What's up with Benghazi?

5/16/2013 08:36:00 PM
This has nothing to do with economics, but I was curious enough to write a post on it. And of course, there's a bit of moral hazard since the more I say Benghazi, the more google web hits I will get. I will attempt to lay this out as apolitically as possible.

Lets start with a fact. Deadly attacks on US consulates and embassies are relatively common. Since 1971, we've averaged at least 9.4 deaths per year in attacks on US Embassies and Consulates. Now, I certainly think that each and every attack warrants a thorough investigation, but that doesn't necessarily mean a congressional investigation--the main responsibility for investigating these attacks falls on the intelligence agencies and the State Department, who seek to find out who carried out the attack and why and then report to the White House, which makes decisions about retaliation and additional security measures. Of course, it is congress's prerogative to get involved if they feel that these agencies are mismanaging the investigations.

That's where I get lost in the whole public controversy about Benghazi--the "scandal" doesn't seem to be about whether the state department and intelligence agencies bungled the investigation, or whether the White House made the wrong call on security measures, but rather about some alleged cover-up wherein the White House deliberately lied to the public by saying it was a spontaneous protest, when they supposedly already knew it was a planned attack by organized terrorist groups.

First off, what does it say about American politics when, in the absence of any evidence one way or another, we automatically assume that the administration was malevolently misleading the public, rather than simply misinformed about the nature of the attack? As it turns out, the administration was actually just misinformed, as the congressional investigation has turned up memos from the CIA informing the White House that the attack was a spontaneous protest mob rather than an organized terrorist attack. From the CIA memo:
"The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo"
Given that the attacks occurred amid a wave of spontaneous protests in Egypt and Yemen that involved violent attacks on US diplomatic missions, the initial CIA assessment sounds reasonable to me, even if it turned out to be incorrect. The question is, did repeating the erroneous CIA assessment to the public cause any harm? It's hard to see how it could have--the attacks were already over at that point. As new information about the attacks, the working hypothesis was revised and, as far as I can tell, the press was informed promptly.

But suppose that the conspiracy theorists were right--the White House somehow knew immediately that the attacks were planned and executed by known terrorist organizations, but the White House decided to tell the press instead that it was a spontaneous mob attack. The obvious explanation, at least to my mind, for such misdirection would be that the White House was attempting to protect some intelligence source. This actually happens all the time--for example, even with the Soviet Union gone for more than a decade, the CIA and White House still maintain cover stories about known Soviet spies and plots, because when you infiltrate an enemy or break one of their codes, you never, never let anyone know until you absolutely have to, even if the original enemies are long gone. My point is this: even if it had turned out that the administration deliberately lied, it takes a degree of paranoia to automatically assume that the reason was solely malicious--as if the president hates America, or something--rather based on a genuine need for secrecy.

And even if it turned out that the White House lied for no good reason, I just don't see how it can be the watergate-type scandal the right wing thinks it is. Sure, it would be a scandal, in the same way that Bush's WMDs-in-Iraq lie was a scandal, or Clinton's "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" lie was a scandal. But Watergate? Resignation? No way.

At any rate, it is pretty clear that the scandal narrative that the right wing has been painting just isn't true. Not that I'm saying the republicans lied about it, they just didn't have the right information at the time. See what I did there?