Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

A guide to GOP's Benghazi obsession

By Sally Kohn
May 28, 2014 -- Updated 2023 GMT (0423 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Sally Kohn: GOP has been desperately "politicizing" Benghazi since it happened
  • Kohn: In the fog of attacks, administration reported what it believed was happening
  • Pentagon fed up with repetitive, costly GOP requests, 13 hearings, 50 briefings, she says
  • Kohn: Benghazi investigations proved GOP wrong over and over, yet GOP will not drop it

Editor's note: Sally Kohn is a CNN political commentator, progressive activist and columnist. Follow her on Twitter @sallykohn. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- What happened in Benghazi, Libya, was a tragedy -- not a scandal. And no amount of Republican witch hunting or wishful thinking will make it otherwise.

Now a new e-mail "reveals" what was already plainly known, that the White House participated in crafting talking points in the aftermath of attacks in Libya and around the globe. Republicans claim the White House "politicized" the talking points. The irony, of course, is that Republicans have been desperate to politicize Benghazi from day one. Fueled by the relentless conservative message machine, it can be hard to have a reasonable discussion about Benghazi, one that relies on facts. So let's try to have that conversation here.

Sally Kohn
Sally Kohn

What exactly are the Republican accusations regarding Benghazi?

The main Republican critique appears to be that the White House and State Department politicized talking points given to U.N Ambassador Susan Rice, who spoke about the attacks on American TV five days later. Republicans argue the White House deliberately downplayed the involvement of al Qaeda and played up the spontaneous nature of the protests as a reaction to an anti-Islam video, to avoid tarnishing President Obama's national security record in advance of the 2012 presidential election. This, despite the fact that the White House talking points matched those produced by the CIA.

Republicans also have criticized the Obama administration for not responding to the attacks more aggressively when they happened, though a bipartisan Senate investigation found that military resources simply weren't in position to help. Similarly, Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican most aggressively pressing Benghazi accusations, says he has "suspicions" that Hillary Clinton gave "stand down" orders to stop military resources from deploying to Benghazi even though a Republican report to the Armed Services Committee says that no such "stand down" order was issued.

Bernstein: Benghazi "is not Watergate"
Smoking gun or partisan nonsense?
White House Benghazi Coverup?

In addition, Republicans have criticized the Obama administration for not doing more to prevent the attacks, such as beefing up consular security. Yet it was the same House Republicans who initially denied the Obama administration's request for additional embassy security funding.

What do we believe actually happened that night in Benghazi?

The answer to that question depends on when you're asking it. We know that the killing of four Americans on September 11, 2012, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, was in part the result of pre-coordinated terrorist activity. According to an extensive investigation by The New York Times, "The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs." The Times also reports that the attack was "fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam."

But in critiquing the Obama administration's comments in 2012 in the moments during and after the Benghazi attack, what would seem more relevant is what the White House and intelligence community reasonably believed was happening.

After all, at the same time as the unrest in Benghazi, violent outbursts very clearly in reaction to the anti-Islam video were going on in Egypt, Yemen and Sudan. The night of the Benghazi attacks, Al Jazeera reported they appeared to be spontaneous protests against the anti-Islam film.

Of course we don't know the classified intelligence, but it would not seem preposterous to believe what was happening in Benghazi was more spontaneous protests rather than pre-planned terrorism. And even if affiliates of al Qaeda were suspected to be involved, it's not surprising that the intelligence community would not want to show its hand amid active efforts to track and capture those responsible. It was the CIA that removed the reference to al Qaeda, according to e-mails released to CNN by the White House.

Here is what Susan Rice said, four days later, that in retrospect seems so wildly misleading to conservatives:

"Our current best assessment based on the information that we have at present is that, in fact, what this began as was a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what had transpired in Cairo. In Cairo, as you know, a few hours earlier, there was a violent protest that was undertaken in reaction to this very offensive video that was disseminated.

"We believe that folks in Benghazi, a small number of people, came to the embassy to—or to the consulate, rather—to replicate the sort of challenge that was posed in Cairo. And then, as that unfolded, it seems to have been hijacked, let us say, by some individual clusters of extremists who came with heavier weapons, weapons that, as you know, in the wake of the revolution in Libya, are quite common and accessible. And it then evolved from there."

That seems not only responsibly cautious in the wake of a complicated and still-unfolding national tragedy, but strikingly accurate.

But the talking points were edited! For political motivations!

That's what talking points are, they are the way political figures on both sides of the aisle attempt to tell the facts in the most favorable light. That said, the CIA gave both parties in Congress the same "talking points" it prepared for Rice. And, as noted, there are plausible national security reasons for not wanting to show our entire intelligence hand amid an active investigation.

