Then & Now
Beirut Barracks vs. Benghazi
Republicans are trying to criminalize a tragedy—wholly unprecedented, even after 241 Marines died because of a massive U.S. intelligence failure.
One of the most maddening things about this Benghazi nonsense is the way Republicans have gotten a lot of Americans to go along with the idea that 10 investigations of something is normal; that as long as there’s one unanswered question, one area where the administration’s position is ambiguous or where its cooperation has been anything other than the immediate handing over of any conceivably related document, we still need to get to the bottom of matters.
People believe this because—first of all, partisans in heat believe it because they want to pin some kind of blame on Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. But even some people who aren’t diehard partisans believe it because, well, it seems to make sense. That’s what we do. We get to the bottom of things.
That’s what we do, that is, when it comes to the law. When there’s a question of legal guilt or innocence, of course we want all the facts needed to make the proper legal determination. But what about when there is no question of legal guilt or innocence, and it’s just a political matter? Of course we still want to know what happened, but in these cases it’s not chiefly to determine guilt or innocence, since there is none; it’s to get an honest accounting of what happened to try to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
I’m trying to explain as calmly as I can here, to readers with no allegiance to either party, why what the Republicans are doing with Benghazi is so out of bounds. They are turning a political situation into a legal case. They’re trying to impose the standards of the courtroom onto a place where they clearly don’t belong. It’s an awful, poisonous precedent, especially given that the incident in question was a tragedy. Using a national tragedy, the kind of event that used to unite Americans, to turn a political matter into a legal one is just a shocking thing to do, wholly outside the American tradition.
Which brings me to Beirut. If you read only one Benghazi piece this week (aside from mine of course!), read this one by Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, which she called “Ronald Reagan’s Benghazi.” It was October 1983, and Mayer was a young Wall Street Journal reporter based in Beirut. Early on the morning of October 23, a blast went off in the U.S. Marine barracks compound. By the time Mayer arrived on the scene, “the Marine barracks were flattened. From beneath the dusty, smoking slabs of collapsed concrete, piteous American voices could be heard, begging for help.” The U.S. death toll was 241 that day.
A few contextual facts for you. The gate at the barracks through which the terrorist drove his truck was open. He drove through some barbed wire, but that was it. The guards were unarmed. Additionally, this happened a mere six months after militants had bombed the embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people, 17 of them Americans.
There’s more. At the time, the Iran-Iraq War was going on. In addition to that, Iran had just created Hezbollah in Lebanon, giving the Islamic Republic a base of operations in that country. The United States was backing Iraq in the Iran-Iraq War. Iran warned that if America continued to back Iraq, it would suffer consequences. On September 26, the National Security Agency intercepted an Iranian communication that spoke of the need to “take spectacular action against the American Marines.” But the NSA didn’t pass that communication along to the Marines, according to Col. Timothy Geraghty, the commanding officer of the decimated unit, until later: “Word of the intercept,” he wrote, “stuck in the intelligence pipeline until days after the attack.”
Review with me the facts of those last two paragraphs. Open gates. Unarmed guards. Six months on the heels of 17 earlier American deaths. A month after a specific and dramatic warning. Which the NSA, in 28 long days, failed to pass on.
You know where I’m going here. Imagine that all that had happened somewhere in the world in the last three or four years. Just close your eyes and conjure in your mind’s ear all the bloviating bombast about the weak president who secretly wants to destroy America and so on. Obama would have been impeached immediately. Hillary Clinton would have been, too, or forced to resign in disgrace. Hell, I don’t think even Joe Biden would have survived it (which means John Boehner would be president). Neither would the NSA adviser, not the secretary of defense, nor probably a score of administration officials. Letting terrorists kill not four people, as happened in Benghazi, but 241—of our fighting men, no less—after missing a clear warning, and with gates flung open? The Obama era would have been over, simple as that.
Here, in contrast, is what happened in 1983: not much of anything. Then, as now, the opposition party ran the House of Representatives. Speaker Tip O’Neill did call for an investigation. But just one, not 10. And no one from the Reagan administration was subpoenaed. The committee charged with investigating the matter was designed not to prosecute, but to find out what went wrong. Mayer: “Two months later, it issued a report finding ‘very serious errors in judgment’ by officers on the ground, as well as responsibility up through the military chain of command, and called for better security measures against terrorism in U.S. government installations throughout the world.”
That was appropriate. It wouldn’t have occurred to anybody in those days to politicize or criminalize a tragedy like the Republicans have now. And it really hasn’t happened since either. Things have become more partisan, but there was no string of multiple investigations, no drawing matters out for months or years after the Black Hawk Down episode. Even Democratic oversight around the Iraq War wasn’t like this. Henry Waxman did subpoena Condoleezza Rice, and she appeared once, in the fall of 2007. Democrats could have held high-profile hearings on war profiteering or the pre-war intelligence failures until the last day the Bush administration was in office if they’d wanted to. Or later. God knows their base wanted them to. There’s always something to “get to the bottom of.”
The idea here, though, isn’t to get to the bottom of anything. It’s to try to make a criminal case out of a tragedy. Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the new select committee, even saved us the trouble of having to do the usual decoding the other day when he said: “If an administration is slow-walking document production, I can’t end a trial simply because the defense won’t cooperate.”
Interesting. A “trial.” The “defense.” And we’re supposed to believe that we’re all just Americans looking for justice for Chris Stevens and the three others? This is sickening. We’ve had nine investigations and reports. They’re not going to learn anything new, and they’re not trying to. Democrats, do the American thing and have nothing to do with this charade.