The conservative Benghazi freak-out, now in its fourth year, has become so thoroughly focused on Hillary Clinton’s emails that it’s easy to forget what the actual conspiracy is at the heart of it all. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, it became an accepted "truth" on the right that the Obama administration had deliberately withheld military assistance to the people under attack in Benghazi. According to this fanciful tale of monstrous perfidy, the White House reasoned that sending reinforcements would only make this story a bigger deal and confirm that something bad had happened, so they sat on their hands in the hopes that the whole “death of an ambassador” thing would just blow over.
It’s insane conspiracism, and it pervaded the conservative movement. Here’s what Peggy Noonan wrote in 2013, after one of the many House hearings into Benghazi:
Far worse is the implied question that hung over the House hearing, and that cries out for further investigation. That is the idea that if the administration was to play down the nature of the attack it would have to play down the response — that is, if you want something to be a nonstory you have to have a nonresponse. So you don't launch a military rescue operation, you don't scramble jets, and you have a rationalization—they're too far away, they'll never make it in time.
This sort of talk has dwindled as investigation after investigation concluded that there was no secret political plot, and there was no deliberate withholding of military assets. But it’s notoriously difficult to kill a conspiracy, and there are plenty of disreputable actors out there who are still trying to prove that the Obama administration allowed people to die out of political expediency.
That brings us to Fox News, which published a hot scoop yesterday claiming that a newly unearthed email “appears to contradict testimony Defense Secretary Leon Panetta gave lawmakers in 2013, when he said there was no time to get forces to the scene in Libya, where four Americans were killed, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.” The email, from Panetta’s chief of staff at the time, was sent to the office of then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the evening of the attacks. “After consulting with General Dempsey, General Ham and the Joint Staff,” it reads, “we have identified the forces that could move to Benghazi. They are spinning up as we speak.”
This is a rather clumsy sleight of hand that Fox News is trying to pull here. As Matt Gertz demonstrates, there is no actual contradiction between the email and what Panetta said. The email states that the Pentagon had identified assets to send to Benghazi and was mobilizing them. Panetta said in his testimony that they mobilized assets but they couldn’t arrive in time to make a difference. The Pentagon timeline of the attack response makes clear that Panetta ordered Marine anti-terrorism teams and special forces teams to respond, but they did not make it to Libya until well after the attacks had concluded. Fox News is hoping that people will interpret the email to mean that there were reinforcements that could have arrived in Benghazi almost immediately, which is not what it actually said.
If you’re looking for more proof that this is all nonsense, take a look at the report of the (Republican-controlled) House Armed Services Committee’s investigation into Benghazi. It catalogued all the logistical and diplomatic difficulties encountered in dispatching the response teams that Panetta ordered mobilized. It also discounted the idea that fighter jets or any other sort of manned aircraft could have feasibly been dispatched quickly enough to make a difference. “Given the military’s preparations on September 11, 2012, majority members have not yet discerned any response alternatives that could have likely changed the outcome of the Benghazi attack,” it concluded.
All Fox News has done is confirm what we already knew: the Defense Department ordered military assets to respond to Benghazi. But they’re putting a wildly tendentious spin on this email that is not bolstered by any known facts, and conservatives are eating up this nonsense because it confirms what they already believe to be true.