There's been a lot of smoke in the would-be scandal over the Benghazi attacks, but no real fire yet.
But that may change when three "whistle-blowers" give what Republicans expect to be explosive testimony this week before Rep. Darrell Issa's House Oversight Committee. The controversy over the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in the Libyan city has smoldered, mainly on the right, but the testimony will likely push it back into the mainstream and could be an enormous distraction for an already injured second-term Obama.
Unlike the vast majority of the new information brought forward by the conservative media since the attack, the three whistle-blowers seem credible. One, Gregory Hicks, was the No. 2 State Department official in Libya before the attack and has decades of experience in the Foreign Service. Another, Eric Nordstrom, was the regional security officer in country for State. And the third, Mark Thompson, is the deputy coordinator for operations in the department's counterterrorism bureau and was involved in Washington's response to the Libya attacks.
While we won't know exactly what the three will say until they testify Wednesday, some pieces have leaked. Thompson, according to Fox News, is alleging that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tried to cut out his counterterrorism bureau from the department's decision-making in responding to the attack. This, Thompson will reportedly allege, was part of the administration's attempt to downplay the terror connection to the attack.
Hicks, according to CBS News, will say that everybody in the consulate "thought it was a terrorist attack from the beginning." The administration at first said the attack grew out of a protest against an anti-Muslim video, which had sparked violence against the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and elsewhere in the Middle East, but it turns out there was never a protest and the attack was likely premeditated. According to testimony leaked to CBS, Hicks said that when he heard U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice blame protests, "My jaw hit the floor." "I've never been as embarrassed in my life, in my career, as on that day," he reportedly said.
All three say their reports were dismissed or otherwise downplayed by the Accountability Review Board, the official State Department investigation into the attack. Thompson's lawyer says he's even received threats and intimidation about the case from superiors.
Scrutiny is now focused on an ad hoc inter-agency working group of officials from State, the CIA and other agencies that formulated the talking points for the administration to use in responding to the attacks, according to documents obtained by the Weekly Standard. They apparently were responsible for altering the talking points to downplay the role of terrorism.
The charges seem potentially damaging and the accusers credible, but those trying to fan flames of scandal have so embarrassed and discredited themselves by pushing bogus story lines on Benghazi that it may be hard for the media and American people to take any new allegations seriously. For instance, the last time we saw a "Benghazi whistle-blower," it was an anonymous Fox News source, but he seemed to know so little about basic special operations that military analysts called him a clown and an embarrassment.
In the Fast and Furious scandal, analogous in many ways to Benghazi in the way it played out in the media, there was real wrongdoing, but conservatives grasped at straws to make wider, unsubstantiated allegations that let the actual problems largely escape notice.
If the three new witnesses don't get the attention they deserve, Fox News and its ilk deserve much of the blame.