Sunday, January 27, 2013

Susan? Susan Who?

In a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday, Hillary Clinton demonstrated that her sharp political instincts were not dulled by trips to Laos, Mongolia, France, Afghanistan, Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Egypt, Israel, and Burma... and at least 101 other countries.  Her exchange with Senator Ron Johnson (transcript below) produced some dramatic video:

JOHNSON: Madame Secretary, do you disagree with me that a simple phone call to those phone call to those evacuees to determine what happened wouldn't have ascertained immediately that there was no protest? I mean that was a piece of information that could have been easily, easily obtained.

CLINTON: Well, Senator -

JOHNSON: Within hours if not days.

CLINTON: Senator, I - when you're in these positions, the last thing you want to do is interfere with any other process going on.


JOHNSON: I realize that's a good excuse. CLINTON: Number two, well, no it's the fact. Number two, I would recommend highly you read both what the ARB said about and the classified ARB, because even today there are questions being raised.

Now, we have no doubt they were terrorists, they were militants, they attacked us, they killed our people, but what was going on and why they were doing what they were doing is still - 

JOHNSON: No, no. Again. We were misled that there were supposedly protests and then something spread out of that - an assault sprang out of that. And that was easily ascertained that that was not the fact - 


JOHNSON: And the American people could have known that within days and they didn't know that.

CLINTON: With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest? Or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they would go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator. Now, honestly I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the-the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information. The I.C. has a process, I understand, going with the other committees to explain how these talking points came out.

But, you know to be clear, it is from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it, than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we'll figure out what was going on in the meantime.

The Wisconsin Republican then concluded with "OK, thank you, Madame Secretary," spurring Steven Colbert to remark "'Thank you, Madame Secretary?' 'Thank you, Madame Secretary?' She just spanked you, Ron! I don't understand! Unless 'Thank you, Madame Secretary' was your safe word" (when Clinton) "slapped these guys around and walked out of there with their nuts in her attache case."

Yes, Mrs. Clinton, as it could be described less colorfully, took those guys, ate them up and spit them out by admonishing them (roughly speaking) "What's the point? What's done is done.  Let's move forward."   Along the way, however, the outgoing Secretary of State might have answered the question from Senator Johnson.

It's not as if it was a difficult question. Johnson had charged "We were misled that there were supposedly protests and then something spread out of that- an assault sprang out of that. And that was easily ascertained that that was not the fact."

But in fact there were "protests"  The New York Times reported on September 12 that the attack on the consulate in Libya "followed by just a few hours the storming of the compound surrounding the United States Embassy in Cairo by an unarmed mob protesting the same video. On Wednesday, new crowds of protesters gathered outside the United States Embassies in Tunis and Cairo."

It initially appeared that the assault perhaps "sprang out of that."  The Times observed
It is unclear if television images of Islamist protesters may have inspired the attack in Benghazi, which had been a hotbed of opposition to Colonel Qaddafi and remains unruly since the Libyan uprising resulted in his death. But Tuesday night, a group of armed assailants mixed with unarmed demonstrators gathered at the small compound that housed a temporary American diplomatic mission there.

The following Sunday, UN Ambassador Susan Rice was sent out to do the rounds, appearing on This Week, Face the Nation, Fox News Sunday, Meet the Press, and State of the Union. Most famously, she explained on the NBC show

Well, let us– let me tell you the– the best information we have at present.  First of all, there’s an FBI investigation which is ongoing.  And we look to that investigation to give us the definitive word as to what transpired.  But putting together the best information that we have available to us today our current assessment is that what happened in Benghazi was in fact initially a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of– of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, which were prompted, of course, by the video.  What we think then transpired in Benghazi is that opportunistic extremist elements came to the consulate as this was unfolding.  They came with heavy weapons which unfortunately are readily available in post revolutionary Libya.  And it escalated into a much more violent episode.  Obviously, that’s– that’s our best judgment now. We’ll await the results of the investigation.  And the president has been very clear–we’ll work with the Libyan authorities to bring those responsible to justice.

Bob Somerby points out

Rice issued a double caveat. She said they didn’t have information at present which led them to conclude that there had been premeditation. 

Note to the slow: This doesn't mean that Rice rejected the idea that there was premeditation or planning. And the specific question to which she responded involved the possibility that the attack had been planned “several months ago.” 

It was in that context that Rice made her provisional statement about premeditation. To this day, is there any evidence of prior planning extending back several months? We don’t know the answer to that.

But we do know, as Somerby suggests, that Rice did not exclude the possibility of premeditation, nor the possibility of involvement by terrorists.  We know, too, that the text of the C.I.A. talking points, which determined Rice's response on the five Sunday talkies, read

The currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex. There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations.

This assessment may change as additional information is collected and analyzed and as currently available information continues to be evaluated.

The investigation is ongoing, and the U.S. government is working with Libyan authorities to bring to justice those responsible for the deaths of U.S. citizens.

Hillary Clinton knows that, also, and could have played it any of four ways.  She might have defended Ambassador Rice by noting that the intelligence community had supplied her with information later revealed to be misleading.  Or she might have defended Rice by noting that the Ambassador never said terrorists weren't involved and had cautioned that intelligence was preliminary. Or she might have argued that Rice had in fingered "opportunistic extremist elements" who "came with heavy weapons."   Fourth option:  avoid defending U.S. Ambassador Rice in any way and instead summon righteous indignation.   Responding "Was it because of a protest? Or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and decided they would go kill some Americans? " implies that the pivotal response- which Rice delivered that Sunday- really wasn't important.  But it was a darned good performance.

As of this writing, Mrs. Clinton is due to continue her exploration of a possible race for President in 2016 by appearing in a few minutes on CBS' 60 Minutes with President Barack Obama.  Perhaps Obama will extend the same courtesy to his Vice-President, who more than once has pulled his fat out of the fire in negotiations with Congress. Or perhaps not.

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