When the new (the ninth) congressional investigation of the terrorist attack in Benghazi opens next month, here's an exercise that will put it in perspective: Revisit the spring of 2004 when the Bush White House, yielding to pressure from the commission that was investigating the 9/11 attacks, declassified a single daily presidential security brief, that of Aug. 6, 2001. It brought gasps but no real accounting of how the administration had handled things.
"Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S." was the famous heading on the brief. The White House, believing the warnings of an airliner attack on the U.S. came from a disinformation campaign by Saddam Hussein, took no precautions, and al Qaeda struck five weeks later. Nearly 3,000 people died and the United States was changed forever.
Four Americans, including the ambassador to Libya, died in the 2012 terrorist assault on the compound in remote Benghazi, Libya.
What President Bush and his advisers knew and why they didn't act remains the greatest unexplored question in modern history. Even after more of the pre-9/11 briefs to the president leaked in 2012, exposing the earlier explanations of the White House, particularly those of National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, as a tissue of lies, no one demanded an investigation or access to all the presidential briefs about the impending attacks.
Someday we will know, but right now we have to find out if somebody, preferably Hillary Clinton, the putative Democratic candidate for president in 2016, fouled up in some unforgivable way before or after the Benghazi tragedy. (She accepted personal responsibility for it.) The first eight investigations produced nothing, but maybe this one will. It will keep the issue alive and arouse the base through the fall elections, and well beyond.
Benghazi will never merit even a footnote in the history books. Beyond the vast human tragedy on 9/11, the administration's failures plunged the nation into two wars that cost America immensely in blood, treasure and confidence and annulled, perhaps forever, people's cherished right to have their privacy vouchsafed by their government.
Besides their relative magnitudes, Benghazi and 9/11 also expose a huge difference in how the nation's political culture treats tragedies and failures of a foreign nature. Once America emerged as a world power with keen exposures to diplomacy and foreign intrigue, both parties more or less exercised reservation in exploiting tragedies for political gain. It was true even in fairly recent times with Jimmy Carter's hostage crisis, the cumulative terrorist slaughters under Ronald Reagan, the tragedies following Bill Clinton's dithering in Africa and eastern Europe and, the biggest of all, George W. Bush's 9/11.
When a few firebrands demanded impeachment hearings after the 9/11 briefings began to surface and the president's excuse for invading Iraq — the weapons of mass destruction — proved to be a fraud, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi declared there would be no impeachment inquiry and pretty much ordered her party's malcontents to shut up.
But a terrorist attack on a remote diplomatic outpost in an African country steeped in anarchy must be milked for all it's worth. We are in a new order.
The crime in Benghazi apparently was that in the hours afterward there were slightly conflicting reports from the desert outpost about what happened. So let's revisit 2004; make it 2001 because we now know a little about a few of Bush's briefs that preceded the Aug. 6 one.
By May 1, 2001 the CIA had told the White House that "a group presently in the United States" planned a big terrorist attack. On June 22, the daily brief said al Qaeda strikes were "imminent." One memo to Bush said the attacks were going to be really big.
But neoconservative allies of Vice President Cheney in the Pentagon told the White House all the chatter was planted by Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden to distract the White House from the real danger, Iraq. The CIA sent a memo begging the White House to accept that the danger was Bin Laden. "The U.S. is not the target of a disinformation campaign by Usama Bin Laden," said a July 29 presidential brief. Top counterterrorism operatives on July 9 asked for a transfer so that they would not be blamed for the attacks when they came.
Rice, the administration's chief spokesman, maintained throughout 2004 that the White House never had a warning of an attack by al Qaeda or anyone else. Later, the explanation was that there was never anything specific enough for Bush to act, even to raise the alert level. None of those briefs have been declassified and Congress has never asked for an accounting.
Let's also revisit 1983. Militants bombed the U.S. embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, including the CIA's top Middle East analyst. Reagan sent Marines to be peacekeepers. At dawn on Oct. 23 a suicide bomber drove a truck laden with 21,000 pounds of TNT through an open gate past sentries without loaded weapons to the Marine compound and blew it up, killing 241 men.
Democrats controlled Congress but no one mentioned impeaching Reagan or firing his defense secretary and subpoenas were not sent to Reagan's Cabinet. A House committee did an inquiry and issued a report finding "very serious errors in judgment" by the chain of command and calling for better security against terrorism at U.S. installations around the world.
Compare that to the coming spectacle on Benghazi.