Exclusive: Official Washington is obsessing over the Benghazi “scandal,” proof that the Republicans and their right-wing media can make the smallest things big and the biggest things small. It is a disparity that has distorted how Americans understand their recent history, writes Robert Parry.
By Robert Parry
You have to hand it to the Republicans and their right-wing media: they are persistent in pushing their conspiracy theories no matter how improbable or insignificant, just as they are relentless in covering up GOP wrongdoing even when that behavior strikes at the heart of democratic institutions or costs countless lives.
So, we have the contrast between the nine high-profile hearings about last September’s Benghazi attack and Republican determination to cover up Watergate, Iran-Contra, Iraq-gate, Contra-cocaine trafficking, and the two October Surprise cases (sabotaging President Lyndon Johnson’s Vietnam peace talks in 1968 and subverting President Jimmy Carter’s Iran-hostage negotiations in 1980).
In those cases and others, Republicans not only suppressed evidence but mounted counteroffensives against brave whistleblowers, diligent government investigators and conscientious journalists. The GOP and its right-wing media took pleasure in punishing anyone who dug up troublesome truths, even a conservative Republican such as Iran-Contra special prosecutor Lawrence Walsh.
The Republicans also showed little or no interest in delving into the facts surrounding terrorist incidents on George W. Bush’s watch, including his failure to protect the nation from the 9/11 attacks, or examining his war crimes, such as his deceptive case for invading Iraq and his approval of torture against “war on terror” detainees.
Granted, part of the blame for those short-circuited investigations must fall on the Democrats and the mainstream news media for lacking the courage and integrity to pursue investigations in the face of Republican obstructionism.
With only a few exceptions, Democrats have shied away from confrontations with Republicans, sometimes fretting that a full accounting might not be “good for the country.” Mainstream news executives, too, have shown a lack of stomach for going toe to toe with angry Republicans and their ferocious propagandists.
Thus, there has been a systematic crumbling of investigative will when the subject of a scandal is a Republican. But near-opposite rules apply when the subject is a Democrat. No matter how flimsy the evidence, Republicans and the Right demonstrate a boundless determination to build a mountain of scandal out of a molehill of suspicions.
The cumulative impact of this investigative imbalance has been that the narrative of modern American history has been wildly distorted. [See Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]
For instance, few people know that Richard Nixon launched his extra-legal spying team in 1971 because he was frantically searching for a file that President Johnson had compiled on how Nixon’s campaign had sabotaged the Vietnam peace talks in 1968 to get an edge in that close election.
Privately, Johnson termed Nixon’s actions “treason,” but LBJ and his top aides agreed to stay silent out of concern that the story was so disturbing it might shake public faith in a prospective Nixon administration if disclosing the facts did not stop his election.
“Some elements of the story are so shocking in their nature that I’m wondering whether it would be good for the country to disclose the story and then possibly have a certain individual [Nixon] elected,” said Defense Secretary Clark Clifford in a conference call with Johnson on Nov. 4, 1968. “It could cast his whole administration under such doubt that I think it would be inimical to our country’s interests.”
However, staying silent also didn’t turn out to be very “good for the country.” After torpedoing Johnson’s peace deal, Nixon continued the Vietnam War for more than four years at the cost of some 20,000 more American dead, possibly a million more Vietnamese killed and the political discord that divided the U.S. population, turning parents against their own children.
Though not divulging Nixon’s dirty trick, LBJ did order his national security adviser Walt Rostow to remove the top-secret file containing the wiretap evidence of Nixon’s back-channel contacts urging South Vietnam to spurn the peace talks. Nixon later learned from FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover of the file’s existence, but Nixon’s top aides, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman and Henry Kissinger, could not locate it.
The missing file became a point of urgency for Nixon in June 1971 when the New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, the secret history of the Vietnam War from 1945 to 1967, chronicling mostly Democratic lies that had ensnared the United States in Vietnam. However, Nixon knew something that few others did: there was a sequel that was arguably even more disgusting than the original.
That was the context for Nixon’s order to bring in ex-CIA officer E. Howard Hunt to organize a team of burglars. Their first target was to be the Brookings Institution where some of Nixon’s aides believed the missing file was hidden in the safe. Hunt’s team later spearheaded a series of spying operations that were exposed on June 17, 1972, when five burglars were caught inside the Democratic National Committee’s offices at the Watergate.
Over the next two years, the Watergate scandal led to Nixon’s political undoing, but the investigations remained focused on the cover-up, not the far-more-damning background of the foiled break-in.
With Rostow and other ex-LBJ aides still sitting on what they knew – and with Republicans circumscribing the scope of the investigation and with the news media enamored of its new favorite saying, “the cover-up is worse than the crime” – the Watergate inquiry never got around to explaining why Nixon started the burglary team in the first place, i.e. to conceal his blood-drenched “treason.”
Even four decades later, the conventional wisdom on Watergate – that it was a one-off case of Nixon’s political paranoia followed by a foolhardy cover-up – allows Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona to claim that the Benghazi case is worse than Watergate because no one died in Watergate. [For a fuller treatment of the real Watergate scandal and other Republican successes in frustrating investigations, see Robert Parry’s America’s Stolen Narrative.]
