Benghazi and the Republican Scandal Management Playbook
For Republicans, Benghazi is the scandal that must not die. Despite the testimony by Obama administration officials including Hillary Clinton and the blistering findings of the State Department Accountability Review Board she endorsed, the GOP is determined to bludgeon the current president and the woman who might be his successor. So, the Republicans' talking point regurgitators insist, President Obama should be impeached (Mike Huckabee) for a "massive cover-up" worse than Watergate (John McCain), while Hillary Clinton should be disqualified for her "dereliction of duty" (Rand Paul) or even prosecuted for "lying to Congress" (Darrell Issa). And with November 2016 and not September 11, 2012 in mind, Republicans led by Lindsey Graham and Dick Cheney are calling for Clinton to be subpoenaed by House Republicans.
For its part, the Obama administration has generally been forthcoming and cooperative, if sometimes clumsy, in working with both Congress and the independent Review Board regarding the Benghazi tragedy that claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Of course, it didn't have to be this way. The Obama White House could have simply copied some pages from the Republican Scandal Management Playbook.
Oppose the Investigation. As the chorus grew in early 2002 to create a commission to investigate the 9/11 attacks that killed 3,000 people, President Bush, Vice President Cheney and their allies said no. While Cheney warned "the people and agencies responsible for helping us learn about and defeat such an attack are the very ones most likely to be distracted from their critical duties if Congress fails to carry out their obligations in a responsible fashion," House Majority Leader Tom Delay declared:
"A public commission investigating American intelligence in a time of war is ill conceived and, frankly, irresponsible. We need to address America's challenges in intelligence gathering and terrorist prevention. But we don't need to hand the terrorists an after-action report."
Delay's Senate counterpart Trent Lott went a step further:
"I really think there's nothing more despicable ... for someone to insinuate that the president of the United States knew there was an attack on our country that was imminent and didn't do anything about it. For us to be talking like our enemy, George W. Bush instead of Osama bin Laden, that's not right."
Lott's GOP colleague from Texas Kay Bailey Hutchison concurred, protesting "I don't think that anyone should start pointing fingers in a personal way or suggest that people are trying to cover their political backsides."
Agree to Testify, But Not Under Oath. Ultimately, President Bush yielded to mounting public pressure and agreed to support the 9/11 Commission under the aegis of Henry Kissinger. (Unwilling to reveal his financial interests, Kissinger withdrew.) But as for his own participation, Bush agreed to testify, but on the conditions that he be questioned behind closed doors jointly with Vice President Cheney and neither man would be under oath. As President Bush explained his White House meeting with the 9/11 commissioners on April 29, 2004:
"If we had something to hide, we wouldn't have met with them in the first place. I came away good about the session, because I wanted them to know, you know, how I set strategy, how we run the White House, how we deal with threats.
The vice president answered a lot of their questions, answered all their questions. And I think it was important for them to see our body language as well, how we work together."
Of course, when it came to Congressional investigations of the Bush administration's politically motivated purge of U.S. attorneys, Vice President Cheney insisted White House personnel should be neither seen nor heard. Calling the outcry over the prosecutors' firings "a bit of a witch hunt," Cheney and his boss made sure their team did not honor any Congressional subpoenas:
The Bush White House directed chief of staff Joshua Bolten, political director Karl Rove, former White House counsel Harriet Miers and former political director Sara Taylor all to ignore subpoenas from Congress. In 2008, a federal judge ruled that it was unconstitutional to do so.
And at the end of President George W. Bush's tenure, the White House instructed top officials not to cooperate with any future congressional inquiries into alleged administration misdeeds.
Claim Executive Privilege. In the GOP book of Scandal Defenses for Dummies, the first entry on page one is to claim executive privilege.
That is precisely what the Bush White House did when it came to Dick Cheney's secret energy task force. In 2001 Cheney and his clandestine energy task force held dozens of meetings with 300 groups and individuals in formulating Bush administration policy. Among them was Enron CEO and Bush "Pioneer" Ken Lay. And as Paul Krugman noted in speculating about the group's role in altering "new source review" and other policies, "the day after the executive director of Mr. Cheney's task force left the government, he went into business as an energy industry lobbyist." Nevertheless, the Bush administration fought requests by the Sierra Club and Judicial Watch for information about the participants under the Federal Advisory Committee Act all the way to the Supreme Court. (In September 2004, Darrell Issa was among the 30 GOP member of the House Energy Committee who blocked a Democratic resolution which sought "the names of individuals who worked behind closed doors with Vice President Cheney's energy task force to craft the Bush administration's national energy policy."
