How Hillary Politicized Benghazi
The 848 emails that were released last week are a small fraction of Hillary Clinton’s emails, but they are sufficient to paint a troubling picture of what Clinton knew about Benghazi, when she knew it, and how she politicized the tragedy. The emails show that within hours after the attacks on the Special Mission Compound (SMC) and Annex in Libya that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, Clinton received information from Sidney Blumenthal, a former associate and longtime friend, that offered a very different narrative from what the White House claimed were the cause of the attacks. Specifically, the Blumenthal September 12 and 13, 2012 emails report the attacks were planned and carried out by an Islamist militia group, Ansar al-Sharia, which is in sharp contrast to early White House claims that the attacks were a spontaneous reaction by enraged Muslims to an internet video that depicted the prophet Mohammed in an offensive manner. If Clinton had publicly disclosed the Blumenthal emails immediately however, she would have contradicted the White House’s version of events and increased the risk of political damage to President Obama’s bid for re-election. Faced with the choice of disclosing the Blumenthal emails or remaining silent for political reasons, Clinton chose the latter.
The following is an account of events that led to the murder of Ambassador Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi. With the exception of references to Clinton’s testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, all of the facts, dates and people presented below are based on information contained in the newly released emails.
Everyone knew that a U.S. presence in Libya was dangerous. In 2011, there was a continuing concern over the safety of American personnel in Libya. As early as April 2011, then-Special Envoy Christopher Stevens and his team remained in their hotel, “moving only for meetings as required.” By April 9, 2011, Clinton received an email that Stevens was doing a “phased checkout” and was considering leaving Benghazi. Clinton also received an email on April 24, 2011 that hotels were being targeted and that Stevens would be making a written request to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for added security at the hotel and for better security-related coordination.
After the fall of the Gaddafi regime, a key problem that confronted the new National Transitional Council (NTC) was how to stabilize Libya. The NTC’s main concern was how to disarm regional militias and include their demands in the new government. In a February 2012 email, Gene Cretz, former ambassador to Libya, alludes to the immensity of the challenge, stating that militias have become “‘de facto’ real institutions in and of themselves. It is naieve (sic) to think they can be dissolved by executive fiat.”
The majority of information about what was transpiring among Libyan officials, rebel militias, and government officials (both Libyan and foreign) is contained in emails that were sent directly to Clinton from longtime Clinton associate Sidney Blumenthal. Clinton habitually forwarded the Blumenthal emails to Jake Sullivan, her Deputy Chief of Staff, for distribution. The emails do not confirm whether there was a standard distribution list of persons who received the Blumenthal emails or whether the emails were shared with agencies outside of the State Department. Two of Blumenthal’s April 2012 emails were forwarded to Ambassador Stevens, who found them “interesting” and responded with his own assessment about some of the topics raised in the emails.
On September 11, 2012, the Special Mission Compound (SMC) and Annex in Benghazi were attacked and four Americans were killed, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens. During her January 23, 2013 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Clinton testified she was notified of the attacks at approximately 4:00 p.m. on September 11. From that point forward, Clinton testified that she met continuously with individuals from the Department of Defense and other agencies into the late hours of the night to monitor, assess, and minimize damage to embassies that were under attack. In addition to Libya, Clinton testified that Cairo and other embassies were also under siege.
On September 12, 2012 at 12:50 a.m. Blumenthal sent Clinton an email stating that “During the afternoon of September 11, 2012 new interim President […] Magarief spoke in private with senior advisors, including members of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, to discuss the attacks by demonstrators on U.S. missions in Tripoli and Benghazi.” (emphasis added) Although one senior advisor stated the attacks were prompted by an internet video, Magarief responded adamantly that he believed the attacks were the product of “widespread publicity regarding the security situation in the country between 2004 and 2010 and the cooperation that developed between a number of Western Intelligence services and the regime of former dictator Muammar al Quaddafi.”
On September 12, 2012, General Dempsey called Clinton. There are no emails to indicate if and when they spoke or what they discussed.
On September 13, 2012 at 12:20 a.m., Blumenthal sent Clinton another email about the attacks. The email states Magarief believes the goal of the attacks was to demonstrate that the newly elected General National Congress could not protect foreigners. According to Libyan security officials, the attack was carried out by the Islamist militia group Ansar al-Sharia brigade, who were working out of the eastern suburbs of Benghazi. The email also reports that officials believed the attackers used the internet video demonstrations as cover to attack the SMC and Annex.
On September 13, 2012, Dennis McDonough forwarded an email with a “Quick Summary of POTUS calls to Presidents of Libya and Egypt.” The email is heavily redacted and it is unknown what was discussed.
Clinton forwarded Blumenthal’s September 12 and 13 emails to Sullivan for distribution within hours after receiving them but there are no emails that show who Sullivan circulated them to.
On September 14, 2012, the bodies of the four Americans killed in Benghazi arrived at Andrews Air Force Base in the United States.
The released Clinton emails confirm that within hours of the attacks, Clinton was in possession of evidence that the attacks were not a spontaneous reaction to an internet video but were terrorist attacks targeted at Americans. Yet she remained silent about the Blumenthal emails. It is unclear who, if anyone, Jake Sullivan forwarded the September 12 and 13 Blumenthal emails to. At a minimum, Clinton had a duty and an obligation to notify the White House about the emails and to distribute them to the appropriate agencies in an attempt to verify their accuracy.
Instead, Clinton politicized the Libyan attacks by remaining silent in order to support the White House’s version of events. On Sunday, September 16, Susan Rice made the rounds on the morning talk shows to reiterate the White House’s talking points and version of events, even though the scant evidence that supported the internet video story was already beginning to crumble. Clinton’s office carefully monitored Susan Rice’s comments to make sure she didn’t veer from the script. Jake Sullivan sent Clinton an email that Susan “wasn’t asked about whether we had any intel. But she [Susan] did make clear our view that this started spontaneously and then evolved.” (emphasis added)
Although the internet video story was ultimately discredited as the cause of the attacks, the White House was slow to acknowledge that fact. By withholding the Blumenthal emails, Hillary Clinton minimized the political fallout Obama would have faced if the emails had become public -- once he was re-elected in November the potential for political damage became moot.
Clinton has already admitted to erasing thousands of e-mails from her personal server and it is unlikely that Congress or the public will ever learn all of the facts about her role in the Benghazi tragedy. Collectively, the released emails eviscerate Clinton’s excuse that she used her personal email to conduct official business for “convenience” -- in fact, Clinton used at least two email accounts on her personal server (HDR22@clintonemail.com and email@example.com) to conduct State Department business and it is possible there may be more. The released emails also reveal that there was at least one other person who also had an email account on Clinton’s personal server -- Clinton’s “special assistant” Huma Abedin (firstname.lastname@example.org) -- which begs the question, how many others working in Clinton’s political sphere had email accounts on her personal server? Clinton has ignored repeated requests from Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the House Committee on Benghazi, to hand over the server to a third party. The House should now turn up the heat and issue a subpoena demanding that Clinton produce the server immediately.
Even if Clinton had released the Blumenthal September 12 and 13 emails immediately, it would not have changed the fact that four Americans were dead but it would have sent a signal that government accountability trumps politics. There will be no closure for the Benghazi tragedy until there is full accountability for what happened. The American public deserves the truth from Clinton, not only about her emails, but about why she failed to immediately disclose the Blumenthal September 12 and 13 emails. The ball is now in Clinton’s court to produce evidence to justify her actions and convince the American public and Congress she did not politicize the tragic events of Benghazi.
Constance Jacobs is a freelance writer living in Oakland, California.