President Barack Obama pledged on the 2008 campaign trail that his administration would be the most transparent in history. Similarly, he said when welcoming his White House in 2009: “I will also hold myself as president to a new standard of openness …. Let me say it as simply as I can: Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency.” An official memorandum reads: “My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.” But in making the promise repeatedly, he gave his opponents quite an opportunity to criticize his abilities as president.
Perhaps more than any other event in Obama’s presidency, the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans proved how difficult governmental transparency can be to implement, especially in a country with as great a partisan divide as the United States. But with every promise comes the need to follow through, and Republicans in Congress have made the incident a symbol of the failings of the Obama administration. In past nineteen months, conservative lawmakers have accused the White House of orchestrating a coverup of how the attack was mishandled. And the administration has acknowledged that it did initially blame the assault on the American diplomatic mission solely on fallout from the circulation of the “Innocence of Muslims” video, which sparked protest across the Middle East for its derogatory depiction of the prophet Muhammad.
Undeniably, the pressures of November’s congressional midterm elections have contributed to the party’s desire to prove the Obama administration’s foreign policy failings, and by extension the Democratic party’s weak stance on international relations. Benghazi was a point of debate for presidential candidates in the 2012 elections, and once again an important topic for Congress, revealing the hyper-partisan nature of Washington politics. Now, with new documents released by the State Department, the GOP has new evidence on which to base it renewed its investigation into what happened in Benghazi.
There are a few basic facts regarding the attacks that can are not in dispute. On September 11, the anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, a U.S. embassy was attacked, resulting in the death of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. While the Obama administration initially blamed the incident on a protest that escalated into a tactical assault, it was later discovered that an al Qaeda-affiliated organization along with Islamist militants conducted what was a full-fledged and coordinated terrorist attack. Controversy was born in that discrepancy. When then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on Saturday morning television five days after the attack, saying that it had developed out of protest against the video, Republicans took note of her misstep and labeled it an attempt by the White House to conceal a key breakdown in national security, one that signaled a broader problem with the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the region. The party has long characterized Obama as too weak in asserting American power abroad.
Once it was acknowledged to be a terrorist attack, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched a special panel called an Accountability Review Board to investigate how such an attack took place. “The Board concluded that there was no protest prior to the attacks, which were unanticipated in their scale and intensity,” read the final report. That body — headed by former Joint Chiefs Chairman Admiral Mike Mullen and retired U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering — criticized how U.S. diplomatic security was handled and made twenty-nine recommendations that the State Department accepted. While Obama won reelection, and the changes were made, the review far from put an end to inquiries; congressional investigations followed.
State Department correspondence and other documents were subpoenaed the House Oversight Committee; and, five House Committees — Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, Judiciary, and Oversight and Government Reform — initiated their own inquiries. The conclusion drawn by the Republicans in those panels, released on April 23, 2013, was that “Senior State Department officials knew that the threat environment in Benghazi was high and that the Benghazi compound was vulnerable and unable to withstand an attack, yet the department continued to systematically withdraw security personnel.”
Several other damning judgements were also put forward. “After a White House Deputies Meeting on Saturday, September 15, 2012, the Administration altered the talking points to remove references to the likely participation of Islamic extremists in the attacks. The Administration also removed references to the threat of extremists linked to al-Qa’ida in Benghazi and eastern Libya,” read the report. “The Administration deflected responsibility by blaming the IC [intelligence community] for the information it communicated to the public in both the talking points and the subsequent narrative it perpetuated.” Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant Secretary of State for counterterrorism; Greg Hicks, former deputy chief of mission in Libya; and Eric Nordstrom, former regional security officer in Libya were all called by May 2013 congressional hearings and their testimonies told a similar story, further establishing that officials knew it was a terrorist attack. Hicks even testified he spoke with Clinton on the evening of the attack, and many of the Obama administration’s critics argue that he presumably relayed that assessment to her.
The new email just released by the State Department on have already earned the moniker of “‘smoking gun.” As conservative pundit Charles Krauthammer said on Fox News recently, “To me, it’s the equivalent of what was discovered with the Nixon tapes.” That document — obtained by the conservative watchdog group Judicial Watch through a Freedom of Information Act request — was authored by National Security Council communications adviser Ben Rhodes, who noted that one “goal” of Rice’s interviews was “to show that these protests were rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” But in those few words, congressional Republicans see failure, and the release of the email pushed Speaker of the House John Boehner to announce lawmakers would vote whether to establish a select committee to examine if Obama administration misled Congress about how it responded to Benghazi and the attack’s aftermath.
“Americans learned this week that the Obama Administration is so intent on obstructing the truth about Benghazi that it is even willing to defy subpoenas issued by the standing committees of the People’s House,” Boehner said in a statement released Friday. “In light of these new developments, the House will vote to establish a new select committee to investigate the attack, provide the necessary accountability, and ensure justice is finally served.”
In a separate action, the House Oversight Committee issued a subpoena to Secretary of State John Kerry — which is an unusual and antagonistic step for Congress to take. But even more importantly, Republicans want to uncover what Clinton knew of the administration’s response, and that knowledge could have important implications for the 2016 presidential election. Two March polls — conducted by Pew Research Center and Bloomberg News – found that Benghazi could be a potential liability for Clinton. California Rep. Darrell Issa has inferred that he could call Clinton to testify before the committee he leads.
“What else about Benghazi is the Obama administration still hiding from the American people?” Boehner asked in his Friday statement. “Four Americans died at the hands of terrorists nearly 20 months ago, and we are still missing answers, accountability and justice. It’s time that change.”
But while Republicans judge the administration’s actions regarding Benghazi and its aftermath to be a coverup, Democrats see such claims as merely conspiracy theories and the investigations as a misuse of congressional power. “These actions are not a responsible approach to congressional oversight,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), the senior Democrat on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said in a Friday press release. “They continue a trend of generating unnecessary conflict for the sake of publicity, and they are shockingly disrespectful to the secretary of state.”
“What we have seen since hours after the attack, beginning with a statement by the Republican nominee for president, is an attempt by Republicans to politicize a tragedy, and that continues today,” White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters, adding that “what hasn’t changed has been the effort by Republicans to … claim a conspiracy when they haven’t been able to find one.”
In essence, the new investigation has ensured that the attacks on the American diplomatic mission, as well as the Obama administration’s failings in both foreign policy and governmental opacity, will not be lost in the debates leading up to the midterm elections. As recent surveys show, the public is divided on the issue. Last June, a New York Times and CBS News poll showed that 53 percent of people believed the administration was “mostly hiding something,” while 34 percent answered that the administration was “mostly telling the truth.” Still, 57 percent also said that they thought Republicans were mainly criticizing the president for political reasons — an assessment that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has made as well.
Even though some Republicans believe the party could risk overstepping its authority, the notion of a corrupt Obama White House has stoked conservative passions. But that is not a new accusation. As early as April 2009, the libertarian think tank Cato Institution pointed out that the Administration’s transparency promise had been broken, and that claim of missing government opacity has been be made as regularly as the president’s job performance has been rated.
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