For his part, Dick Cheney claimed in 2007 that the Bush White House was "very responsible" in supplying information to lawmakers, but that "sometimes requests have been made that clearly fall outside the boundaries." And as he made clear again in his memoirs, his secret energy task force was one of those cases:
"We had the right to consult with whomever we chose -- and no obligation to tell the press or Congress or anybody else whom we were talking to. .... I believed something larger was at stake: the power of the presidency and the ability of the president and vice president to carry out their constitutional duties." When they won the fight, he says, "It was a major victory both for us and for the power of the executive branch."
Unless, Cheney's allies now insist, that executive branch is headed by a Democrat.
Delay the Findings for Years. After learning that there were in fact no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in 2003 launched an investigation. But thanks to the maneuvering of GOP Chairman Pat Roberts (R-KS), the committee divided its work into two phases. But Phase 2, the probe dealing with the Bush administration's uses and misuses of pre-war intelligence, would not be completed until after the November 2004 election. (The Silbermann-Robb commission similarly punted on that vital question, noting that "Well, on the [that] point, we duck. That is not part of our charter.")
When the Phase 1 report was published in July 2004, Roberts crowed, "the committee found no evidence that the intelligence community's mischaracterization or exaggeration of intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities was the result of politics or pressure." But as Vice Chairmen Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) protested:
"There is a real frustration over what is not in this report, and I don't think was mentioned in Chairman Roberts' statement, and that is about the -- after the analysts and the intelligence community produced an intelligence product, how is it then shaped or used or misused by the policy-makers? So again there's genuine frustration -- and Chairman Roberts and I have discussed this many times -- that virtually everything that has to do with the administration has been relegated to phase two. My hope is that we will get this done as soon as possible."
But in March 2005, Roberts announced that Phase 2 "is basically on the back burner." As he explained:
"I don't think there should be any doubt that we have now heard it all regarding prewar intelligence. I think that it would be a monumental waste of time to replow this ground any further...To go through that exercise, it seems to me, in a post-election environment--we didn't see how we could do that and achieve any possible progress. I think everybody pretty well gets it."
Give Rice Better Sound Bites. Last fall, Republican Senators McCain and Lindsey Graham announced they would try to block a potential appointment of UN Ambassador Susan Rice to succeed Hillary Clinton. Calling Rice "not very bright," McCain blasted her September 16 statements about the Benghazi killings to ABC's This Week.
Of course, when the Rice in question was named Condoleezza and worked for a Republican president, John McCain took a different tack. After all, Condi Rice famously warned of Saddam's non-existent weapons of mass destruction, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud." In 2004, she sheepishly described the critical August 6, 2001 presidential daily brief admitted to the 9/11 Commission, "I believe the title was 'Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.'"
Nevertheless, when Bush's National Security Adviser was nominated for Secretary of State in 2005, John McCain declared "Condoleezza Rice is a great American success story" and "a person of integrity." Slamming those who "challenged her integrity," McCain groused:
"I see this [as] some lingering bitterness over a very tough campaign. I hope it dissipates soon."
Accuse the Opposition of "Criminalizing Politics." Dating back to at least the presidency of George H.W. Bush, Republicans and their media water-carriers have turned to the "criminalizing politics" evasion when confronted with the lawlessness and wrong-doing of their leaders. After first deploying the criminalization of politics defense during Iran-Contra, conservative relied on their trusted talking point for the U.S. attorneys purge, the Scooter Libby case, the indictment of Tom Delay and the Bush administration's regime of detainee torture.
In the spring of 2009, Wall Street Journal, Powerline and the usual suspects in the right-wing noise machine were at it again. Investigating potential war crimes by the Bush White House, they argued, constituted "criminalizing conservatism" itself:
Mark down the date. Tuesday, April 21, 2009, is the moment that any chance of a new era of bipartisan respect in Washington ended. By inviting the prosecution of Bush officials for their antiterror legal advice, President Obama has injected a poison into our politics that he and the country will live to regret...
Above all, the exercise will only embitter Republicans, including the moderates and national-security hawks Mr. Obama may need in the next four years. As patriotic officials who acted in good faith are indicted, smeared, impeached from judgeships or stripped of their academic tenure, the partisan anger and backlash will grow...
