The Truth About the Benghazi Report

It was the best of Reports.  It was the worst of Reports.  Yesterday the House Benghazi Committee finally revealed its long-awaited 800-page report detailing its findings regarding the 2012 attacks in Libya.  The New York Times headlined its story this way: “House Benghazi Report Finds No New Evidence of Wrongdoing by Hillary Clinton.”   The online magazine The Hill saw it differently: “Benghazi panel faults Clinton.”  Predictably, the pundits lined up in their respective partisan camps.  Thus the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank concluded, “There’s still no smoking gun from Benghazi — just a lot more smoke.” At the New York Post, however, John Podhoretz cites the Report as further evidence of administration deception.

Both perspectives have some merit, I suppose.  But, in my view, neither is particularly relevant.   The real story here is what Benghazi reveals about decisionmaking at the highest levels of government, and how little influence a President and his immediate advisers have over critical events as they unfold, in no small part because they are often operating under a great deal of uncertainty.  (Full disclosure – I’ve only read portions of the 800-page report.)   A few examples from the Report help drive home the point.  First, in an emergency two-hour meeting convened by the President as the attack unfolded, much of the discussion centered over the role played by an anti-Muslim video on YouTube in inciting the attack. But the Report concludes the video probably played no role in the Benghazi attack, something Clinton acknowledged in a conversation with the Egyptian government a day after the attack.  The Report put it this way:


Second, despite orders from Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to mobilize a military response, military assets in the region never got their act in gear. Referencing an email sent by deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough the Report notes:


The one military response that did occur took place on the initiative of a local CIA operative.

Third, Susan Rice, the administration’s United Nations ambassador, made comments on several Sunday talk shows the day after the attack that apparently had not been fully vetted by the intelligence or diplomatic services.  Her erroneous claim that the attacks were spontaneous would cause huge problems for the administration in the months to come when they were shown to be incorrect.

Finally, the Left Hand often did not know what the Right Hand of government was doing.  So, when it came to evacuating personnel, the Defense Department assumed State was overseeing the operation, but State was waiting to locate Ambassador Stevens first.  Many officials, apparently, didn’t realize the CIA had its own facility in Benghazi. As the Report noted:


To me, these are less signs of administration deception than they are evidence of understandable confusion, and the need to take action under conditions of incomplete information.   Was the administration concerned about the potential political fallout from the Benghazi attack?  Of course they were – and justifiably so!  By political I mean not just the presidential election that was currently underway – although that was likely a concern – but also the ramifications for the political dynamics in Libya and the Arab world more generally. It is the President’s job, along with his political advisers, to keep tabs on the political impact of events. To avoid thinking politically in the broad sense of the word would be a dereliction of duty.

My point here is not to exonerate Clinton, or the Obama administration more generally, for responsibility for what happened in Benghazi.  But in my view the criticism is more properly directed at the earlier decision to intervene in Libya without fully anticipating how to deal with the subsequent power vacuum resulting from the overthrow of the Gadhafi government. Benghazi was a consequence of that choice.

To be clear, I haven’t finished wading through the full report. (I suspect portions of it will be required reading in my bureaucracy class.) But in my view its importance lies not in its potential impact on Clinton’s candidacy, even though that is how the media is covering its release.  Instead, it is in revealing the inner workings of a presidential administration trying to respond to a critical event as it unfolds. This is what makes this document an interesting read, and why it is significant – even though it is unlikely to have any significant influence on the presidential campaign.

Often my students and readers get mildly irritated with me (or worse) when I persist in stating that this highly-publicized event (Orlando shooting, Brexit, fill-in-the-blank) is unlikely to have much impact on the presidential race, unless it occurs just before the actual vote.  “How can this be?” you ask.  “It’s all anyone is talking about!”  The answer is that these events don’t usually change the underlying factors that drive people’s vote.  Yes, they may provide a short-term impact on attitudes related to the event – say, a boost in support for a ban on assault weapons.  But they don’t usually persuade a Republican-leaner to vote Democrat, or vice versa.  This is partly because partisan attachment serves as a frame of reference that helps an individual make sense of the event in a way that tends to confirm one’s world view.  We saw this in the immediate reaction to the Orlando shooting,  where those with strong partisan predispositions immediately sought to explain the event in a way that was consistent with their political beliefs. Those partisan attachments condition how we respond to news reports by influencing which reports we believe.

I expect the same reaction to the Benghazi Report.  Is Milbank right?  Or Podhoretz?  It depends on your partisan leanings! Trump supporters are sure to cite the Report as more evidence that Clinton’s actions led indirectly (or directly!) to the death of four Americans. Her supporters will reference that portion clearing Clinton of immediate culpability and say that after multiple investigations into the incident “enough is enough”.   And after 48 hours or so the media will move on to the next breaking story.

The Benghazi Report. It’s a bombshell. Or not.


  1. Hi Matt – hope you are well!

    Note 1: This post does it all by being relevant to the full spectrum of classes I took with you (Presidency, Bureaucracy, Elections), which is a rare treat.

    Note 2: Given how long the trial of public opinion has gone on regarding Benghazi, the coverage seems like it’s only providing fresher articles for people to react to in exactly the same manner as they have been since 2012. As you said/say often, unlikely any recent events will make much of a difference come November, but it’s funny to see how much churn this is getting as a key election issue when most people’s opinions have been set on this for years. Wish that there was more concern/attention paid to the bureaucratic issues highlighted, but alas that is not a sexy topic.

