Opinion

From Fitzmas to Benghazi

Error and incompetence loom large in human affairs

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrives to testify before a House Select Committee on Benghazi hearing in October 2015. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

The release of an 800-page report by the Republicans on the House Select Committee on Benghazi reminded me of that glorious day of celebration called Fitzmas .  

What's Fitzmas?  

How soon people forget a holiday that was supposed to combine the best elements of Christmas, New Year's Eve and Festivus , with a little bit of Old Testament vengeance thrown in.  

During the 2005 holiday season, left-wing Democrats fantasized about the glorious moment when special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald would escort Karl Rove and other prominent Bush officials out of the White House in handcuffs. Some of the rumors even featured Dick Cheney resigning as vice president in disgrace.  

Fitzgerald had been appointed to investigate the 2003 leak to columnist Robert Novak of Valerie Plame 's identity as a covert CIA operative. Among militant foes of the Iraq War, the outing of Plame was regarded as cruel and illegal revenge after her husband, Joseph Wilson, had publicly challenged the president's claim that Saddam Hussein had tried to buy yellowcake uranium in Niger.  

To understand the hang-them-high frenzy on the left, you have to remember the Democratic rage over the 2004 re-election of George W. Bush and the folly of the Iraq War. The Plame scandal represented a way to belatedly punish those Bush officials who had peddled the fiction that Saddam had an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.  

But reality has a way of undermining ideological obsessions.  

The initial leaker turned out to be an administration good guy, Richard Armitage , the deputy secretary of State under Colin Powell. No payback had been intended — Armitage was just gossiping. When Armitage belatedly confessed in 2006, he said, "I feel terrible. … I let down my department, my family and I also let down Mr. and Mrs. Wilson."  

[ What We Know Now About Benghazi ]  

In the end, the only conviction to come out of Fitzmas was Scooter Libby, a top aide to Cheney, who was found guilty of perjury, making false statements to the FBI, and obstruction of justice. Bush commuted the sentence to avoid jail time but refused to pardon Libby.  

The downfall of Libby was an embarrassment to both Cheney and Bush. In his soon-to-be-published Bush biography , Jean Edward Smith notes that the president was "devastated by Scooter Libby's indictment." But the historian devotes exactly three pages to the outing of Valerie Plame and the aftermath, implicitly suggesting that the over-hyped scandal was a minor second-term motif.  

Ever since Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans died in Benghazi two months before the 2012 election, the tragedy has become Republican shorthand for something larger, more insidious — and exceedingly difficult to pinpoint.  

The purported conspiracy hinged on administration officials, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, falsely claiming that the Libyan attack had been prompted by an anti-Islamic internet video. In truth, the video prompted demonstrations in Cairo but not in Benghazi.  

The night of the attack (September 11, 2012), Clinton put out the government's only statement. It included the misleading line, "Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the internet."  

As the Republican report concluded, "Rather than relaying known facts from those experiencing the attacks firsthand, however, the secretary’s statement created a narrative tying the events in Benghazi to the video, despite a dearth of actual evidence."  

[ Benghazi Report Describes Inertia, Failure to Recognize Risks ]  

Why does this matter so much nearly four years later? The underlying Republican argument is that Clinton and the White House wanted to portray Libya as a success story of America "leading from behind." That's why an attack that killed the ambassador needed to have a cause beyond anti-American rage.  

As a former presidential speechwriter (Jimmy Carter), I retain a particular fascination with the minor official who actually typed the words in question. In this case, a White House meeting had originally called for two statements to be issued on that fatal night — one about the Islamic video and the other about Benghazi.  

But, according to the GOP's Benghazi report, things became confused when the State Department actually began to produce a document. It is unclear from the report why two statements became a single all-purpose release from the secretary of State. But the most obvious explanation is that two statements back-to-back would signal the kind of panic that no administration likes to display in public.  

Jake Sullivan, a top Clinton aide, told the committee that it was his idea to mention the videos in the Clinton remarks. His primary reason: He somehow believed that this convoluted line would head off other embassy violence in the Middle East by underscoring that America deplores "efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others."   

Megan Rooney, a State Department speechwriter, testified that linking the videos with Benghazi was a "commonsense conclusion." As she put it, "I was learning about what was happening in Egypt, and oh, look, the same day, something is happening at an American facility not far from there."  

Reading those words, I picture a speechwriter at her computer with her superiors screaming at her to hurry while they give her conflicting instructions. Amid the chaos of a terrible night at the State Department, a wrongheaded theory about the attacks — and a convenient political theory for the White House — was born.  

But Benghazi is not an ideologically neat story any more than the saga of Valerie Plame was. And for those wanting a larger moral: Never underestimate error and incompetence as a driving force in human affairs.  

Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and the Washington Post. His book on his con-man great-uncle was just published: "Hustling Hitler: The Jewish Vaudevillian Who Fooled the Fuhrer." Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro .  

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