By Dana Milbank
WASHINGTON — Why do people claim that the Benghazi scandal is “phony”?
To answer that, let’s check in with the people fanning the controversy. They assembled Monday morning at the Heritage Foundation, convened by a conservative group to listen to Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., and several experts on the terrorist attack that killed four Americans in the Libyan city last year.
Some of those onstage posed questions about Benghazi that pointed to serious, if not scandalous, mistakes the government made before and during the attack. But those legitimate questions were undermined by other participants who rolled around the grassy knoll.
The lunacy began when Cliff Kincaid, a leader of Accuracy in Media, the group holding the gathering, suggested that the Obama administration is covering up events regarding Benghazi because the CIA operation there was secretly arming the enemy. “This administration has a policy of supporting al-Qaida, the same people behind the deaths of nearly 3,000 Americans on 9/11,” he declared.
One of the panelists, former CIA officer Clare Lopez, picked up the theme. “Have we flipped our policy,” she asked, “to where we are placing the power, the influence, the might, diplomatic assets, military assets, intelligence assets, financial assets, at the service of al-Qaida in the Middle East to bring to power forces of Islamic jihad? … Are we involved in the Middle East to help the forces of Islam, of al-Qaida, of the Muslim Brotherhood, of jihad and sharia?”
Wolf’s reply: “I think Clare makes a very good point.” And this is the man leading the effort to create a “select committee” to investigate Benghazi.
So the Obama administration, which dispatched Osama bin Laden and decimated al-Qaida with drone strikes, is now in cahoots with the terrorist network? Sorry, Congressman. I’ve got an appointment back on Earth.
It’s a pity that those seeking answers on Benghazi can’t focus on what really matters: Could anything have been done to prevent the deaths of the four men lost in Benghazi that night? And what can be done to make sure such a thing never happens again?
Instead, the Benghazi scandal-seekers are determined to link Hillary Clinton to the inadequate security at the diplomatic outpost (ignoring the obvious fact that a secretary of state doesn’t make security decisions for individual facilities) and the bogus “talking points” presented by then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice in the days after the attack (as though more accurate talking points might have retroactively saved lives).
At least one participant at the Heritage gathering seemed to have the right perspective. Retired Gen. Paul Vallely wasn’t concerned about after-the-fact talking points or al-Qaida conspiracies or whether Clinton signed diplomatic cables about security requests. He wanted to know why the U.S. military didn’t at least try to get reinforcements to the besieged Americans in Benghazi.
“Obviously there was not even an attempt at a rescue,” he told the 40 people in the audience. “That’s the bottom line of it all.” Vallely, a frequent critic of President Obama, said he doesn’t believe administration claims that there wasn’t enough time to send help to Benghazi.
Certainly, any such help would have been too late for Ambassador Chris Stevens and his colleague Sean Smith, who were killed in the early moments of the attack. It may not have saved security personnel Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty either, he acknowledged, “but you don’t know until you try.”
An investigation led by retired U.S. ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Mike Mullen concluded that “there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.” Even if that’s true, nobody knew at the start of the siege how long it would last. Why didn’t they at least try?
But investigators haven’t shown such discipline, which makes it easy to discredit the inquiry. A report issued Monday by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., who leads the congressional investigation of Benghazi, mentions Clinton 33 times — but essentially ignores Vallely’s question.
Maybe that’s because activists pushing for the inquiry are distracted by wild theories. At the Heritage event, Lopez speculated that the administration covered up the Benghazi events because Obama wants to make it illegal to criticize Islam.
Retired Col. Dick Brauer Jr. spun the notion that the military was told to stand down by presidential friend Valerie Jarrett, or perhaps Tommy Vietor, then a White House spokesman.
And Wolf found it objectionable that “Hillary Clinton is now making $200,000 a speech.”
Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.