This responsible caution stands in direct contrast, for instance, to the Bush administration deliberately distorting not only talking points but also actual intelligence reports for political purposes to justify the war in Iraq. Or consider that just hours after the Benghazi killings, even before the White House had made a statement, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney condemned the Obama administration's response. Those talking points were definitely political.

The talking points not only seem consistent with events on the ground at the time but with what we now know, per The New York Times and several congressional reports. Yet that hasn't stopped Sen. John McCain from suggesting that editing talking points amounted to a "cover-up" and Rep. Eric Cantor from saying the White House "misled" the American public.

Can't we have an honest, open investigation and settle this once and for all?

We have. Several times. And then some. So far, Politico reports, Republican congressional investigations on Benghazi have included "13 hearings, 25,000 pages of documents and 50 briefings." In a letter written in March 2014 responding to a request for information from a ranking Democrat in the House Armed Services Committee, the Pentagon notes:

"The department has devoted thousands of man-hours to responding to numerous and often repetitive congressional requests regarding Benghazi, which includes time devoted to approximately 50 congressional hearings, briefings and interviews which the department has led or participated in. The total cost of compliance with Benghazi-related congressional requests sent to the department and other agencies is estimated to be in the millions of dollars."

A bipartisan report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence determined that "there were no efforts by the White House or any other executive branch entities to 'cover-up' facts or make alterations for political purposes." The report did say the attack could have been prevented and blamed the State Department, military and U.S. intelligence community for failing to do so.

What difference does it make?

Great question. And one taken from a quote by Hillary Clinton, made during her testimony on Benghazi to the House Oversight Committee. Conservatives use the line to suggest that Clinton is callous toward the loss of life in Benghazi. No. Here's the full context:

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisconsin: "No, again, we were misled that there were supposedly protests and that something sprang out of that -- an assault sprang out of that -- and that was easily ascertained that that was not the fact, and the American people could have known that within days and they didn't know that."

Clinton: "With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they'd go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again.

"Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information. ... But you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backward as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we'll figure out what was going on in the meantime."

"I take responsibility," Clinton said four days after the Benghazi attacks, before Susan Rice ever said a word. "I do feel responsible," Clinton reiterated at the hearings in January 2013. When things went wrong in Benghazi, the Obama administration took responsibility.

But when Republicans have the facts wrong on Benghazi, they don't do the responsible thing and drop it. They keep pursuing their partisan witch hunt, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars desperate to smear Obama and 2016 presidential front-runner Clinton with anything that will stick.

The facts on Benghazi simply do not undercut the Obama administration, but that won't stop Republicans from digging for mud.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2108 GMT (0508 HKT)
The NFL's new Player Conduct Policy was a missed chance to get serious about domestic violence, says Mel Robbins.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1600 GMT (0000 HKT)
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
December 16, 2014 -- Updated 2154 GMT (0554 HKT)
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 1023 GMT (1823 HKT)
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
December 17, 2014 -- Updated 0639 GMT (1439 HKT)
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2020 GMT (0420 HKT)
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1456 GMT (2256 HKT)
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 2101 GMT (0501 HKT)
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
December 15, 2014 -- Updated 1453 GMT (2253 HKT)
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 2253 GMT (0653 HKT)
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1550 GMT (2350 HKT)
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2123 GMT (0523 HKT)
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1426 GMT (2226 HKT)
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1439 GMT (2239 HKT)
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
December 14, 2014 -- Updated 1738 GMT (0138 HKT)
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1828 GMT (0228 HKT)
Rip Rapson says the city's 'Grand Bargain' saved pensions and a world class art collection by pulling varied stakeholders together, setting civic priorities and thinking outside the box
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 2310 GMT (0710 HKT)
Glenn Schwartz says the airing of the company's embarrassing emails might wake us up to the usefulness of talking in-person instead of electronically
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
The computer glitch that disrupted air traffic over the U.K. on Friday was a nuisance, but not dangerous, says Les Abend
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 1740 GMT (0140 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says the CBO didn't provide an accurate picture of Obamacare's impact, so why rehire its boss?
December 13, 2014 -- Updated 0040 GMT (0840 HKT)
Russian aggression has made it clear Ukraine must rethink its security plans, says Olexander Motsyk, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S.
December 12, 2014 -- Updated 0046 GMT (0846 HKT)
The Senate committee report on torture has highlighted partisan divisions on CIA methods, says Will Marshall. Republicans and Democrats are to blame.
December 11, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
It would be dishonest to say that 2014 has been a good year for women. But that hasn't stopped some standing out, says Frida Ghitis.
ADVERTISEMENT