Cynthia M. Allen

May 7, 2014

House committee on Benghazi will show that words matter

Truth can make the “difference.”

I sometimes try to imagine what it must have been like in the White House on the night of Sept. 11, 2012.

A report that American diplomats are under attack in Benghazi, Libya, circulates quickly through the West Wing. Word comes that the ambassador, the president’s personal representative in the country, is missing and possibly dead.

Riots outside our embassies in Egypt and several other Arab nations threaten the security of American personnel in the region. Even as early intelligence assessments begin to trickle in, there is confusion about the cause and uncertainty over whether the events are related.

Not coincidentally, it is the anniversary of the most devastating terrorist attack ever to occur on the homeland.

Hanging in the air are the words the president spoke just weeks before: al Qaeda is on the run.

And in the back of everyone’s mind is the looming election, just weeks away.

Without a doubt, a lot of ideas were swirling in the minds of White House policy and communications advisers as they sought to assess and distill the early, disjointed and possibly conflicting reports on the chaotic events that unfolded in Libya that evening.

Having worked for five years in the press office of a federal agency, I’m familiar with the kind of crisis management strategy that begins to take shape in the wake of the unexpected or the unimaginable. And I can appreciate the instinct of some officials to quickly mollify a gaggle of hounding reporters with a plausible, if not entirely accurate, explanation.

Facts typically sharpen as the fog of war fades.

But by the time then-Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on network and cable Sunday shows, fully five days after the attack, it must have been clear to those same policy and communications advisers that the narrative she had prepared to tell in no way resembled “ the best intelligence available at the time.”

Exactly why the narrative lagged behind the facts — still unknown more than two years later — is one of dozens of questions a congressional select investigative committee formed this week will examine.

Perhaps the most difficult question the committee will tackle is the one infamously raised by then-Secretary Hilary Clinton during her testimony on the subject last year: “What difference at this point does it make?”

Indignant tone aside, it’s a fair question.

Another investigation into Benghazi will not bring back Chris Stevens or Sean Smith, civilian diplomats who dutifully filled embassy posts in a God-forsaken city; or Ty Woods and Glen Dougherty, former Navy Seals who mounted an Alamo-style defense at the CIA annex.

It is unlikely to uncover the kind of far-reaching conspiracy for which some on the right seem to be salivating.

And in spite of claims by some Democrats that the investigation is just Republican chicanery to increase campaign coffers, it’s very unlikely the committee’s findings will have much impact on this fall’s elections or those in 2016.

The “difference” here is much more fundamental: It’s holding the administration accountable for what it says.

If the Obama administration knows anything, it’s that words matter. They matter so much that sometimes they become a burden if not a distraction. ( Shovel-ready projects; the red line in Syria ; If you like your plan … — to name just a few.)

Even veteran reporter David Ignatius acknowledges the administration’s misplaced focus on “messaging priorities rather than sound, interests-based policy,” and its proclivity to spend “more time thinking about what to say than what to do.”

But when it comes to Benghazi, the administration’s “ unnecessary dishonesty, as though [it] simply reflexively recoiled from the truth,” in the words of writer Kevin D. Williamson, makes the latest, and hopefully last, inquiry into the matter entirely warranted.

Sometimes I imagine what it might have been like in the White House that night. I have to imagine because the “most transparent administration in history” cannot seem to tell the whole truth.

That is what the congressional inquiry should uncover.

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