Why Republicans can’t let go of Benghazi

U.S. consulate in Benghazi attacked
Buildings set on fire at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
(Mustafa El-Shridi / EPA)

More than a year after four Americans died in a terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, the New York Times has published a story reporting 1) that it found “no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault” and 2) that “contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.”

The idea that Al Qaeda wasn’t behind the assault on the U.S. “annex” isn’t new. My colleagues Ken Dilanian and Shashank Bengali reported in October 2012 that “intelligence agencies have found no evidence that [the attack] was ordered by Al Qaeda, according to U.S. officials and witnesses interviewed in Libya.”

Republicans – and at least one Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff – nevertheless  insist that there was some Al Qaeda involvement in the attack. Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard noted that the New York Times itself, in a story published on Oct. 29, 2012, said that American officials believed that some of the attackers “included participants from Ansar al Shariah, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Muhammad Jamal network, a militant group in Egypt.”

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But even if the latest New York Times story was too categorical in saying that there was “no evidence” that anyone with Al Qaeda connections was involved, we are still very far from the original Republican narrative that Benghazi was an Al Qaeda operation that gave the lie to President Obama’s election-year claim that the group that planned 9/11 was on the run.

Flash back to the 2012 campaign. During a debate Mitt Romney claimed that “it took the president 14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror” – and Obama insisted that “the day after the attack, governor, I stood in the Rose Garden and I told the American people and the world that …. this  was an act of terror.”

Actually, the president said on that occasion that “no acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation.” But hair-splitting Republicans said that fell short of labeling the attack an act of terrorism. And they had an eccentric definition of an act of terrorism: “an elaborately planned act of terror attributable to Al Qaeda and unrelated to outrage over the anti-Muslim video.”

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Even if some of those involved in the Benghazi attack had associations with Al Qaeda or one of the regional terrorist groups that use the Al Qaeda name, the weight of the evidence is that the attack was primarily a local operation.

The independent panel that faulted the State Department for security lapses at the Benghazi annex described the situation this way: “The Benghazi attacks also took place in a context in which the global terrorism threat as most often represented by al Qaeda (AQ) is fragmenting and increasingly devolving to local affiliates and other actors who share many of AQ’s aims, including violent anti-Americanism, without necessarily being organized or operated under direct AQ command and control.”

Instead of concentrating on (fairly) criticizing the Obama administration for inadequate protection against such a decentralized threat, Republicans were intoxicated by the notion that Benghazi disproved Obama’s claim that, with the death of Osama bin Laden, the original Al Qaeda was crippled. The second prong of their conspiracy theory was that, knowing the truth, Obama and Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice had concocted the story that the attack was related to outrage over the video. It looked like a winning campaign issue for the GOP, until Romney bungled it.

The 2012 election is history, but some Republicans would like to recycle the original conspiracy theory to bloody Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of State when the attack occurred and is considered the front runner for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. The New York Times story makes that strategy more difficult, which is why Republicans are so upset about it.


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