The Obama White House is to be congratulated. It has executed one of the most effective stonewalls in recent memory over the Benghazi attack last Sept. 11 that killed our ambassador to Libya and three others. Its handling of the aftermath of the debacle is a model example of the power of obfuscation and delay. Future high-ranking officials please take note: This is how it is done.
All the smart PR gurus say it is best to release bad news as soon as possible “to get ahead of the story,” as the phrase goes. The Obama White House wasn’t foolish enough to follow this hackneyed advice. It advanced laughably implausible explanations for the attack from the first and has refused to provide a full accounting of its handling of it to this day.
The price it has paid for its lack of forthrightness is basically nil. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice, a prominent mouthpiece for the initial spin (that the attacks were prompted by an offensive video), couldn’t become secretary of state, although that might not have been in the cards anyway. But every good stonewall needs someone willing to take one for the team. Thank you, Ambassador Rice.
The imperative for the White House was, first, to try to deny that the assault was a coordinated terrorist attack lest that undermine its anti-terror credentials and, second, to push further consideration of the matter past the November election. After that, there would be, by definition, no electoral consequences from more fallout. And it all would be “old news.”
So the Accountability Review Board report from the State Department was scheduled to hit ... in December. When asked about Benghazi during the campaign, the president could aver, “Nobody wants to find out more what happened than what I do.” White House spokesman Jay Carney repeatedly said that the matter was under the fullest possible review by the Accountability Review Board, which would keep on reviewing all the way until the week before Christmas.
Of course, President Obama always knew what he did or did not do during the course of the eight-hour attack that started at the consulate and continued at a safe house, where two security personnel were killed. If he had covered himself in glory, surely he or someone close to him would have let reporters know.
Instead, nothing. Time passed, and he won re-election. When Congress got around to its Benghazi hearings during the past few weeks, “Benghazi” had become a watchword for right-wing obsessiveness and lack of perspective. Polite commentators could barely suppress a snicker when uttering the word.
Last week, outgoing Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta revealed under questioning that after a previously scheduled meeting with the president at the White House at 5 p.m. at the outset of the attacks, he had no other communication from the president or anyone else at the White House the rest of the night. Neither, according to his own testimony, did Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey. This raises the question of what President Obama was doing during the long hours of an attack that killed a U.S. ambassador for the first time since 1979.
Or it should raise the question. The press isn’t much interested in asking it. Given the opportunity to query the president directly in his joint interview with President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Steve Kroft of “60 Minutes” stuck to more pressing matters, like any sense of guilt Clinton might feel about not preventing the attacks.
Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina vows to hold up Obama administration nominees until he gets answers. His determination is admirable, but by now, no one really cares. The stonewall worked, alas. PR experts might want to rewrite their rules, at least for clients who can count on a compliant press. Benghazi was a fiasco. The handling of its aftermath by President Obama and his team was brilliant. I guess that’s why they call him the commander in chief.
Rich Lowry is a King Features syndicated columnist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org