The Nothing Benghazi Scandal
But the absurdity of the Benghazi “scandal” is that – like the intensely investigated Whitewater “scandal” of the 1990s – this Republican obsession is a non-scandal.
Yes, four U.S. personnel died in what appears to have been a coordinated attack by an Islamic extremist group on a lightly guarded U.S. mission (which had become a base for CIA operations). And there are legitimate questions about levels of security for these quasi-diplomatic outposts.
However, the “scandal” part of the story has centered on an absurd notion: that the Obama administration conducted a cover-up because it didn’t want to admit that Islamic terrorists remained active after the killing of Osama bin Laden in May 2011.
The “proof” of this Benghazi cover-up has been that UN Ambassador Susan Rice went on Sunday talk shows and made comments derived from “talking points” that referred to the confusing circumstances of unrest preceding the Benghazi attack and blamed the lethal assault on “extremists,” not “terrorists” or an al-Qaeda affiliate.
What makes this “scandal” absurd is that President Barack Obama had already counted the Benghazi attack as among those “acts of terror” that, he said, would not shake America’s “resolve.” He did so in the Rose Garden the day after the assault.
Thus, the Republican conspiracy theory about Obama seeking to black-out the terrorism connection to Benghazi because he wanted voters to believe that he had defeated al-Qaeda makes no sense. Obama himself inserted the terror meme, as Mitt Romney learned during the second presidential debate when the Republican nominee famously blundered into a correction from CNN’s Candy Crowley.
A review of the various drafts of Rice’s “talking points” also reveals that the U.S. intelligence community believed, at the time, that the Benghazi attack was an outgrowth of similar protests raging across the Middle East against an American video that ridiculed the Prophet Muhammad. That impression of cause and effect also was common among major U.S. newspapers.
So, Rice appears to have been giving her rendition of the best available intelligence at the time. And she was doing so on TV talk shows, not in some official setting such as a congressional hearing or a legal proceeding.
In case no one has noticed, it is common practice on Sunday talk shows for political figures to spin the facts to benefit their favored positions. If the new standard for scandal is some misstatement on a TV talk show, there will be no end to such “scandals.”
The latest Benghazi hearing on Wednesday went off in a somewhat different direction, centering on the account of Gregory Hicks, the then-deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli who – on Sept. 11, 2012 – was some 400 miles away from the attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other U.S. personnel.
Hicks’s chief complaint was that military commanders from the Africa Command overruled the leader of a four-member Special Operations team who wanted to fly from Tripoli to Benghazi to join the fight against Ansar al-Sharia, the extremist group that was claiming credit for the attack.
In melodramatic – and self-serving – testimony, Hicks recounted how the disappointed team commander told him: “I have never been so embarrassed in my life that a State Department officer has bigger balls than somebody in the military.”
However, Hicks also testified that he was worried about the dangers of rushing reinforcements to Benghazi. Embassy workers had learned that “the ambassador was in a hospital controlled by Ansar al-Sharia, the group whose Twitter feed said it was leading the attack on the consulate,” Hicks said, adding that he also got several phone calls saying “you can come get the ambassador, we know where he is.”
That prompted his concern about “wading into a trap,” and he noted that Ansar al-Sharia also “was calling on an attack on our embassy in Tripoli.”
Pentagon officials offered a parallel explanation for the decision to hold back on rushing the four-member team to Benghazi, claiming the team could not have reached Benghazi in time to help and was needed for the protection of the Embassy in Tripoli.
Anyone who has been involved with – or has covered – chaotic events like a surprise terrorist attack would understand how difficult it is to make split-second decisions with limited or contradictory information. To second-guess commanders hesitant to risk more loss of life by hastily dispatching soldiers into a dangerous and confusing situation is the sort of thing that gives Monday-morning-quarterbacking a bad name.
The GOP Legal Team
There also should be some red flags over Hicks’s choice of legal counsel, the highly partisan Republican husband-and-wife team of Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing. The two have played roles in both covering up Republican scandals and in ginning up Democratic ones.
For instance, Toensing was a leading force in smearing former U.S. Ambassador Joseph Wilson and his wife, Valerie Plame, who was an undercover CIA officer until George W. Bush’s administration exposed Plame’s CIA work as part of an effort to discredit Wilson for criticizing one of Bush’s false claims about Iraq’s WMD.
On Feb. 18, 2007, Toensing went so far as to pen a Washington Post Outlook article “indicting” Wilson and other Americans who tried to hold Bush’s aides accountable for destroying Plame’s career. Besides denouncing Wilson, Toensing disparaged Plame’s undercover work at the CIA by contending that Plame did not qualify for protection under a law protecting the identity of covert intelligence officers. Toensing wrote that “Plame was not covert. She worked at CIA headquarters and had not been stationed abroad within five years of the date” of her exposure.
Though it might not have been clear to a reader, Toensing was hanging her claim about Plame not being “covert” on a contention that Plame didn’t meet the coverage standards of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act. Toensing’s claim was legalistic at best since it obscured the larger point that Plame was working undercover in a classified CIA position and was running agents abroad whose safety would be put at risk by an unauthorized disclosure of Plame’s identity.
