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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

PAC Attack on Clinton’s Benghazi Record

A TV ad long on innuendo and short on facts accuses former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of “inaction before” and “indifference after” the Benghazi attacks.

It is well-documented that security was inadequate at a U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, when terrorists attacked the compound and killed four Americans — including U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens.

But the ad, which comes from the anti-Clinton PAC Future45, stretches the facts in its portrayal of Clinton’s words and deeds:

  • The ad says “emails show Clinton was warned about dangerous conditions” in Benghazi, citing a news account about three emails — all of which were sent long before the attack. Two dealt with security at a hotel, but they said Stevens “feels comfortable” staying at the hotel and he eventually would move out.
  • The ad accurately says the State Department “didn’t respond” to a July 9, 2012, cable from Stevens requesting more security. However, Clinton testified that she did not receive his cable or “any of the cables having to do with security” in Benghazi.
  • It also says that Clinton “lied to victims’ families” by telling them that an anti-Muslim video was to blame. That’s a matter of dispute. Clinton denies making such a statement, and some family members of the victims corroborate her version.
  • The ad leaves the false impression that Clinton was “indifferent” to the deaths of four Americans when it shows her saying, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” That quote refers to a senator’s line of questioning — not the deaths.

On the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, heavily armed terrorists attacked the State Department’s diplomatic facility and a nearby CIA annex. The attackers used small-arms, machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades, hand grenades and mortars, according to a report by the independent Accountability Review Board (ARB).

The attack came on the same day as protests occurred at U.S. diplomatic facilities in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world because of a trailer for an anti-Muslim video posted on YouTube. But, as we have written, the Benghazi attack was a terrorist attack, and there were no protests prior to the attack.

In addition to Stevens, Sean Smith, a management information officer at the State Department, and Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, who were part of a security contractor force in Benghazi, also were killed in the Benghazi attacks.

The Future45 ad asks if the attack could have been stopped — which is a reasonable question and one that has been addressed in numerous reports.

As we have written, the Senate homeland security report said the State Department made a “grievous mistake” in keeping the Benghazi facility open given the “dangerous threat environment” in Benghazi in the months leading up to the attack.

The ARB — which was co-chaired by Thomas R. Pickering, a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under President George H.W. Bush, and retired Navy Adm. Michael Mullen, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush — said “systemic failures” and leadership “deficiencies” caused the State Department to ignore “repeated requests” for additional security staffing in Libya, leaving the Benghazi facility “grossly inadequate to deal with the attack.”

As secretary of state, Clinton is responsible for what happens on her watch, but the ad’s accusations and insinuations about Clinton’s actions go too far.

Security Requests

The ad’s narrator says, “Before the attacks, Hillary Clinton’s State Department ignored requests for more security. Didn’t even respond.” At this point, the ad highlights a section of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report regarding a July 9, 2012, cable from Stevens about the need for more security. Specifically, Stevens was seeking 13 temporary duty security officers for Tripoli, where Stevens had his office in the U.S. embassy, and Benghazi, where the department had a temporary facility.

According to the Senate report, Charlene Lamb, who at the time was deputy assistant secretary of state for international programs in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, drafted a response in the form of a cable but never sent it. So the ad is right that the State Department did not respond to this particular request. But Clinton was not aware of it.

Clinton was asked about Stevens’ request for security at a hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs on Jan. 23, 2013. She told the committee that she did not see Stevens’ cable. “[A]ny of the cables having to do with security did not come to my attention,” she testified. There has been no evidence since then that suggests otherwise.

Elliott Abrams, who served as a national security adviser in President George W. Bush’s administration, wrote that Stevens could have pressed his case directly to Clinton, but there is no evidence that the ambassador did. “Ambassadors can caption a cable ‘From the Ambassador to the Secretary’ and use other bureaucratic maneuvers to get a request additional attention,” Abrams wrote. “Apparently, Stevens never did this.”

Also, not all security requests were “ignored,” as the ad says. The State Department did take some steps — however inadequate they proved to be — to secure the facility.

