On Saturday night, State Department spokesperson Philipe Reines slammed CNN for its “disgusting” handling of Ambassador Christopher Stevens’ diary. The diary helped confirm, as the network reported, that Stevens had been worried about the threat of an Al Qaeda attack, and even feared his own name was included on a hit list.
The blockbuster news contradicted the line the State Department and the administration had been pushing since the horrible tragedy took place almost two weeks ago: that there was no intelligence of a coming attack. In fact, the Ambassador himself was aware of a persistent high level threat against him.
“Perhaps the real question here,” CNN responded to the State Department criticism, “Is why is the State Department now attacking the messenger.”
That is the real question, and State Department’s bizarre criticism of CNN gives clues to the answer. Foggy Bottom is now in full-on damage control mode, with the primary goal of keeping Hillary Clinton’s legacy in Libya — and in Washington — intact.
The election-year focus on President Barack Obama meant that the White House had at first been catching most of the heat for the tragedy in Benghazi. It’s certainly true the explanations from White House spokesman Jay Carney and UN Ambassador Susan Rice have strained common sense — mainly, the idea that the attack could be blamed solely on an anti-Islamic video, and that there was a protest outside the consulate at 10 p.m. (there reportedly wasn’t,) among other misleading details. That initial story has crumbled, and it took Robert Gibbs to get the Obama administration back on message on the Sunday shows today.
But in reality, the fiasco appears to be largely — if not entirely — a State Department botch. It was the State Department that failed to provide its ambassador adequate security; it was the State Department that fled Benghazi in the aftermath of the attack, apparently failing to clear or secure the scene, leaving Stevens' diary behind; and it was State that had taken the lead on the ground after the Libya intervention.
“When it comes to specific critiques about the attack, if either [the White House or State] should be getting blamed, it seems to me the primary one to be getting blamed should be State itself more than the [White House],” says one former State Department official with extensive experience in the region. “I mean if you take away the 'buck stops here' parsing of this stuff, if Stevens was issuing warning or expressing concerns he was doing so primarily through his own chain of command. The security on the ground belongs to State.”