No smoking gun in Benghazi hearing

Testimony today from three State Department officials provided vivid detail, but no obvious scandal

Published May 8, 2013 11:25PM (EDT)

Today's hours-long hearing on Benghazi yielded plenty of sharp rhetoric and even some tears but no Eureka moment for Rep. Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, which has proven to be a relentless, but so far largely ineffectual critic of the Obama administration.

“I don't think there's a smoking gun today. I don't think there's even a lukewarm slingshot,” Wisconsin Democrat Rep. Mark Pocan remarked during the hearing. Indeed, much of the information presented has already been publicized -- this was the House's ninth hearing on the September 2012 attacks -- and new information from the three State Department officials who spoke today was quickly, and often credibly, challenged by the Obama administration and experts.

The  basic contours of the controversy haven't evolved much, if at all, since Republicans first tried to make it an election issue last year. The GOP faults the administration in two areas. First, for not doing more to save personnel during the attack on the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Libya, and second, for downplaying the role of terrorism in their public communications in the days immediately after the attacks, which they say is a cover-up.

In both cases, they have some points. The military hesitated to provide aide, as Gregory Hicks, the No. 2 diplomat in Libya, testified today. And U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice did erroneously blame the attack on a "spontaneous protest," which was later proven to have never existed. But beyond that, Republicans' claims are overblown and unsupported by the evidence, including the new testimony.

As the National Journal's Michael Hirsh wrote today, "There was tragic incompetence, plainly, in the Obama administration’s handling of the Benghazi attacks, and even possibly some political calculation," but "no cover-up." Issa and his compatriots' arguments are "just not going to amount to much."

This is the same thing the State Department's official review found when it was released in December. The report was scathing in its indictment of officials for everything from failing to upgrade the consulate's defenses to not responding better, but affirmed that the Republican claims of an intentional government cover-up were "pure fiction," as Dave Weigel put it.

This is a pattern we've seen again and again with Issa, who finds a kernel of malfeasance and tries to turn it into a corn field. In Solyndra, he greatly overplayed his hand by trying to bring down green energy in general. In Fast and Furious, he tried to use the actions of rogue ATF agents to bring down the administration. And Issa looks restrained compared to the conspiracy theories the conservative media and other members of Congress weave from the threads of wrongdoing he uncovers.

Today's hearing will provide plenty of fodder for the believers, and bring the controversy fresh attention, but probably won't convert many people who don't already think the Obama administration did something intentionally wrong in Benghazi. The testimony of the three officials provided a moving and detailed account of the events from the ground, but were only one piece of the whole story.

For instance, Hicks expressed frustration that the military didn't respond more quickly and said he thought they could, but the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other officials said that notion misunderstands the military's capabilities. As the Accountability Review Board report stated, "The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time given the speed of the attacks for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference."

There was much talk about the "FEST," a State Department-led special forces team meant to respond to global tragedies. But the team is based in the United States and would not have gotten to Benghazi in time, the ARB report added.

One potentially troubling accusation from Hicks' testimony, however, is that officials tried to keep him from congressional investigators. But Clinton loyalist Philippe Reines say this was because Republicans "refused to allow" Democrats to join them.

Like many of the contentious charges leveled today, it appears the picture is more muddled than Republicans -- or Democrats, for that matter -- will let on.

By Alex Seitz-Wald

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Benghazi Benghazi Attack