Hillary Clinton and Trey Gowdy’s Benghazi Committee, explained.

Hillary Is Finally Testifying Before the House Benghazi Committee. Here’s What You Need to Know.

Hillary Is Finally Testifying Before the House Benghazi Committee. Here’s What You Need to Know.

The Slatest
Your News Companion
Oct. 21 2015 5:46 PM

Benghazi, Explained

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Hillary Clinton testifies before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about the September 11 attacks against the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, on Capitol Hill January 23, 2013 in Washington, D.C.

Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images

Why are we here?

Hillary Clinton is set to appear before the House Benghazi Committee on Thursday for what promises to be both the highest profile moment in the GOP’s never-ending investigation into the 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya, and the latest political test for the Democratic front-runner’s presidential hopes. Expect the daylong hearing to bring plenty of partisan drama to a C-Span screen near you—but little in the way of consensus or closure.

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Let’s start at the beginning: What actually happened during the attacks?

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

On the night of Sept. 11, 2012, a group of armed Islamic militants launched an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, a city in northeast Libya that had been at the heart of the U.S-backed rebel efforts that brought an end to long-time ruler Muammar Qaddafi’s reign (and life) the prior year. At 9:42 p.m. local time, the militants breached the gates of the compound and set fire to the building. In the subsequent chaos, American security forces lost track of ambassador Chris Stevens and diplomat Sean Smith, both of whom later died of smoke inhalation. It was the first time since 1979 that a U.S. ambassador was killed in the line of duty.

During the siege, American personnel retreated to a nearby CIA annex with their attackers in pursuit. Early the next morning, the militants struck that location with mortars, and two former Navy SEALs-turned-CIA security contractors, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, were killed while attempting to return fire—bringing the U.S. death toll from the attack to four. At roughly 6 a.m., local Libyan forces arrived to escort the Americans to the airport so they could flee the city.

And what’s all this have to do with President Obama and Hillary Clinton?

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Republicans and their conservative allies have lobbed a slew of Benghazi-related accusations at the president and his then-secretary of state in the three years since: They’ve suggested that the U.S. military had reinforcements in range of Benghazi that could have provided much-needed aid, but that the White House ordered those forces to stand down; they’ve claimed that the Obama administration intentionally misled the American public when officials initially described the attack as happening when “extremist elements” joined existing protests that had begun “spontaneously” in response to an anti-Muslim video; they’ve argued that the State Department should have done more to secure the U.S. mission in the first place; and, most recently, they’ve taken issue with Clinton’s use of a private email account for government work, which came to light in large part because of their ongoing Benghazi investigation.

The common theme throughout has been the Republican assertion that President Obama and then-Secretary Clinton were more concerned about their own political fortunes than with American lives—before, during, and after the attack.

Let’s take those charges in order. Were there really American reinforcements nearby that could have saved the day?

No. A bipartisan investigation conducted by the Senate Intelligence Committee found that “there were no U.S. military resources in position to intervene in short order in Benghazi to help defend” either the diplomatic outpost or the CIA annex. Likewise, an internal review conducted by the State Department—which was not exactly kind to the agency—concluded “there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.”

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Well, that was easy. What about the controversy over the attackers’ apparent motivation?

Here’s where things start to get a lot more complicated. In the wake of the attacks, the official narrative put forth by the White House was that they were the result of an impromptu protest over the Innocence of Muslims, a low-budget anti-Islam movie that had prompted violent protests outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo earlier that day. We now know that was incorrect: There is no evidence that there were any protests outside the U.S. mission in Benghazi immediately before or during the attack on the consulate.

So the White House lied, then?

Not exactly, though they were definitely selective with what information they put forward. When Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, used the administration’s talking points on the TV news circuit the Sunday following the attack, she was relaying information that, at the time, appears to have been the intelligence community’s working assumption and best guess as to the cause of the attack. While there was some speculation inside the administration that it had been a terrorist attack, ultimately it was the CIA—and not the White House—that removed any reference to terrorism from early drafts of the talking points, because, as the CIA says now, they couldn’t say for certain initially what had happened.

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OK, but wasn’t the “spontaneous” narrative a politically convenient one for the White House?

Most certainly. The attacks happened less than two months before the 2012 presidential election, and terrorism-themed headlines weren’t exactly part of Obama’s reelection strategy. It was in the White House’s political interests to avoid saying the words “terrorist attack”—a motivation that is difficult to separate from both the original talking points and the delay in correcting them when better information became available in the days that followed.

