By David Ignatius
WASHINGTON — The Senate Intelligence Committee made headlines last week by reporting that the 2012 attack in Benghazi was preventable. But frankly, we knew that. The deeper message of the bipartisan report was that Republicans in Congress wasted a year arguing about what turned out to be mostly phony issues.
The GOP’s Benghazi obsession was the weird backdrop for foreign-policy debate through much of last year. Sen. Lindsey Graham used it as a pretext for blocking administration nominations. Rep. Darrell Issa used the issue to impugn the integrity and independence of a review conducted by retired Adm. Mike Mullen and former Ambassador Tom Pickering.
Driving the Republican jihad was a claim, first reported in October 2012 by Fox News, that CIA personnel had wanted to respond more quickly to the Benghazi attack but were ordered to “stand down,” perhaps by political higher-ups. Although this claim was promptly rebutted by CIA officials, it was repeated by Fox at least 85 times, according to a review by the liberal advocacy group Media Matters. This barrage fueled Republican charges that the Democrats were engaging in a cover-up.
The Senate Intelligence report addressed this inflammatory charge head-on. “The committee explored claims that there was a ‘stand down’ order given to the security team at the annex. Although some members of the security team expressed frustration that they were unable to respond more quickly to the mission compound, the committee found no evidence of intentional delay or obstruction by the chief of (the CIA) base or any other party.”
The Senate panel rejected the insinuation, made repeatedly by Republicans, that the Obama administration failed to scramble military assets that could have defended the Benghazi annex and saved the lives of the four American victims. “There were no U.S. military resources in position to intervene in short order in Benghazi,” the report says. “The committee has reviewed the allegations that U.S. personnel … prevented the mounting of any military relief effort during the attacks, but the committee has not found any of these allegations to be substantiated.”
These are bipartisan findings, mind you, endorsed by the panel’s Republican members as well as Democrats. GOP members offered some zingers in their minority views, but the Democrats rightly credited their colleagues for standing up to the right-wing spin machine: “We worked together on a bipartisan basis to dispel the many factual inaccuracies and conspiracy theories related to the Benghazi attacks.”
The Obama administration’s supposed cover-up on Benghazi became a crusade for leading Republicans. A low point came when Issa’s Committee on Oversight and Reform issued a report questioning “the independence and integrity of the review” by the Mullen-Pickering group. These were extraordinary charges to make against a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a former ambassador to six countries — especially since Issa didn’t present any conclusive evidence to back up his allegations.
The Republican tirades about Benghazi were unfortunate not just because they were based on erroneous speculation but because they distracted policymakers from the real challenge of framing coherent policy in the Middle East. Sometimes, it seemed as if Benghazi finger-pointing was the only issue that leading Republicans cared about.
The Senate Intelligence report echoes much of the Accountability Review Board’s report, which noted “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies.” Warnings about deteriorating conditions were ignored; proposals to add security rejected; even as evidence mounted of al-Qaida’s growing power, the State Department failed to respond adequately. The Senate report makes clear that Ambassador Christopher Stevens, the courageous but sometimes incautious diplomat who was among those who died, made some important security mistakes.
Perhaps the silliest aspect of the Benghazi affair was the focus on the errant “talking points” prepared for Congress, which cited incorrect intelligence about “spontaneous demonstrations” in Benghazi that wasn’t corrected by the CIA until a week after the points were delivered on Sunday talk shows by Susan Rice, then U.N. ambassador. Rice is still under a cloud because she repeated the CIA’s “points” prepared at Congress’ insistence.
Next time, the Senate report notes, the intelligence community should just tell Congress what facts are unclassified — and let the legislators do the talking.
David Ignatius is a Washington Post columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.