But Toensing, who promoted herself as an author of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act, wasn’t even right about the legal details. The law doesn’t require that a CIA officer be “stationed” abroad in the preceding five years; it simply refers to an officer who “has served within the last five years outside the United States.”
That would cover someone who – while based in the United States – went abroad on official CIA business, as Plame testified under oath in a congressional hearing that she had done within the five-year period.
Toensing, who appeared as a Republican witness at the same congressional hearing on March 16, 2007, was asked about her bald assertion that “Plame was not covert.”
“Not under the law,” Toensing responded. “I’m giving you the legal interpretation under the law and I helped draft the law. The person is supposed to reside outside the United States.” But that’s not what the law says, either. It says “served” abroad, not “reside.”
When asked whether she had spoken to the CIA or Plame about Plame’s covert status, Toensing said, “I didn’t talk to Ms. Plame or the CIA. I can just tell you what’s required under the law. They can call anybody anything they want to do in the halls” of the CIA. In other words, Toensing had no idea about the facts of the matter; she didn’t know how often Plame might have traveled abroad in the five years before her exposure; Toensing didn’t even get the language of the statute correct.
At the Plame hearing, Toensing was reduced to looking like a quibbling kook who missed the forest of damage – done to U.S. national security, to Plame and possibly to the lives of foreign agents – for the trees of how a definition in a law was phrased, and then getting that wrong, too.
Protecting Bush Senior
DiGenova, who along with Toensing sat behind Hicks during his congressional testimony on Wednesday, also has performed as a legal hatchet-man for the Republicans. For instance, after the 1992 election, diGenova was chosen by a Republican-controlled judicial panel to head up an investigation into President George H.W. Bush’s attempt to disqualify his Democratic rival, Bill Clinton, by digging up dirt in Clinton’s passport file.
Though the evidence of Bush’s dirty trick was overwhelming – and Bush essentially admitted to ordering it – diGenova found every imaginable excuse to let the ex-President off the hook. DiGenova’s investigation cleared Bush and his administration of any wrongdoing, saying the probe “found no evidence that President Bush was involved in this matter.”
However, FBI documents that I reviewed at the National Archives presented a different picture. Speaking to diGenova and his investigators in fall 1993, former President Bush said he had encouraged then-White House chief of staff James Baker and other aides to investigate Clinton and to make sure the information got out.
“Although he [Bush] did not recall tasking Baker to research any particular matter, he may have asked why the campaign did not know more about Clinton’s demonstrating” against the Vietnam War while he was studying in England, said the FBI interview report, dated Oct. 23, 1993.
“The President [Bush] advised that … he probably would have said, ‘Hooray, somebody’s going to finally do something about this.’ If he had learned that the Washington Times was planning to publish an article, he would have said, ‘That’s good, it’s about time.’ …
“Based on his ‘depth of feeling’ on this issue, President Bush responded to a hypothetical question that he would have recommended getting the truth out if it were legal,” the FBI wrote in summarizing Bush’s statements. “The President added that he would not have been concerned over the legality of the issue but just the facts and what was in the files.”
Bush also said he understood how his impassioned comments about Clinton’s loyalty might have led some members of his staff to conclude that he had “a one-track mind” on the issue. He also expressed disappointment that the Clinton passport search uncovered so little. “The President described himself as being indignant over the fact that the campaign did not find out what Clinton was doing” as a student studying abroad, the FBI report said.
Bush’s comments seem to suggest that he had pushed his subordinates into a violation of Clinton’s privacy rights. But diGenova, who had worked for the Reagan-Bush Justice Department, already had signaled to Bush that the probe was going nowhere.
At the start of the Oct. 23, 1993, interview, which took place at Bush’s office in Houston, diGenova assured Bush that the investigation’s staff lawyers were “all seasoned prof[essional] prosecutors who know what a real crime looks like,” according to FBI notes of the meeting. “[This is] not a gen[eral] probe of pol[itics] in Amer[ica] or dirty tricks, etc., or a general license to rummage in people’s personal lives.”
As the interview ended, two of diGenova’s assistants – Lisa Rich and Laura Laughlin – asked Bush for autographs, according to the FBI’s notes on the meeting. Naturally, the ever-appeasing Democrats did nothing to challenge diGenova’s cover-up in defense of the well-liked ex-President. [For details, see Robert Parry’s Secrecy & Privilege.]
In other words, diGenova and Toensing are personifications of Official Washington’s double standards on investigations. When the target is a Democrat (or someone causing trouble for a Republican), the husband-and-wife legal team twists whatever facts are available into some terrible scandal. Yet, when a Republican has engaged in illicit activities, diGenova and Toensing find a way to spin those facts in the most innocent of ways.
The Benghazi “scandal” is just the latest example of how Democrats fall through the ice when a Republican would skate away.
Investigative reporter Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories for The Associated Press and Newsweek in the 1980s. You can buy his new book, America’s Stolen Narrative, either in print here or as an e-book (from Amazon and barnesandnoble.com).