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What really happened in Benghazi?

 

This week President Obama delivered a defense of his administration's response to the Benghazi attacks: he said that nothing new came out in last week's hearings, that he had called the Benghazi attack what it was--a terror attack--the day after it happened, and furthermore, that the controversy over the edited talking points is a political sideshow, rooted in partisan motivations.

Yes, the administration has released emails that will give the American people some measure of insight into the handling of last year's attack. But these emails are not enough, and the president can't just dismiss the questions over what exactly happened in Benghazi.  

A detailed examination of the record shows that the White House has had no consistent message--in fact, they changed their message from day to day--and it's clear that the administration's actions in the days and weeks after the tragedy was political evasion and maneuvering. 

The administration's response to the events in Benghazi is completely incoherent, and has been from the start.

When you look at the totality of what was said, for the president to simply say "I said it was an act of terror"(and furthermore, believe that is a sufficient explanation for the events in September) is clearly a serious oversimplification and mischaracterization of what the White House and the administration did and said.

You don't need to look far to see where the questions are coming from.

The following selection of quotes from members of the Obama administration, made in the weeks following the tragic attack, bare out how disparate, wide-ranging, incoherent and unfocused the administration's response has been: on September 20th President Obama spoke of acts of terror generally, while Hillary spoke of inflammatory material on the Internet.

Moreover, on September 13th Jay Carney attributes the unrest to a movie, and on the 16th and the 18th the administration continues to speak of offensive material that sparked violence--but then on September 20th, it's "self-evident" that the event in Benghazi was a terrorist attack.

  • September 12, 2012  -- President Barack Obama

"The United States condemns in the strongest terms this outrageous and shocking attack. ... No acts of terror will ever shake the resolve of this great nation."

  • September 12 -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

"We are working to determine the precise motivations and methods of those who carried out this assault. Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior, along with the protest that took place at our embassy in Cairo yesterday, as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. America's commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is no justification for this; none."

  • September 12 -- White House spokesman Jay Carney, on whether the attack was planned

"It's too early for us to make that judgment. I think -- I know that this is being investigated, and we're working with the Libyan government to investigate the incident. So I would not want to speculate on that at this time."

  • September 13 -- Jay Carney

"The protests we're seeing around the region are in reaction to this movie. They are not directly in reaction to any policy of the United States or the government of the United States or the people of the United States."

  • September 14 -- Jay Carney

"We were not aware of any actionable intelligence indicating that an attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi was planned or imminent."

  • September 16 -- Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations

"There was a hateful video that was disseminated on the Internet. It had nothing to do with the United States government, and it's one that we find disgusting and reprehensible. It's been offensive to many, many people around the world. That sparked violence in various parts of the world, including violence directed against Western facilities including our embassies and consulates."

On CBS' "Face the Nation," Rice also said that, "We do not have information at present that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned."

  • September 18 -- Jay Carney

"Our belief, based on the information we have, is it was the video that caused the unrest in Cairo, and the video and the unrest in Cairo that helped -- that precipitated some of the unrest in Benghazi and elsewhere. What other factors were involved is a matter of investigation."

  • September 20 -- Jay Carney

"It is, I think, self-evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Our embassy was attacked violently, and the result was four deaths of American officials."

  • September 20 -- President Obama on  the possible involvement of al Qaeda

"What we do know is that the natural protests that arose because of the outrage over the video were used as an excuse by extremists to see if they can also directly harm U.S. interests."

  • September 21 -- Hillary Clinton

"What happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack, and we will not rest until we have tracked down and brought to justice the terrorists who murdered four Americans."

  • September 25 -- President Obama on ABC's "The View," in response to interviewer Joy Behar's question, "I heard Hillary Clinton say it was an act of terrorism. Is it? What do you say?"

"We're still doing an investigation. There's no doubt that (with) the kind of weapons that were used, the ongoing assault, that it wasn't just a mob action. We don't have all the information yet, so we're still gathering it. But what's clear is that around the world, there's still a lot of threats out there." Obama also said "extremist militias" were suspected to have been involved.

  • September 27 -- A senior U.S. official tells CNN that it became clear within about a day of the Benghazi attack that it been the work of terrorists, and separately, CNN National Security Analyst Fran Townsend reports that a law enforcement source told her that "from day one, we had known clearly that this was a terrorist attack."

The administration's response to the events in Benghazi is completely incoherent, and has been from the start. A simple perusal of what has been said is enough to raise serious questions: it doesn't matter what side of the political aisle you're on--it just doesn't make sense.

In the first week, there were references to both incendiary films and terror attacks, as members of the administration, and President Obama himself, vacillated between uncertainty and declarative, confident statements attributing the attacks, at different times, to both an offensive  YouTube video and a premeditated act of terrorist violence.

