The Benghazi Show
Republicans wanted to grill Hillary Clinton on the death of four Americans in Libya. They blew it.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Jan. 23, 2013, about the security failures at the consulate in Benghazi, Libya
Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.
Republicans wanted answers about Benghazi. They wanted them yesterday. They wanted them now. “Why was security at the consulate so inadequate?” asked four Republican senators in an October op-ed. “Did anyone order U.S. military and intelligence personnel in Benghazi or nearby in the region who offered help to stand down?” One week ago, three of those senators published 14 more questions about the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed four Americans. Why was the FBI investigating an “act of terrorism?” Why wasn’t a military response ready in a hurry, when the consulate came under attack? And “what were the secretary of State's activities during this time?”
They were supposed to find out today. Hillary Clinton, who’s leaving the State Department as soon as she can toss the baton to Sen. John Kerry, spent the morning with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the afternoon with the House. She would have come in December, but events got away from her: an unexplained illness, a pack of Republicans speculating that she had “Benghazi flu,” the revelation that she’d had a blood clot, followed by some furtive Republican apologies.
Still, Republicans would get their hearing. It wasn’t the Joint Committee on Benghazi that Sen. John McCain wanted, but it would be a chance to break into cable programming, all day, and to put the magnifying glass on Barack Obama’s foreign policy until it caught fire. And they’d have an extra month to come up with questions!
They blew it. All congressional hearings are invitations for preening, showboating, and not-a-question-but-a-comment speeches. The grilling of Hillary Clinton was worse: a repetitive series of losing rematches, of Republicans asking questions that had been asked and answered and asked and answered. They coaxed one new piece of information from her, but they didn’t seem to notice, as their press offices once again tried to shame her for ever suggesting that the Benghazi attack grew out of protests against an anti-Islam video.
What was the one good question? Rep. Tom Cotton, one of the most-hyped members of the GOP’s freshman class, reminded Clinton that a Benghazi suspect had been let go by Tunisia. The United States provided intelligence that helped lead to Ali Harzi; the new regime in Tunisia let him go. Cotton asked Clinton whether that concerned her; she said it didn’t. He’d touched on something primal about the Obama administration’s approach to foreign policy in the post-Arab Spring Middle East.
Vanishingly few Republicans decided to pick up that thread. In the Senate and the House, most Republicans asked Clinton to explain—one more time, please—why the administration didn’t respond quickly to the attacks, why it hadn’t fired the State officials who screwed up, and why Susan Rice had gone on five Sunday shows and “blamed a video” for the attacks.
If you were a cynic, you wondered whether the inquisitors were basing this on the internal investigation or on the juiciest media reports from last year. Rice “went on TV talking about a demonstration that never happened,” according to Texas Rep. Michael McCaul. “Susan Rice said,” according to Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks, “and I quote, ‘What happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.’ ” But that wasn’t the full quote. Brooks excised Rice’s caveat that this was the “best information that we have available to us today,” and her conclusion that “what we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding.”
David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. You can reach him at email@example.com, or tweet at him @daveweigel.