“[Diplomatic Security] funded and installed in 2012 a number of physical security upgrades. These included heightening the outer perimeter wall, safety grills on safe area egress windows, concrete jersey barriers, manual drop-arm vehicle barriers, a steel gate for the Villa C safe area, some locally manufactured steel doors, sandbag fortifications, security cameras, some additional security lighting, guard booths, and an Internal Defense Notification System,” the ARB report said.

‘Dangerous Conditions’

The ad then attempts to tie her department’s refusal to provide Stevens with additional security to Clinton by saying “emails show Clinton was warned about dangerous conditions.” The implication, of course, is: If Clinton was warned, then why didn’t she do anything about it?

But there is less to these security warnings than meets the eye.

The ad cites a May 22, 2015, Wall Street Journal article that carried the headline “Emails Show Clinton Was Warned Over Security in Benghazi Ahead of Attack.” The article mentions three emails that were sent or forwarded to Clinton. Two of them dealt with attacks on hotels in Benghazi, including one where Stevens and his security staff were temporarily located.

At the time, Stevens was a special envoy to the Libyan Transitional National Council on a mission to reestablish a U.S. presence in Libya at the time the TNC was fighting Libyan leader Moammar Gaddafi. Stevens arrived in Libya on April 5, 2011. The emails cited by the Journal were sent April 24, 2011, and June 10, 2011 — that’s 15 months or more before the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks.

Wall Street Journal, May, 22, 2015: One cautionary email sent to her long before the Sept. 11, 2012, terror attack came from longtime aide Huma Abedin. The April 24, 2011, note cited reports that hotels in Benghazi were being targeted for attack.

The note said U.S. diplomat Christopher Stevens — who would later become ambassador and die the following year in the Benghazi attack — would be meeting with Libya’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make “a written request for better security at the hotel and for better security-related coordination.”

About two months later, in a June 10, 2011, email from [Deputy Chief of Staff and Director of Policy Planning Jake] Sullivan, Mrs. Clinton was told of a “credible threat … against the hotel that our team is using.” The note said security officials would be moving personnel out to alternative locations.

The Journal failed to note that the April 24, 2011, letter also said Stevens “still feels comfortable in the hotel,” and that “the hotel remains the safest location” in Benghazi.

As for the June 10, 2011, email, the Journal did not make clear that the “credible threat” against the hotel was for a specific, brief period of time. “Info suggested attack in next 24-48 hours,” Sullivan wrote.

The fact is, Benghazi at the time was “still very much a conflict zone,” as the ARB report said, and Clinton was aware of it, as Sullivan’s June 10, 2011, email to Clinton suggests.

And the State Department did do something about it because by June 21, 2011, Stevens and his security team moved into what the ARB called the “Special Mission Benghazi,” which was the diplomatic facility that would come under attack nearly 15 months later.

To suggest that these emails prove that Clinton knew of “dangerous conditions” and ignored them is patently false.

The Journal story mentioned one other email that was forwarded by Sullivan to Clinton on Feb. 24, 2012 — seven months before the attack. Here’s what the Journal said about that email:

Wall Street Journal, May, 22, 2015: The risks of the situation were described in a Feb. 24, 2012, email from Gene Cretz, the ambassador to Libya at the time, that warned of the difficulties of disarming the militias. “There is concern here that continuing rivalries among the militias remains dangerous from the perspective of the havoc they can wreak with their firepower and their continued control of select turf,” the email said.

The fact that there were rivalries among the militias in Libya was hardly news at the time that this email was written.

For example, the New York Times on Feb. 9, 2012 — a few weeks before the Cretz email was forwarded to Clinton — wrote about the difficulty in controlling the numerous militias that sprung up after the fall of Tripoli in August 2011. “The militias are proving to be the scourge of the revolution’s aftermath,” the Times wrote.