While officials appear both willing and comfortable to call the attack an "act of terror" in the 24 hours immediately following the tragedy (Obama has that right), the administration's narrative quickly shifts on September 13th, as they batten down the hatches and begin condemning both the insensitivity and incendiary nature of the American-made video denigrating the Prophet Mohammed, as well as the mob in Libya that resorted to violence in the expression of its anger.

Indeed, on September 18th, White House spokesman Jay Carney remains confident that the only concrete intelligence available suggests that the attack was precipitated by the offensive video--but two days later, in the face of mounting questions, Carney makes a 180 degree shift, and it's suddenly "self evident" that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack. Moreover--and even stranger--President Obama doesn't seem to be on the same page as either his spokesperson, or his Secretary of State.

So what exactly was going on in the White House in the weeks and months following the September attack?

There are a few theories.

Republicans have said that the Obama administration's changing talking points, and the inconsistent nature of the White House's explanation for the attacks, is evidence of a wide-reaching, potentially criminal cover up--Obama thought that terrorist involvement in the attack on the embassy would reflect badly on him, so he and members of his staff did whatever they could to hide the truth.

Others have said that while the PR response to the September attack was obviously badly bungled, the buck stops there: the administration's shifting narrative and evolving and evasive--and at times, just plain wrong--talking points are evidence of a situation that was seriously mismanaged, but nothing more.

Wednesday night, the release of the more than 100 pages of emails shed additional light on the tortured process the administration went through in drafting the Benghazi talking points.

Most important, the emails confirm that the first draft of the talking points referred to "extremists with ties to Al Qaeda" while the final draft kept the reference to extremists, but dropped any reference to Al Qaeda.

Furthermore, every draft of the talking points included a reference to the now discredited hypothesis that the attack was somehow the result of a response to a US originated and produced anti-Muslim video.

That being said, there was at least some recognition in the government that the talking points were not likely to be well received across the political spectrum--with then CIA Director David Petraeus and others suggesting that they not be used at this time, in this form, for they would be summarily rejected by many skeptical GOP lawmakers.

These documents have given us a clearer view of the administration's attempts at message control, but beyond that, I believe that we've been given little new information, and that little has changed.

Whether or not the mismanagement of the tragedy--both before and after the attack--is an impeachable offense for President Obama, I believe that the facts, sound bites and emails we now have clearly indicate that while the administration's maneuvering may not have been sinister in its aims, the Obama White House was definitely trying to mislead the American public. 

Senior State Department Diplomat Gregory Hick's effective demotion is further evidence of this fact. Hicks was punished for speaking out against official policy--his deeply negative performance review in the wake of his critical (and vocal) assessment of the response to the Benghazi attack cannot be a coincidence.

In fact, the State Department and the Obama administration's flip-flopping, and the scrubbing of references to terror from the talking points, makes their goal quite clear--to avoid inconvenient questions about the responsiveness of the White House and the State Department to reports of an Al Qaeda-related threat before the attack, and, it follows, potentially fatal negligence on the part of those involved. 

Obama has said that the focus on these events is a partisan political "sideshow"--it's clearly not a sideshow.  

Yes, he did speak generally about an act of terror on the day after the September 11th attack. But that was followed by a long string of statements about the violence having been sparked by a reaction to a video--the president has been completely lacking in consistency or clarity of message.

The president's evasion leaves very real questions unanswered, and makes you wonder how he can possibly expect the American people to move on without answers. 

This is not about politics, and this is not the politicization of a tragedy, but rather, it is about a real, central question, and a real desire for the truth about what happened, why it happened, and why members of the administration reacted as they did.

The emails that have been released are barely a start. Until these questions are answered, and until we know all the facts about what the president knew, when the president knew, why he did what he did, who exactly was behind these decisions, where the Benghazi talking points came from, and to what extent, and why, they were edited--until all these questions are answered, this is an issue that cannot be dismissed.

A simple review of the released emails and the timeline of statements is all you need to do to see that these questions are very real, and that they should be front and center in the minds of the American people.

President Obama promised transparency and open government, and instead has given us a White House that is shrouded in secrecy. He's failed to deliver on that promise, but you have to start somewhere-- and a good place might be answering these questions, rather than dismissing them as partisan game-playing.

Douglas E. Schoen has served as a pollster for President Bill Clinton and is currently working with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He has more than 30 years experience as a pollster and political consultant. He is also a Fox News contributor and co-host of "Fox News Insiders" Sundays on Fox News Channel and Mondays at 10:30 am ET on FoxNews.com Live. He is the author of ten books including,“Hopelessly Divided: The New Crisis in American Politics and What it Means for 2012 and Beyond” (Rowman and Littlefield 2012). Follow Doug on Twitter @DouglasESchoen.