Media Buzz

Benghazi Brawl: The pundits take on The New York Times

Senior correspondent Adam Housley has reaction


Sometimes reality comes in several shades of gray.

That’s not ideally suited for cable news segments or blog posts, but it happens to be true.

Reporting is a step-by-step process of peeling back the layers and trying to discern what is underneath. This is particularly true when the subject is as shrouded in secrecy as Benghazi.

Sunday’s New York Times report by David Kirkpatrick has, inevitably, been sucked into the political and ideological maelstrom surrounding last year’s fatal attack in Libya.  But he does not claim to have produced the definitive account of what happened. And agree with his findings or not, these 8,000-plus words are a serious journalistic effort spanning several months.

I’ll get to the details in a moment. And I am not going to accuse the Times of having a political motivation, such as aiding Hillary Clinton’s reputation, any more than I am going to disparage the motivation of conservative commentators and Republican politicians who are taking serious issue with the paper’s report. This was not a fiery editorial, it was an ambitious story.

But it does seem highly coincidental that various partisans have adopted narratives that either help or hurt the Obama administration. And it’s worth noting that Kirkpatrick’s lengthy story largely confirms his earlier reporting last year about the role of an anti-Islamic video in helping spur the attack.

Fox’s Adam Housley is a leading voice in challenging the NYT story. He writes:

“A New York Times report published over the weekend has angered sources who were on the ground that night. Those sources, who continue to face threats of losing their jobs, sharply challenged the Times’ findings that there was no involvement from Al Qaeda or any other international terror group and that an anti-Islam film played a role in inciting the initial wave of attacks. ‘It was a coordinated attack. It is completely false to say anything else. … It is completely a lie,’ one witness to the attack told Fox News…

“Fox News has learned that the attack on the consulate started with fighters assembling to conduct an assault. ‘Guys were coming into the compound, moving left, moving right…and using IMT (individual movement techniques). … That’s not a spontaneous attack,’ one special operator said.” 

But Kirkpatrick, in the Times, tries to occupy a middle ground between those who say it was a deliberate terrorist operation and those who believe it happened suddenly:

“The investigation by The Times shows that the reality in Benghazi was different, and murkier, than either of those story lines suggests. Benghazi was not infiltrated by Al Qaeda, but nonetheless contained grave local threats to American interests. The attack does not appear to have been meticulously planned, but neither was it spontaneous or without warning signs.”

The Times says it “turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault. The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.”

The story adds that a “central figure” in the attack, though he denies it, is militia leader Ahmed Abu Khattala, who “had no known affiliations with terrorist groups.”

The Weekly Standard is sharply critical, asking: “How much effort did Kirkpatrick expend to uncover any possible al Qaeda ties? Judging by the Times's glaring omissions, not much.

“Kirkpatrick’s piece totals more than 7,000 words and yet he fingers only one suspect out of the dozens who took part in the attack. Another suspect, an ex-Guantanamo detainee, is briefly mentioned, but only then to dismiss the notion of his involvement…Left out of the Times account are the many leads tying the attackers to al Qaeda’s international network.”

Andy Rosenthal, the Times’ editorial page editor, pushes back against House Intelligence Chairman Mike Rogers for saying the article was intended to “clear the decks” for Hillary in 2016, and another GOP rep, Lynn Westmoreland, saying the Times was “already laying the groundwork” for a Clinton campaign.

Rosenthal says he can “state definitively that there was no editorial/newsroom conspiracy of any kind, because I knew nothing about the Benghazi article until I read it in the paper on Sunday.”

In the end, it’s hard to argue with this observation by Powerline blogger Paul Mirengoff:

“Whatever else the Times story demonstrates, I believe it shows that this story won’t go away as long as Hillary Clinton aspires to be president.”

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Howard Kurtz is a Fox News analyst and the host of "MediaBuzz" (Sundays 11 a.m.). He is the author of five books and is based in Washington. Follow him at @HowardKurtz. Click here for more information on Howard Kurtz.