Benghazi and 9-11

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For those of us who have been following terrorism for decades, the existence of al qaeda and the attack on the US on 9-11-01 was not a surprise; indeed, when it happened I felt a bit of relief that it wasn’t nuclear.  President Clinton and his team were obsessed with al qaeda and Bin Laden near the end of his term; those in the know had feared a major al qaeda attack for years.

A new article in Politico (the above photo is from that Politico piece) details just how much was known, with quotes from Cofer Black and George Tenet.  By May they knew something big was going to happen.  Plans were drawn up to “decapitate” al qaeda ahead of time.  In July the threat was seen as intense.  9-11 was no surprise, our intelligence did not fail.  Our political leadership simply didn’t react and were caught flat footed when it happened.

If the Democrats had really dug, and if they forced all of these facts out in the open (though Woodward’s books hinted at them as early as 2006), they could have had a REAL scandal over the administration’s mishandling of intelligence, failure to act, and culpability for the events of 9-11.   Compared to what the Republicans have on Clinton over Benghazi – which is really nothing (they’re down to hoping for collateral damage of something embarrassing from her e-mails) – there is a stark contrast between how the two parties handled these terrorist attacks.

The Democrats after 9-11 refrained from criticizing the Bush administration for inaction; indeed, it would have been political suicide to ruin the solidarity the country felt after the attacks – anger at al qaeda, sorrow for the victims.  A bipartisan 9-11 commission was formed not to go after Bush, Powell, Tenet, or anyone in his administration, but to find out what went wrong on how to fix it.  The thinking: this is a new kind of threat, of course we weren’t ready.  But we have to learn.

Hillary Clinton, former U.S. secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, smiles during a House Select Committee on Benghazi hearing in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015. Clinton said that she accepted responsibility for a lethal 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya and that she sought afterward to improve security for State Department workers abroad, as the House Benghazi panel investigating the incident began a hearing that may prove a turning point for her presidential campaign. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hillary’s expression suggests she knew the Benghazi testimony was doing more good for her than for the GOP.   Photo: Andrew Harper/Bloomberg via Getty Images and Huffington Post

After the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya on September 11, 2012, the response of the Republican party was to politicize it immediately.  Rather than treat it as a national tragedy, like the Democrats did for 9-11, this was a potential embarrassment for the President, who was running for re-election.  And if they couldn’t sink Obama, then they could go after Hillary, who might run for President in 2016.  The result was a fishing expedition and cascade of rumors and innuendo that for awhile did hurt Secretary Clinton’s credibility.

Ultimately, though, she came out on top.  After numerous hearings and investigations the Republicans looked to be grand standing as Clinton answered each question with substance and conviction.   The most damage comes from something unrelated to the Benghazi attack – the fact she used a private e-mail server for some of her communications.  But that looks more like difficulties in navigating the nature of the new information revolution than anything nefarious.

Although he would be later vilified for the Iraq war, the country came together under President Bush after 9-11, refusing to politicize a national tragedy

Although he would be later vilified for the Iraq war, the country came together under President Bush after 9-11, refusing to politicize a national tragedy

In retrospect, there was a lot more smoke to suggest incompetence and wrong doing from the pre-9-11 Bush Administration than Clinton’s state department in 2012.  However, I don’t think it would have been right to go after Bush, Tenet and the others in 2001.

They were in their first year in office, handling a myriad of threats from the Chinese forcing a “spy plane” down to daily concerns about terrorism.  Many thought Clinton’s team over-estimated Bin Laden, and a new administration takes awhile to figure out procedures and priorities.   Indeed, Bin Laden picked the perfect time to plan and strike – after a transition of power in the US.  That is when we are most vulnerable as a new team is still getting its bearings.

Add to that the fact that threats seemed ubiquitous but their reality meager.   Until it happened the warnings were possibilities – and there are thousands of warnings that failed to materialize for every one that is spot on.   Even the worst interpretation of Clinton’s activities on 9-11-12 show far fewer problems than the Bush team had a decade earlier.

9-11 inspired a unity of purpose that has since been lost

9-11 inspired a unity of purpose that has since been lost

So why the double standard?   Democrats might want to claim that they showed superior ethics in not politicizing a tragedy and looking to learn rather than score cheap points.  But they knew that if they had tried to do that in the years directly after 9-11 it would have been political death.  President Bush enjoyed high approval and people felt we should come together and handle what happened.

By 2012 America had changed.  The tea party had arisen after President Obama and the Democrats pushed through health care reform, and political divisions became as intense as ever.  Obama was demonized as being an “un-American socialist” and an “us vs. them” mentality arose in American politics.  In that context, it was a no brainer for the Republicans to seek to create a scandal after 9-11-12, something Kevin McCarthy seemed to even brag about last month.  Rather than see this as a national tragedy that we need to learn from, it was “this happened on Clinton’s watch, let’s see if we can string her up over this!”

Ultimately, though, that failed.  Not only was nothing (or very little) there, but by the her testimony last month Benghazi had already become a joke.  The effort to use it against her started to look not only politically motivated, but rather pathetic.  Simply, the Republicans had jumped the shark on Benghazi.

As these new details about 9-11-01 come out, and we see just how warned we really were, both parties should approach this with humility.  The world is a complex dangerous place, and administrations deal with multiple threats every day.  Rather than trying to crucify an official or President over something gone wrong, we should look to see why things went wrong and learn.

It may be that there were lapses in judgement in Clinton’s use of her own e-mail server that ultimately hurts her quest for the White House.  But when we consider Benghazi in 2012, or the attack on the US in 2001, let’s stop trying to politicize these tragedies and play gotcha games.  We responded correctly in 2001, even if there is more than enough evidence that they “should have known” and “acted differently.”  The Benghazi hearings were a mistake, and the GOP should drop them.

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