from the embassy arrived. Fifteen minutes later, mortar rounds killed Woods and Doherty.
The Pickering-Mullen review sidestepped the political questions: What role did President Obama or Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton play?
Not my job, Pickering told reporters; his group deliberately fixed responsibility for any lapses at the assistant-secretary level. Four State Department managers reportedly have been disciplined.
What about the administration's ridiculous claims about an anti-Islamic video inciting the Benghazi attack? Even five full days after the carnage, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice told ABC that a video protest was "hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons."
If she believed that, she's incompetent. If she didn't believe that, she's involved in an election-year cover-up. The report simply stated, "There was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity."
Due to illness, Clinton didn't show up at congressional hearings. Thus far, she has avoided answering GOP Congress members' questions about Benghazi. (She also missed the Democrats chiding Republicans for being too partisan -- as if they're not partisan.)
Burns had the honor of answering GOP queries about the administration's zeal to finger an American-made video rather than al Qaida-inspired brutality. "I honestly do not believe that there was an intent to mislead or misrepresent," quoth Burns.
Well, he is a diplomat.
I know I'll never get a straight answer on the blame-the-video spin, but I still have other questions. Why didn't personnel have smoke hoods in their kits? Why were there full cans of fuel lying in plain sight at a mission that previously had been breached? Do Pickering and Mullen really believe, as the report says, that "'good Samaritans' among the hordes of bystanders and looters," somehow found Stevens' body in a building so smoky that the American team could not find him and brought it to a hospital?
Does the Obama administration have the grit to pursue and punish the terrorists who killed Stevens, Smith, Woods and Doherty, or do they just want this story to go away?

Debra J. Saunders is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Her email address is

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