Benghazi Focus: The 10 P.M. Phone Call
May 18, 2013 4:00 AM
Clinton and Obama discussed Benghazi. What did they say?
ByAndrew C. McCarthy
‘What would you be focusing on in the Benghazi investigation?” I spent many years in the investigation biz, so it’s only natural that I’ve been asked that question a lot lately.
I had the good fortune to be trained in Rudy Giuliani’s U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan. Rudy famously made his mark by making law enforcement reflect what common sense knew: Enterprises take their cues from the top. Criminal enterprises are no different: The capos do not carry out the policy of the button-men — it’s the other way around.
So if I were investigating Benghazi, I’d be homing in on that 10 p.m. phone call. That’s the one between President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — the one that’s gotten close to zero attention.
Benghazi is not a scandal because of Ambassador Susan Rice, State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland, and “talking points.” The scandal is about Rice and Nuland’s principals, and about what the talking points were intended to accomplish. Benghazi is about derelictions of duty by President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton before and during the massacre of our ambassador and three other American officials, as well as Obama and Clinton’s fraud on the public afterward.
A good deal of media attention has quite appropriately been lavished on e-mail traffic between mid-level administration officials in the days leading up to Sunday, September 16. That is the day when Ms. Rice, a close Obama confidant, made her appalling appearances on the Sunday-morning political shows. Those performances were transparently designed to mislead the American people, during the presidential campaign stretch run, into believing that an anti-Islamic Internet video — rather than a coordinated terrorist attack orchestrated by al-Qaeda affiliates, coupled with the Obama administration’s gross failure to secure and defend American personnel in Benghazi — was responsible for the killings.
Fraud flows from the top down, not the mid-level up. Mid-level officials in the White House and the State Department do not call the shots — they carry out orders. They also were not running for reelection in 2012 or positioning themselves for a campaign in 2016. The people doing that were, respectively, President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton.
Obama and Clinton had been the architects of American foreign policy. As Election Day 2012 loomed, each of them had a powerful motive to promote the impressions (a) that al-Qaeda had been decimated; (b) that the administration’s deft handling of the Arab Spring — by empowering Islamists — had been a boon for democracy, regional stability, and American national security; and (c) that our real security problem was “Islamophobia” and the “violent extremism” it allegedly causes — which was why Obama and Clinton had worked for years with Islamists, both overseas and at home, to promote international resolutions that would make it illegal to incite hostility to Islam, the First Amendment be damned.
All of that being the case, I am puzzled why so little attention has been paid to the Obama-Clinton phone call at 10 p.m. on the night of September 11.
Even in the conservative press, it has become received wisdom that President Obama was AWOL on the night of September 11, after first being informed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, in the late afternoon, that the State Department facility in Benghazi was under attack. You hear it again and again: While Americans were under attack, the commander-in-chief checked out, leaving subordinates to deal with the crisis while he got his beauty sleep in preparation for a fundraising campaign trip to Vegas.
That is not true . . . and the truth, as we’ve come to expect with Obama, is almost surely worse. There is good reason to believe that while Americans were still fighting for their lives in Benghazi, while no military efforts were being made to rescue them, and while those desperately trying to rescue them were being told to stand down, the president was busy shaping the “blame the video” narrative to which his administration clung in the aftermath.
We have heard almost nothing about what Obama was doing that night. Back in February, though, CNS News did manage to pry one grudging disclosure out of White House mendacity mogul Jay Carney: “At about 10 p.m., the president called Secretary Clinton to get an update on the situation.”
Obviously, it is not a detail Carney was anxious to share. Indeed, it contradicted an earlier White House account that claimed the president had not spoken with Clinton or other top administration officials that night.
