Until now, Hillary Clinton has been able to skate past most questions about Benghazi. She could acknowledge the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on an American facility in the Libyan city, which left a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans dead, was a tragedy but deny it was anything more sinister than that. She could point to a House report — by a GOP-led committee — that found the military and CIA acted appropriately concerning the attack. She could shrug off her early insistence that the attack was a spontaneous reaction to an obscure YouTube video that disparaged Muslims. You know the line: “What difference at this point does it make?”
Her free pass may be going away.
The unveiling of the mosaic that is Clinton’s time at State has been a slow, piecemeal endeavor, thanks in largest part to her exclusive use of a personal email account on a “homebrew” server for official business, in violation of department rules. But some of the emails from her tenure are gradually coming to light, and they represent small bits of fact that, taken together, give us a fuller picture — and some new, pertinent questions for Clinton to answer, specifically about Benghazi.
We have learned from the New York Times that, during her time at State — and in defiance of a directive from the president — Clinton kept longtime family associate Sidney Blumenthal as an adviser. Oh, Clinton was in technical compliance with the president’s order that Blumenthal not be employed by State; instead, the Times reports, he worked for the Clinton Foundation and two organizations built by Clinton loyalists and quite active in preparing the ground for her 2016 campaign: Media Matters and American Bridge. It all depends on what the meaning of “hire” is.
Blumenthal also worked for others, including people who tried, unsuccessfully, to win contracts from the new transitional government in Libya after the toppling of Moammar Gadhafi. In 2011 and 2012, again according to the Times, Blumenthal sent Clinton a series of memos about what was happening in Libya, sometimes omitting that the actors were potential business partners of his. Clinton would forward them on to a top deputy, Jake Sullivan, who sometimes would forward them on to other State employees but omit that the information was coming from Blumenthal. (Last month, Sullivan was named one of three senior policy advisers for the Clinton campaign.)
One of the memos Blumenthal sent Clinton was on Sept. 12, 2012, the day after the attack in Benghazi. In it, Blumenthal relayed the belief of a “senior (Libyan) security officer” that the attacks were conducted by “demonstrators” and “mobs” and were “inspired by what many devout Libyan (sic) viewed as a sacrilegious internet video on the prophet Mohammed originating in America.”
As it happens, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency also issued a memo that day about the attack which was sent to Clinton, among other top administration officials. That memo, released this week by an organization called Judicial Watch that filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain it and other related documents, described the event as a terrorist attack 10 days in the making. The motivation? To avenge the death of an al-Qaida leader in Pakistan and “in memorial of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center buildings.” The goal? “To kill as many Americans as possible.” If there is a reference in the memo to the “sacrilegious internet video,” it has been redacted.
This raises a pertinent question: Why did Clinton trust Blumenthal’s word over the DIA’s?
Considering his memo as one source of information, even circulating it as an alternative view, isn’t necessarily unacceptable. But Clinton immediately made public statements linking the attack to the video. So it would appear she chose to believe Blumenthal, the adviser she wasn’t even supposed to hire, over America’s own intelligence agents.
Now, it’s also possible Clinton simply saw Blumenthal’s narrative as politically convenient. Just one day later, on Sept. 13, 2012, Blumenthal sent another memo that was more in line with the DIA’s explanation. Yet, the day after that, according to the father of Tyrone Woods, one of the Americans killed in Benghazi, Clinton told him the administration would “make sure that the person who made that film is arrested and prosecuted.”
Why continue with a narrative that had already been debunked not only by her own government but by her off-the-books adviser? The Times has a succinct explanation:
“That information (about a planned attack by terrorists) contradicted the Obama administration’s narrative at the time about what had spawned the attacks. Republicans have said the administration misled the country about the attacks because it did not want to undermine the notion that President Obama, who was up for re-election, was winning the war on terrorism.”
That’s obviously true, but it’s not really a good answer to the questions about Blumenthal — who, for good measure, by October was offering advice about how to help shield Obama from those Republican allegations.
The revelations about Blumenthal also fit into the emerging picture of the Clinton Foundation as a nexus of political and business interests more than a charity. Have an old hand the new boss won’t let you hire? Stash him at the foundation. We already knew donations came from businesses with interests pending before the State Department, recipients of State Department awards, and foreign governments. So did speaking fees for Bill Clinton. Did Blumenthal play any kind of role as a facilitator of these cash flows? If so, might his memos to Clinton about them have been among the thousands of emails she deemed “personal” and decided to destroy?
The intermingling of personal/business matters with official duties. The disregard for rules. The questionable judgment of which sources to trust in grave matters. The apparently conscious decision to embrace narratives of political convenience that had already been discredited. This is the gradually fuller picture we are getting of Hillary Clinton in public office. It rings familiar to those of us who remember her husband’s presidency, but these are choices she has made all on her own. They are choices that deserve to be front and center as Americans weigh whether to put her in the White House herself.