Transparency: “What difference does it make?”

Hillary's Benghazi remark has angered the GOP and delighted Democrats, but shows a troubling comfort with secrecy

Topics: Hillary Clinton, Benghazi attack, YouTube, Republican, Democrats, U.S. Senate, Transparency, Secrecy, State DEpartment, Editor's Picks, ,

Reactions to Hillary Clinton’s fiery comments over Benghazi Wednesday fell lightning fast along partisan lines. Democrats celebrated the secretary of state’s pointed response to the GOP’s “angry men” (as our own Joan Walsh wrote); Republicans expressed outrage that Clinton seemed to say  that it doesn’t matter how Americans die.

Both responses miss the importance of Clinton’s exclamation in the context of an administration characterized by a troubling aversion to transparency and accountability when it comes to U.S. action overseas. Before it sounds like I’m jumping on any right-wing bandwagons here, it’s worth parsing what Clinton said and why it might matter.

Responding to questions over why the State Department’s early narrative about the Benghazi attacks wrongly attributed the attacks to an anti-American protest, Clinton responded in exasperation:

With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because there was a protest or was it because there were guys who went out for a walk one night who decided they would kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and to do everything we can to make sure it never happens again.

As the Daily Beast’s Michael Tomasky noted, Clinton was not suggesting that it makes no difference to the State Department how Americans die. Rather, Tomasky points out, her “what difference” remark came in the context of a dispute about “why didn’t the U.S. government know that night exactly what happened. Hence Clinton’s frustration.”

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But there’s more going on here than Clinton snapping back at Republican politicking.  It takes an extremely generous interpretation to miss a troubling disregard for government transparency and accountability in her comment. “It is our job to figure out what happened and to do everything we can to make sure it never happens again,” she said, and that is true. But she and her department have other jobs as well — among them, giving the public enough information to make informed decisions about certain government actions.

It seems true that the GOP senators’ Benghazi questioning, as Jay Carney said today, continued an ongoing “obvious political obsession over a series of talking points.” But it is simultaneously true that what government officials say about incidents involving American operations overseas matters a great deal. It matters if narratives about these change without sufficient explanation. It should matter to Clinton that such narrative shifts sow public distrust, and justifiably so. “The trustworthiness of the administration’s version of events — even the early one — makes a difference,” wrote WaPo’s Eric Wemple.

In our information age, the Obama administration acts with striking secrecy. The government refuses to make public legal opinions about the targeted killing of American citizens; it conducts shadow wars in Yemen and Somalia; it fiercely persecutes whistle-blowers like Bradley Manning and John Kiriakou, or hacktivists like Jeremy Hammond. With U.S. military efforts winding down in Afghanistan, the new position de rigueur of U.S. intervention is opacity — the CIA has increasingly established itself as a paramilitary force.

In Armando Ianucci’s political satire, “In the Loop,” which barbs the politicking behind the U.S. and Britain going to war with Iraq, the fictional U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Linton Barwick surreptitiously edits the minutes of a closed-door meeting. He comments, with skin-crawling earnestness, “Those minutes are an aide-memoire for us. They should not be a reductive record of what happened to have been said, but they should be more a full record of what was intended to have been said. I think that’s the more accurate version, don’t you?”

Linton’s disregard for transparency angers viewers and directs anger at the real-life officials Ianucci’s film is parodying. But a real-life secretary of state said today, with strength and passion, that the issue of getting the record straight for the public doesn’t make a difference, and her supporters cheered. Ianucci couldn’t have written it better.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email nlennard@salon.com.

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