Hillary Clinton’s forthcoming book, “Hard Choices,” promises readers an “inside account of crises, choices, and challenges” Ms. Clinton encountered as Secretary of State, presumably offering Ms. Clinton an opportunity to give a full accounting of flawed decisions and their fatal consequences in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.
That day brought the assassination of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and murder of three other brave Americans. In an earlier postmortem on those events, Clinton openly asserted that the surrounding circumstances were not relevant to Americans at the time or to determining causes underlying what went wrong.
“What difference at this point does it make?” Clinton indignantly bellowed when Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson (R) asked whether “a simple phone call” would have “ascertained immediately that there was no protest.”
Johnson pointed out that the American people were told that protests had given rise to the Benghazi assault even though it could have been “easily ascertained that that was not the fact, and the American people could have known that within days and they didn’t know that.”
The difference this makes is still relevant twenty-six months later, and Clinton’s question continues to demand an answer. In fact, the causes underlying the slaughter of four Americans makes all the difference in resolving important questions of national security, the safety of our citizens and the integrity of a national election.
The answers could very well depend on whether the fatal attacks in Benghazi on September 11, 2012 resulted from a protest, the spontaneous actions of “guys out for a walk one night” — a most unlikely scenario that Clinton proposed — or a preplanned attack linked to al Qaeda.
Decisions matter. In the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks, the Obama administration, the intelligence community, and members of Congress confronted hard choices. Voters expect them to make these tough decisions and to do so competently.
Add to this the irony that Clinton’s own 2008 campaign advertisement cited her superior telephonic communication skills as a noteworthy part of her national security prowess. “It’s 3 a.m. and your children are safe and asleep,” said the narrator, “Who do you want answering the phone?”
The answer matters. For the families of Chris Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty, and Tyrone Woods, their loved ones were not safe, and the decision makers had the ringer off. Americans were counting on those in charge to take swift and effective action. Washington failed them.
How and why that happened makes all the difference to a nation seeking to understand their leaders’ failures.
It makes a difference when a U.S. ambassador’s assassins remain at large. It makes a difference when that ambassador is the first killed in over 30 years. It makes a difference when the killers of three other citizens have not been brought to justice. It makes a difference when the Obama administration had failed to provide adequate security even after Ambassador Stevens had reported “unpredictable, volatile and violent” conditions and his repeated calls for increased security went unanswered. It makes a difference when a shameful failure of our national security apparatus emboldens our global enemies. It makes a difference when we project weakness, indecision, and Orwellian dishonesty with our own populace.
It makes a difference when politics trumps safety and security. While Susan Rice toured talk shows insisting that an anti-American demonstration occurred at the Benghazi compound, the CIA already knew the opposite. The administration dissembled over the nature of the Benghazi attacks, but President Obama later insisted just the opposite during the debates, with a transparently biased assist from moderator Candy Crowley.
All of this underscores the latent fiction in Clinton’s own 2008 campaign ad. Having claimed to have been better prepared to handle national security matters, her State Department failed to protect Ambassador Stevens and three others, blamed the incident on a non-existent protest supposedly fomented by an obscure YouTube video and refused to acknowledge the attacks of September 11, 2012 as acts of terrorism.
Clinton or those under her charge could have picked up the phone and determined immediately that no protest had occurred. But when Sen. Johnson pointed this out, Clinton dismissed the question as an absurd irrelevancy.
Clinton campaigned on national security with the ominous question, “Who do you want answering the phone?” Four years later, when pressed to account for actual responsibilities on matters of life and death, Clinton dismissed her interlocutor. Feigning outrage, she posed an equal and opposite question: “What difference at this point does it make?”
At the critical moment of truth, she demonstrated the difference that it makes, and we need answers from Ms. Clinton rather than more rhetorical questions. Those who want the nation to entrust them with hard choices should openly discuss the hard facts surrounding past decisions and their consequences.
First published in The Hill in April 2014