How long did it take the White House to correct the record?

The day after the attacks, Obama stood in the Rose Garden and declared: “No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this nation, alter that character, or eclipse the light of the values that we stand for.” His decision not to use the words “terrorist attack,” though, was hard to miss. It would take more than a week for an administration official to concede that the deaths of the four Americans were the result of a “terrorist attack,” according to fact checkers at the Washington Post. The president, meanwhile, was still pointing to the video as a major reason for the attack two weeks later during a speech to the United Nations. It wasn’t until Sept. 26 that a White House spokesman clarified that “it is certainly the case that it is our view as an administration, the president’s view, that it was a terrorist attack.” (The semantics “act of terror” vs. “terrorist attack” would feature prominently in the second presidential debate the following month.)

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How does Hillary factor into the talking point controversy?

Emails from Clinton’s private server that were released earlier this year show that, two days after the attack, she circulated an email from long-time confidant Sidney Blumenthal that, citing “sensitive sources” in Libya, suggested the siege was the work of members of Libyan terrorist group Ansar al-Shariah, and that the militants had ties to al-Qaida. “We should get this around asap,” Clinton wrote in an email to her foreign policy adviser, Jake Sullivan. “Will do,” he responded. The following month, Blumenthal—not an official adviser to Clinton at that point—emailed to say he was concerned that Republicans might use Benghazi as part of a “Jimmy Carter Strategy” to portray Obama as soft on terrorism. Clinton forwarded that email to Sullivan as well, with instructions to pass it along to “Ben,” an apparent reference to Benjamin Rhodes, an Obama national security adviser and speechwriter.

So this had nothing to do with that movie?

That’s debatable. U.S. intelligence officials maintain that the protests over the video did play a small, albeit indirect role in the attack. As then-acting CIA Director Michael Morell would later put it: The militants "decided to make some trouble of their own” after learning that protesters of the movie in Cairo had managed to scale the walls of the U.S. embassy there earlier in the day. “The nature of the attacks,” Morell added, “suggested they did not involve significant pre-planning.”

OK, what about the lack of security then?

That is not in dispute—which shouldn’t come as a surprise given four Americans lost their lives during the attack. The State Department review blamed “systemic” leadership failures within the agency’s management for what it said was the “grossly” inadequate security at the mission in Benghazi. Those failures, though, appear to have been the result of bureaucratic incompetency, not political machinations. The lack of staffing, according to the State Department, was partially the result of confusion over the mission’s official status: as neither an embassy nor an official consulate, the diplomatic outpost existed outside the normal departmental budgetary process that allocates security funding and personnel. Two different bureaus within the State Department had authority over the mission but failed to work together—something that, according to the probe, resulted in “stove-piped discussions and decisions” on matters of policy and security.

But should the administration have seen the Benghazi attacks coming?

While everyone seems to be in agreement that the department should have been better prepared for the possibility of an attack given the unrest in the region, there has been little evidence to suggest that anyone should have—or even could have—predicted this specific attack. The State review, though, conceded that there were “known gaps” in the “intelligence community's understanding of extremist militias in Libya and the potential threat they posed to U.S. interests.” Knowing what they did, then, the State Department likely couldn’t have stopped the attack before it started. The problem, though, was not what the agency knew but what it didn’t.

And where does Hillary fit in here?

Since she was in charge of the State Department at the time—and since the agency probe blamed the department’s “leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” for the inadequate security that made the attacks possible—ultimately she has had to answer for the failures that led to the loss of American lives.

And has she?

Hillary has taken general, the-buck-stops-here responsibility for what happened—though she has remained defiant in the face of conservative criticism. “I was the one ultimately responsible for my people’s safety, and I never felt that responsibility more deeply than I did that day,” she wrote in her 2014 memoir, Hard Choices. Still, she added: “I will not be a part of a political slugfest on the backs of dead Americans.” More recently, her surrogates have claimed that Clinton, as secretary of state, shouldn’t have been the one “micromanaging” security at diplomatic outposts around the world.

So, will Thursday’s hearing be Hillary’s first time testifying about Benghazi?

No. Clinton spent roughly six hours in 2013 testifying before Congress, where she turned in a generally solid performance. (As last week’s Democratic debate reminded everyone, Clinton can be quiet effective when tangling with opponents.) Still, she wasn’t perfect. While being grilled about the initial White House narrative, Clinton wasn’t able to hide her agitation. “Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they’d go kill some Americans,” she said. “What difference—at this point, what difference does it make?”

