On September 11, 2012, at 7:30 p.m., when Ambassador Chris Stevens was still considered missing and soldiers Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were still alive, the White House convened an emergency teleconference of senior national security personnel, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to discuss the ongoing chaos at the U.S. diplomatic annex in Benghazi, Libya. According to the House Select Committee's Benghazi report released yesterday, "Five of the ten action items from the rough notes of the 7:30 p.m. meeting" concerned the YouTube trailer for Innocence of Muslims, a crude anti-Islam tract that demonstrators were using as justification for anti-American protests in Cairo and across the Muslim world. This despite the fact that there had been "no mention of the video from the agents on the ground" in Benghazi.
Republicans and other critics over the years have insinuated any number of darker motivations for the administration's video-focused messaging in the aftermath of the deadly Benghazi attacks, from the Sept. 11 communique that the "U.S. Embassy Condemns Religious Incitement," to Susan Rice's infamous turn on the Sunday chat shows, all the way to President Barack Obama's remarkable Sept. 25 assertion at the United Nations that "The future must not belong to those who slander the prophet of Islam." But as a political exercise—and make no mistake: like all questionable governing activities involving Hillary Clinton, Benghazi was almost immediately reclassified by the mainstream media as a political/campaign horse-race story—the GOP shot itself in the foot by pining openly for some single piece of gotcha evidence to finally bring Clinton down.
Sure enough, the MSM dutifully MSM'ed yesterday, with headlines like "Two years, $7 million, still no smoking gun on Clinton and Benghazi." But as been in ample evidence since the first days after the attack, and documented at length within the Benghazi report itself, the evidence against Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration is damning when you take them at their own words. It's not the nefarious explanation lurking between the lines, it's the open explanation coming from their lips, that is deserving of withering criticism, and worth pondering in Clinton's candidacy for president.
Ed Krayewski detailed yesterday how the report reinforced the massive, deadly folly of America's intervention into Libya, a Clinton-led initiative that the candidate has repeatedly (and grotesquely) characterized as "smart power at its best." The same is true for the administration's still-appalling scapegoating of American free-speech, and reflexive instinct toward censorship in a time of crisis.
Matt Olsen, then the director of the federal government's National Counterterrorism Center, was present at that Sept. 11 White House teleconference. "The discussion of taking the video down was part of our conversation in this call." Olsen testified to the Benghazi committee: "We were thinking about what had happened in Cairo, we were thinking, okay, now this seems to be happening in Benghazi, and we're worried about…obviously, other diplomatic posts in the Middle East and North Africa….[O]ne of the issues that Denis [McDonough] asked me […] was to see if we could…contact Google to talk with them about enforcing their terms of service, which was the way that we often thought about offensive or problematic content."
The administration indeed "often" thinks about "problematic content" when Muslims attack, threaten to attack, or just silently give off a seething vibe that they might attack, Americans and other westerners. On Sept. 19, 2012, Jay Carney was asked about the then-living editors of Charlie Hebdo publishing a new round of Mohammed cartoons. Here's how Carney's answer began:
Well, we are aware that a French magazine published cartoons featuring a figure resembling the Prophet Muhammad, and obviously, we have questions about the judgment of publishing something like this. We know that these images will be deeply offensive to many and have the potential to be inflammatory.
This was no isolated act of media criticism. On Nov. 17, 2015, in the wake of the Paris attacks, Secretary of State John Kerry made the startling suggestion that the Charlie Hebdo murderers were just a tad more "legitimate" than the Bataclan butchers, due to the content of the cartoons:
There's something different about what happened from Charlie Hebdo, and I think everybody would feel that. There was a sort of particularized focus and perhaps even a legitimacy in terms of—not a legitimacy, but a rationale that you could attach yourself to somehow and say, "OK, they're really angry because of this and that." This Friday was absolutely indiscriminate. It wasn't to aggrieve [sic] one particular sense of wrong. It was to terrorize people. It was to attack everything that we do stand for.
Kerry walked the statement back in the heat of the moment, but this was in essence a "Kinsley gaffe"—the secretary of state was just blurting out the truth as he (and the administration, and his predecessor) sees it. After all, it was only last October, during a Benghazi hearing that was almost universally hailed as a political triumph, that Clinton asserted, to almost nary a negative reaction in the press, that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists "sparked" their own murder. As I put it in my recent cover feature on "Hillary Clinton's long war on free speech":
"We had protests…all the way to Indonesia," she told Congress in October. "Thankfully, no Americans were killed, partly because I had been consistent in speaking out about that video from the very first day when we knew it had sparked the attack on our embassy in Cairo."
The word sparked is crucial here. American ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice famously used it while making the rounds on the Sunday morning talk shows on September 16—"What sparked the recent violence was the airing on the Internet of a very hateful, very offensive video that has offended very many people around the world." Clinton used it in front of Congress to describe the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks, as a way of defending her continued emphasis on Innocence of Muslims as a partial explanation for Benghazi. "I think it's important that we look at the totality of what was going on. It's like that terrible incident that happened in Paris…[in which] cartoons sparked two Al Qaeda–trained attackers who killed…nearly a dozen people."
But the metaphor is wrong in important respects that have implications for both speech and foreign policy. Innocence of Muslims, like the Danish cartoons before it, hung around unnoticed for months until they were picked up and spread around by Islamists looking to gin up outrage. These pieces of expression, in other words, were kindling, of which there is a nearly infinite supply. The Muslim-world popularizers poured metaphorical lighter fluid on the material they plucked from obscurity, and angry rioters caused the conflagration. By confusing spark with kindling, Hillary Clinton and other U.S. officials (plus many American intellectuals) are diverting some of the responsibility for violence away from the perpetrators and toward the creators of controversial speech.
You can see this throughout the Benghazi chapter in Clinton's latest memoir, Hard Choices. "This was not the first time that provocateurs had used offensive material to whip up popular outrage across the Muslim world, often with deadly results," she writes. Amazingly, she is not talking about the Islamists who dubbed Innocence of Muslims into Arabic and then broadcast it with fiery denunciation on Egyptian television, but rather the originator of the art, Nakoula Basseley Nakoula. Next sentence: "In 2010, a Florida pastor named Terry Jones announced plans to burn the Quran, Islam's holy text, on the ninth anniversary of 9/11." Once you begin to pin responsibility for faraway violence on acts of peaceful (if vulgar) free speech in America, the only thing standing between an artist and prison is an available crime.
This is now the mainstream Democratic opinion on the connection between western expression and Islamic terrorism, and Hillary Clinton is its most ardent and influential proponent. Whenever there is a new terrorist attack, you can bet and win money that one of Clinton's go-to responses will be to crack down on free speech and privacy rights. She, Obama, Kerry, and the whole Democratic national security state believe sincerely that one of the best ways to protect Americans is to condemn other Americans (and Westerners writ large) for insulting Muslims. She does not begin to understand how such behavior might encourage the very terrorism she aims to prevent, by effectively rewarding bad behavior.
This, plus the whole U.S. intervention in the first place (of which Hillary Clinton was the most influential proponent), is and remains the most obvious and easy-to-prove scandal with Benghazi. It's not some hidden footnote in a 600-page report; it's the open policy of a fatally flawed administration, championed most vociferously by its proposed successor.