The Feb. 24, 2012, email did not warn of any pending threats against Americans, and it seemed at one point to downplay the danger of the conflicts caused by rival militias. “Always danger of continuing skirmishes but Armageddon predictions a bit overstated,” the email said.

‘Lied to Victims’ Families’

The ad also raises the contentious issue of what Clinton privately told families of the victims at the transfer of remains ceremony held at the Andrews Air Force Base on Sept. 14, 2012.

As we have written, the Obama administration was quick to publicly blame the anti-Muslim video, which did trigger protests in Egypt and elsewhere, and slow to acknowledge the incident was a terrorist attack.

In her first public statement on the night of the Benghazi attack, the secretary of state referred to the video, but made no mention of terrorists or a terrorist attack. “Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet,” her statement said. “But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”

An hour later, she sent an email to her daughter, Chelsea, who used the pseudonym “Diane Reynolds,” that made no reference to the video, and blamed “an al Qaeda-like group.”

Future45 says that Clinton “lied to victims’ families” by telling them that the anti-Muslim video was to blame, while telling “the truth” to her daughter. The ad shows a clip of Patricia Smith — the mother of Sean Smith — speaking at the Republican National Convention. “She looked me squarely in the eye and told me a video was responsible.”

We don’t know what Clinton may have told families privately, and there is considerable dispute about it. The Washington Post Fact Checker’s Glenn Kessler has done extensive reporting on this, including interviews with Smith and other family members about what Clinton told them. Kessler writes, “Clinton says that in speaking with the families, she did not blame the Benghazi attacks on the video. Most participants we interviewed (four out of six) back up her version, saying they do not recall her mentioning a video.”

It is also worth noting that not all family members of the victims blame Clinton, so highlighting Smith’s version of events and her opinion of Clinton fails to tell the whole story.

Anne Stevens, the sister of the slain ambassador, told the New Yorker in June that she does not blame Clinton (or former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta), and “continuing to criticize her … is very unjust.”

“I do not blame Hillary Clinton or Leon Panetta,” Anne Stevens told the New Yorker. “They were balancing security efforts at embassies and missions around the world. And their staffs were doing their best to provide what they could with the resources they had. The Benghazi Mission was understaffed. We know that now. But, again, Chris knew that. It wasn’t a secret to him. He decided to take the risk to go there. It is not something they did to him. It is something he took on himself.”

Out of Context

Lastly, the ad takes a Clinton quote out of context to accuse her of being indifferent to the deaths of four Americans.

The ad quotes Clinton as saying, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” The narrator then adds, “Inaction before; indifference after: Hillary Clinton’s record on Benghazi.”

It is true that Clinton said, “What difference, at this point, does it make?” As we have written, she made that remark at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Jan. 23, 2013. She did so when Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin asked if the attack on the U.S. facilities in Benghazi sprung from a “spontaneous” protest to an anti-Muslim internet video or whether it was a premeditated terrorist attack.

Johnson pressed Clinton on why she did not contact those on the scene to determine if there was a protest, and Clinton responded by saying she did not want to “interfere” with ongoing federal investigations. After some back-and-forth, Clinton made her now famous remark.

Clinton, Jan. 23, 2013: With all due respect, the fact is we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night who decided that they’d they go kill some Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything we can to prevent it from ever happening again, senator.

Now, honestly, I will do my best to answer your questions about this, but the fact is that people were trying in real time to get to the best information. The IC has a process, I understand, going with the other committees to explain how these talking points came out. But you know, to be clear, it is, from my perspective, less important today looking backwards as to why these militants decided they did it than to find them and bring them to justice, and then maybe we’ll figure out what was going on in the meantime.

Clinton’s full quote does not show an indifference to the deaths of Americans as much as frustration with a senator’s line of questioning. It also shows her stated interest in bringing those responsible for the attack to justice, while determining how to prevent future attacks from occurring.

As secretary of state, Clinton shares responsibility for what happened in Benghazi on her watch. But this ad distorts the facts in its attempt to accuse Clinton of “inaction before” and “indifference after” the Benghazi attacks.