The earlier story better fit Obama’s modus operandi, which is to disappear in times of crisis. His brief legislative career was about voting “present” because he prefers to be absent when accountability knocks. The idea is to be the Obama of Evan Thomas lore: “standing above the country, above — above the world, he’s sort of God.” He reemerges only after the shooting stops and the smoke clears: gnosis personified, here to diagnose our failings. He is not a commander-in-chief for the battle but the armchair general of the post mortem.
In this instance, though, Carney’s hand was forced by then-secretary Clinton. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January, she recounted first learning at about 4 p.m. on September 11 that the State Department facility in Benghazi was under attack. That was very shortly after the siege started. Over the hours that followed, Clinton stated, “we were in continuous meetings and conversations, both within the department, with our team in Tripoli, with the interagency and internationally.” It was in the course of this “constant ongoing discussion and sets of meetings” that Clinton then recalled: “I spoke with President Obama later in the evening to, you know, bring him up to date, to hear his perspective.”
Yes, the 10 p.m. phone call.
In contrast to President Obama’s preference for absence, Mrs. Clinton has always projected the image of the tireless hands-on leader. But the aim of this energetic ubiquity is not all that different from that of Obama’s disappearing act: If you’re dazzled by how hard she works, she may not need to account for what it is she’s been working on.
In the case of Benghazi, however, we now have context for Clinton’s frenetic activity. Thanks to the whistleblower testimony at a House hearing by Gregory Hicks, the State Department’s No. 2 official in Libya at the time of the Benghazi siege, we know what Clinton learned in her “continuous meetings and conversations” that night.
When Clinton began monitoring events after 4 p.m., State’s No. 1 official in Libya, Ambassador Christopher Stevens, had just urgently called his deputy, Hicks, to alert the State Department that the Benghazi facility and Stevens himself were “under attack.” Hicks, who was in Tripoli at the time, made clear that everyone on the ground in Libya knew what was happening in Benghazi was a terrorist attack — the anti-Islamic video “was a non-event,” he explained. He also made clear that he was the leader of what Clinton had called “our team in Tripoli.” As such, he kept the State Department in Washington up to speed on developments.
We also know that at 8 p.m. Washington time, Hicks spoke directly with Clinton and some of her top advisers by telephone. Not only was it apparent that a terrorist attack involving al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia was underway, but Hicks’s two most profound fears at the time he briefed Clinton centered on those terrorists: First, there were reports that Ambassador Stevens might be in the clutches of the terrorists at a hospital they controlled; second, there were rumblings that a similar attack on the embassy in Tripoli could be imminent, convincing Hicks that State Department personnel should evacuate. He naturally conveyed these developments to his boss, the secretary of state. Clinton, he recalled, agreed that evacuation was the right course.
At about 9 p.m. Washington time, Hicks learned from the Libyan prime minister that Stevens was dead. Hicks said he relayed all significant developments on to Washington as the evening progressed — although he did not speak directly to Secretary Clinton again after the 8 p.m. briefing.
That is the context of the 10 p.m. phone call between the president and the secretary of state.
We do not have a recording of this call, and neither Clinton nor the White House has described it beyond noting that it happened. But we do know that, just a few minutes after Obama called Clinton, the Washington press began reporting that the State Department had issued a statement by Clinton regarding the Benghazi attack. In it, she asserted:
Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation.
Gee, what do you suppose Obama and Clinton talked about in that 10 p.m. call?
Interestingly, CNS News asked Carney whether, in that 10 p.m. phone call, the president and Secretary Clinton discussed the statement that Clinton was about to issue, and, specifically, whether they discussed “the issue of inflammatory material posted on the Internet.”
Carney declined to answer.
We now know from the e-mails and TV clips that, by Sunday morning, the White House staff, State Department minions, and Susan Rice were all in agreement that the video fairy tale, peppered with indignant rebukes of Islamophobia, was the way to go.
How do you suppose they got that idea?
— Andrew C. McCarthy is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute and the executive director of the Philadelphia Freedom Center. He is the author, most recently, of Spring Fever: The Illusion of Islamic Democracy.