In the years since the terrorist attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens, his aide Sean Smith and CIA officers Tyrone Smith and Glen Doherty in Benghazi on September 11, 2012, President Obama’s congressional critics have complained long and loudly about his failure to apprehend the perpetrators immediately. Republican experts like Ted Cruz and Darrell Issa, along with the right-wing media machine, even insinuated that Obama might not really want to catch the Benghazi perps.
So when news came last weekend that US forces had picked up Abu Khattala, the chief suspect, in a long-planned secret raid, all the politicians who have proclaimed their anguish over the murders of our diplomatic and intelligence personnel ought to have been elated. They should have sent congratulations, if not apologies, to the White House.
But if the Benghazi tragedy has revealed anything, it is the utterly partisan obsession of those who have tried to stoke the “scandal.” So naturally, the same Republicans who have been preparing yet another Capitol Hill show trial – their “select committee” to investigate Benghazi – were barely able to conceal the dismay they so obviously felt over Khattala’s capture.
It is astonishing to watch the long faces of these elected officials, who yield to none in their flag-waving super-patriotic posturing, when the Obama administration manages to neutralize a dangerous enemy of the United States. Their animosity toward the president always seems far more intense than their hatred of our country’s actual adversaries. It is equally remarkable to listen to their petty complaints and phony arguments, as they try in every instance to diminish his achievement.
In this particular instance – as the Republican “terrorism experts” on Capitol Hill, in Washington think-tanks and the national media undoubtedly know – the time required to nab the alleged Benghazi ringleader was fairly short. Remember that the Bush administration never managed to find Osama bin Laden for seven years following 9/11 – after seeming to allow the al Qaeda chief to escape from Tora Bora. Nobody heard a whining peep from the likes of Lindsey Graham or Darrell Issa over that “intelligence failure” – indeed, they appeared content to pretend, along with President Bush, that bin Laden truly no longer mattered. And former vice president Dick Cheney, author of all those failures, even invented a cheap reason to attack the president.
Finding and arresting terrorists abroad is almost always a long game, as proved in the 1998 African embassy bombings that killed a dozen Americans and hundreds of local employees in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. That investigation entailed 15 years of hunting before Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai was finally grabbed by American forces last October – including eight years during which the Bush administration accomplished nothing, again without eliciting a word of recrimination from the Republicans who now criticize Obama incessantly. Evidently none of those critics thought the Ruqai arrest worthy of notice.
No doubt the Republicans will persist in their Benghazi inquest, without embarrassment – although everyone understands that it is nakedly aimed at Hillary Rodham Clinton, who worries them more than any terrorist could. But even as they brood and plot, the news proceeding from the Khattala arrest is even worse than they might have expected. Now that the alleged ringleader is in custody, the key element behind accusations of a White House “cover-up” is evaporating.
According to the Republican narrative, Ambassador Susan Rice was dispatched to recite misleading talking points about the Benghazi attack. In television interviews, she indicated that a video offensive to Muslims might be the underlying cause of the attack. The purpose was to suggest a spontaneous assault rather than a planned act of terror, which might contradict the president’s assertions, in the midst of the 2012 election, that his efforts had decimated al Qaeda.
The truth turned out to be more complicated than the guidance provided to Rice by the CIA. Terrorists, mainly from a Libyan gang known as Ansar al-Sharia, did participate in the assault on the U.S. diplomatic compound.
But The New York Times last weekend reported that Khattala told his associates he led the attack to “take revenge for an insult to Islam in an American-made online video.
“An earlier demonstration venting anger over the video outside the American Embassy in Cairo had culminated in a breach of its walls, and it dominated Arab news coverage. Mr. Abu Khattala told both fellow Islamist fighters and others that the attack in Benghazi was retaliation for the same insulting video, according to people who heard him.”
He made the same assertion on the record to a reporter for The New Yorker, while denying his own culpability.
So much for the Benghazi scandal, which was never much of a scandal at all: Whatever details may emerge in the months to come about the motives of Khattala, we already have learned all we need to know about the motives – and character – of the scandalmongers.
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