You’ve mentioned a bunch of investigations. Just how many have there been?

Nine counting the ongoing House Select probe and the State Department's Accountability Review Board report. Of the seven previous congressional investigations, three were bipartisan (the Senate Committee On Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, the House Select Committee on Intelligence, and the Senate Select Committee); three were Republican-only affairs (the Majority Staff Report for the House Foreign Affairs Committee, the Staff Report for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and the Majority Interim Report from the House Armed Services Committee); and one was authored by the Democratic staff on the House Oversight Committee.

And what did they find?

The exact focus and findings of each varied but, taken together, the reports faulted the State Department for failing to provide better security at the diplomatic outpost given reports of a deteriorating security situation in Benghazi. Investigators, though, also concluded that the specific attacks were largely unpredictable and that, once they were underway, there wasn’t a whole lot else that the U.S. government could have done to protect American lives or assets in Benghazi.

What didn’t they find?

Evidence of a cover-up.

Then why are we still talking about this?

Republicans aren’t ready to give up the ghost just yet—particularly while Clinton’s White House dreams remain alive. House Republicans voted in May 2014 to create what is officially known as the Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi, Libya—the committee that will question Clinton on Thursday. Rep. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican and former federal prosecutor in charge the investigation, vowed at the time of the panel’s creation: “I have no friends to reward and no foes to punish. We’re going to go wherever the facts take us.” More than 17 months later, though, it’s unclear that those facts have taken Gowdy and his fellow Republicans much further than the previous investigations did.

OK, so this is just a partisan witch-hunt now?

That’s what Democrats have claimed all along. Republicans disagree—though that case has become increasingly difficult to make in recent weeks. The first crack in the non-partisan facade came late last month when Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader and then-favorite to become the next House speaker, stated what everyone had long been thinking. “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” he boasted during an interview with Fox News. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.” McCarthy later tried to walk those comments back—and ultimately gave up his speaker bid—but the damage was done.

Is McCarthy the only Republican who hasn’t been able keep a straight face?

Nope. Shortly after McCarthy’s comments, a former GOP staffer on the Benghazi panel claimed that he was fired, in part, because he refused to conduct a partisan probe of Clinton. And, shortly after that, a second Republican lawmaker picked up McCarthy’s ball and ran with it. “This may not be politically correct, but I think that there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people and an individual, Hillary Clinton,” New York Rep. Richard Hanna told a local radio station.

Well that’s awkward. None of those men speak for the committee though, right?

Right, but the committee’s actions speak even louder. The New York Times talked to current and former committee staff members and reviewed a host of internal committee documents and came to the conclusion this month that “the focus of the committee’s work has shifted from the circumstances surrounding the Benghazi attack to the politically charged issue” of Clinton’s private email account. According to the paper, the panel had interviewed only one of a dozen prominent intelligence officials and held none of the nine public hearings that had been proposed. In case that wasn’t damning enough, the paper also discovered that Republican members and staff haven’t exactly been efficient with their time—unless you consider taking part in a mid-week wine club and a gun-buying club productive activities. Total cost of the committee to date: $4.5 million. Total time: 17-plus months, aka “longer than the Watergate investigation lasted.”

And what’s Gowdy have to say about all of this?

Appearing on Face the Nation on Sunday, Gowdy did his best to do some damage control—though in the process he didn’t give the most glowing endorsement of the GOP at large. He said he had told his Republican colleagues to "shut up talking about things that you don't know anything about. And unless you're on the committee, you have no idea what we've done, why we've done it and what new facts we have found."

So what’s the game plan now?

The pressure will still be on Clinton when she heads to Capitol Hill on Thursday—but Gowdy and his fellow Republicans will be facing plenty of their own. They’ll need to avoid the type of political posturing that has caused their current headache; while at the same time they need to prove their committee’s worth. If they really do have new information as Gowdy promises, they’ll need to produce it on Thursday.

Why won’t Republicans just spend their time battering Clinton over her private email account?

They can, but doing so will come with some serious risks. Hillary’s homebrew email server has been the most important discovery to come out of the panel’s ongoing investigation to date—but given how politicized it has become on the campaign trail, Gowdy and co. will need to tread carefully if they want to shed the panel’s current partisan image. In another setting, pressing Clinton to explain her controversial decision would be a legitimate issue for lawmakers to take up. In a hearing about the deaths of four Americans, though, focusing too much on it could look overly opportunistic unless they have evidence that ties that account to the attacks in some way.

And what’s the deal with her email again?