Sunday, May 20, 2018
Politics

Fact-checking Benghazi: The rhetoric hasn't matched up with reality

House Republicans want another investigation of the attacks in Benghazi, specifically whether the White House is withholding information on the attacks.

By some counts, it's the eighth investigation into the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks in Libya in which four Americans died, including the U.S. ambassador.

PolitiFact has been monitoring claims about the attacks since shortly after they occurred. The rhetoric has been highly politicized, focusing on whether the Obama administration downplayed the role of terrorists in the attacks.

Benghazi basics

Not up to speed on what happened in Benghazi? Here's a history: Diplomatic workers staffed a temporary residential outpost in the Libyan city after the death of dictator Moammar Gadhafi. On a night the U.S. ambassador, Christopher Stevens, was visiting from the capital in Tripoli, armed Islamic terrorists attacked, setting a toxic diesel-fueled fire that killed the ambassador and a colleague. Americans then drove, chased by attackers, to a nearby annex, where a mortar attack in the morning killed two security contractors. By noon, hasty scrambling by the American and Libyan governments got U.S. workers to safety in Tripoli, along with their four dead comrades.

That "annex" was a compound used by the CIA. So, while we've seen unclassified reports from a State Department accountability review board, a Senate committee and some House Republicans, and watched testimony before Rep. Darrell Issa's House committee — there's a layer of secrecy that daunts diplomats and lawmakers alike.

Obama's reaction

Our first check on Benghazi was from a 2012 presidential debate, when Republican nominee Mitt Romney said it took President Barack Obama "14 days before he called the attack in Benghazi an act of terror."

Actually, Obama described it in those terms the day after the attack. But in the days that followed, neither he nor all the members of his administration spoke consistently on the subject. There were many suggestions that the attack was part of demonstrations over an American-made video that disparaged Islam. We rated Romney's statement Half True.

Failure to act?

Other claims we've fact-checked focused on what happened the night of the attacks and afterward. Some have suggested that the administration could have acted to prevent the attacks and didn't, but the claims we looked at didn't match up with actual events.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, suggested in May 2013 that the United States could have prevented the deaths with military action.

"The administration including (Defense) Secretary (Leon) Panetta were very crystal clear, there were no military assets, but I got to tell you, we had proximity, we had capability, we had four individuals in Libya armed, ready to go, dressed about to get into the car to go in the airport to go help their fellow countrymen who were dying and being killed and under attack in Benghazi and they were told to stand down," Chaffetz said.

By all accounts, though, this description doesn't match the timeline of what happened in Benghazi. The four people in Benghazi were already dead when the decision was made to keep the special forces team in Tripoli. The mortar attack was over. We rated this statement False.

Ambassador's body

There also have been assertions that the ambassador's body was abused as part of the attacks, but evidence doesn't support that.

A chain email a reader sent us bizarrely claimed that Dee Dee Myers, the former press secretary to Bill Clinton, had a cousin in Benghazi on the night of the attacks who said Stevens' body was "dragged through the streets" and abused. When we asked Myers about it, she said she didn't have a cousin there and knew nothing about the email. We rated the claim Pants on Fire.

More recently, conservative pundit Laura Ingraham said this on ABC News' This Week: "The ambassador's body was dragged through the street. Okay? It was beyond heartbreaking and beyond infuriating."

Three government reports and independent press accounts contradict that. Stevens was overcome by smoke from the fire, and Libyans brought him to a hospital where efforts to revive him failed. There are no credible reports of public abuse of his body. We rated Ingraham's statement False.

Downplaying terrorism

Last year, Obama said that the facts behind the attacks had been thoroughly investigated by an independent review board, but he exaggerated how wide-ranging the review was.

"Over the last several months, there was a review board headed by two distinguished Americans, Mike Mullen and Tom Pickering, who investigated every element of" the Benghazi incident, he said.

We found that the review board did not look at every element of the incident. It looked at most of the security matters involved, but it didn't look at who conducted the attacks or at the administration's public comments in the days following. We rated Obama's statement Mostly False.

Meanwhile, we also found accuracy problems with claims about what Susan Rice — then the ambassador to the United Nations, now Obama's national security adviser — said on the Sunday talk shows in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Rice's appearances were widely perceived as playing down the role of terrorists in the attacks.

In the more than 19 months since then, we've found a couple of claims that tried to gloss over Rice's words.

Pundit Cokie Roberts on ABC's This Week said: "When you read the transcript of those Sunday shows, actually Ms. Rice did say a 'terrorist attack.' It's not that she put the whole thing on the video."

Our review of the transcripts from Rice's appearances showed the opposite. She consistently emphasized the importance of the video, and the only times she brought up the possibility of a terrorist connection was to downplay it. We rated Roberts' claim Mostly False.

Read the full fact-checks at PolitiFact.com.

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