  2. Charlie – I think your second point is exactly right. (Well, the first point is too!) This is what? – the seventh individual report on Benghazi? It may have made a difference in 2012 had Romney played it slightly differently, but by now I think public opinion regarding the event is pretty well baked in. Which is too bad, in a way, because the Report is a fascinating and instructive take on how government works (or doesn’t work, as the case might be.) We can learn a lot from it, particularly if the media bothered analyzing the details, rather than focusing on the political repercussions.

    This is not to say both campaigns aren’t going to try to use this Report as a cudgel with which to beat the opposition. But, as you say, it’s not likely to have much impact one way or the other.

  3. Yes, as you say, it’s all people are talking about, but they’re all saying the same things they were saying before the event.

    Most people don’t realize what an immense role confusion and ignorance (as in lack of relevant knowledge) play in these sudden and fast-moving events. They seem to assume that all the key players knew the same thing, and that thing was what I now know months after the fact or (especially when dealing with Benghazi) what I have decided the truth is, regardless of evidence or any lack thereof. Look at all the consternation over discussion of the video while the attack was still going on. Apparently it makes no sense to people who have decided that the video was dreamed up after the fact as some sort of cover story. Rather, the discussion shows that the relevant players believed at the time that the video was responsible for riling up the crowd (as it had done in numerous other cities) and that something ought to be done about it before there are further incidents. (In fact, witnesses on the scene have said that the attackers did mention the video.) The secretary of state, et al., aren’t going to be discussing the logistics of rescue in any event.

    Excuse me while I go cool off.

    A minor quibble: the attack (September 11, 2012) was on a Tuesday. The Sunday programs were not the next day.

  4. Scott – I can appreciate your frustration with the ongoing litigation over this issue! To add to your comment regarding the lingering confusion within the Obama administration regarding what role if any the video played in the attack, it may be that Clinton -as she confided to her daughter in an email on the night of the attack – initially suspected a terrorist attack based on social media reports. But it is quite another thing to make that an official government statement when clearly the administration was still getting up to speed regarding what had actually happened and why. Critics see this as evidence of deception, but it may simply reflect the characteristic Clinton caution.

    While I agree with you that it wasn’t Clinton’s, or Obama’s role to micromanage the details of logistics regarding military intervention, it would make sense that they would inquire about what assets were available, how long it would take to get them to Benghazi, etc. It’s pretty clear, however, that somewhere along the chain of command there was confusion regarding who was doing what. Again, this isn’t unusual in fast-moving situation. My sense from reading the report is that the administration was focused more on the regional implications of the initial attack on the consulate, and weren’t immediately prepared for a continuation of the attack in Benghazi for a second day.

    Thanks for the timeline correction – I’ve made the correction in my post.

  5. Professor Dickinson, like you I haven’t read the Benghazi report and I quickly read your thoughts on this report and the following was my initial reaction. The citizens of America asked a handful of our fellow citizens to go Libya and conduct our national business. Four of our citizens found their lives at risk and ask for our help to prevent any harm that may come to them. America should have moved heaven and earth to save them and politics be damned. Evidently America didn’t move heaven and earth and they died in our service and nobody took responsibility for their demise. As an American, I find this unacceptable. So your thoughtful analysis of the mechanics of government decision making would have made more sense to me if it first addressed this human dimension. Respectfully,

  6. Nicholas,

    I think there is general agreement that this was a tragedy that shouldn’t have happened, and that it reflects a clear failure to take adequate security precautions. I suspect there’s blame a plenty to go around in this regard, and the Report pulls no punches in citing errors -but see also the minority report put out by the Democrats as well.

    No one doubts there was a security failure. The crux of the debate seems to center on whether the Obama administration, including Clinton, responded too slowly to the immediate news of the attack, and whether that delay (if there was one) was due to concern over the political ramifications of a terrorist attack in an election year, and whether in subsequent days they deliberately mischaracterized the nature of the attack, again for political reasons. Based on the report, I’m inclined to believe that their immediate response was due to confusion rather than a deliberate effort to deceive, but I think reasonable people can disagree on this point.

  7. People focus on the fact that that the security situation in Benghazi was deteriorating and that requests for more security had been denied (although it is not likely that any security increase under consideration would have made a difference). If is perfectly understandable and correct to ask such questions. What no one seems to examine, however, is the context. How many other places were there where the security situation was deteriorating? How many other missions requested more security and had to be denied? Did Benghazi stand out among them? Was Benghazi’s status as a temporary mission with its lease expiring at the end of the year likely to put it at the end of the line for upgrades? As it was, its entire staff was on temporary duty, seconded from Tripoli. Recall that at the time, diplomatic missions in Bagdad, Kabul, and Islamabad were sucking Diplomatic Security resources from the whole system, and according to Foreign Policy magazine, the contract security at the Kabul embassy were virtually in rebellion that summer. If the State Department had more security resources to spare, it is not at all certain that they would have sent them to Benghazi.

  8. What response time was involved in Pearl Harbor?

    What response time was spent on Cuban Missile Crisis?

    What response time in twin tower attack?

    yes, I know that these were different situations but the response protocol was
    significantly more efficient! I find it very unlikely that there was no response
    plan/protocol in place.

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