Mr. Obama is more popular than his policies, due in part to his personal charm and his seeming goodwill. By indulging his party's desire to criminalize policy advice, he has unleashed furies that will haunt his Presidency.
(Of course, none of that right-wing hysteria came to pass in large part because the Obama administration adopted the very "criminalization of politics" canard supplied by the Republicans. As Attorney General Eric Holder promised during his confirmation hearings in January 2009, "We don't want to criminalize policy differences that might exist" with the outgoing Bush White House.")
Attack the Victim... To be sure, Republicans were quick to deploy the "criminalizing politics" defense during the Plamegate affair and the subsequent indictment and conviction of Cheney chief-of-staff Scooter Libby. But their counterattack didn't end there.
During March 2007 hearings on the outing of covert CIA operative Valerie Plame, current Benghazi Grand Inquisitor rushed to the Bush administration's defense. Plame, Issa suggested, was guilty of perjury:
"I believe that his wife will soon be asking for a pardon. She has not been genuine in her testimony before Congress, if pursued, Ambassador Wilson and Valerie will be asking to put this behind us. I do not believe this was good use of the Committee's time. I hope we will have a real debate about proper use of clemency."
Issa had plenty of company. That same day, his Committee heard from a witness who rejected the CIA's own description of Valerie Plame as a clandestine officer at the agency. The GOP's attack dog that day? Victoria Toensing, the same Victoria Toensing now representing the so-called Benghazi whistle-blowers.
...And the Victims' Families. During the last weeks of the 2012 presidential election, Republican Mitt Romney was criticized for trying to appropriate the Benghazi victims for his campaign. (Among those pushing back was the father of Ambassador Stevens and the mother of the former Navy SEAL killed there.)
But back in 2007, current House Oversight and Government Reform Committee chairman Darrell Issa had a novel approach. During committee hearings into the slaughter of private security contractors in Fallujah, Issa defended Blackwater by mocking the victims' families to their faces:
"Although I don't think your testimony today is particularly germane to the oversight of this committee, I am deeply sorry for the losses that you've had...One question I have is, the opening statement, who wrote it?"
Declare That "Nobody Could Have Predicted" the Disaster. When in doubt, Republicans will never hesitate to blame their catastrophic failings on an act of God. The scandals, tragedies and wrong-doing which unfolded on their watch were all simply unknowable.
The uses of the "nobody could have expected" defense were legion during the Bush administration. After Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans, President Bush wrongly explained, "I don't think anybody anticipated the breach of the levees." After 9/11, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice protested, "I don't think anybody could have predicted" that terrorists "would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile." (After Hamas won the Palestinian elections her State Department pushed, Rice lamented that "I've asked why nobody saw it coming. It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse.") While Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in April 2003 brushed off the growing chaos in Baghdad by announcing, "Stuff happens," President Bush in August 2004 had another explanation for the bloodbath and mounting American casualties his invasion of Iraq produced:
"Had we had to do it [the invasion of Iraq] over again, we would look at the consequences of catastrophic success - being so successful so fast that an enemy that should have surrendered or been done in escaped and lived to fight another day."
Even in its last throes, the Bush White House insisted the disasters which unfolded on its watch were unforeseeable. Just days before leaving office, Vice President Dick Cheney tried to deflect blame for the calamity on Wall Street and the deepening recession by declaring, "Nobody anywhere was smart enough to figure that out" and "I don't know that anybody did." Then, Cheney magically converted failure into a virtue and ignorance into a shield in explaining away the Bush presidency:
"No, obviously, I wouldn't have predicted that. On the other hand I wouldn't have predicted 9/11, the global war on terror, the need to simultaneous run military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq or the near collapse of the financial system on a global basis, not just the U.S."
Of course, it's easy to be in the dark when you think with your heart and not your head. Take, for example, Ronald Reagan, who in his March 4, 1987 address to the nation owned up to the Iran-Contra scandal he unsuccessfully tried to deny:
"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages."
But as the Obama administration should know by now, that was nothing compared to the Benghazi horror. As Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King laid out the math in December, "I believe that it's a lot bigger than Watergate, and if you link Watergate and Iran-Contra together and multiply it times maybe 10 or so, you're going to get in the zone where Benghazi is."