The Lingering Questions About the Benghazi Controversy

Newly leaked documents about the government's response to the Benghazi attacks raise more questions than they answer.

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Yuri Gripas / REUTERS

From left: Mark Thompson, Gregory Hicks and Eric Nordstrom are sworn in before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on "Benghazi: Exposing Failure and Recognizing Courage" on Capitol Hill in Washington May 8, 2013.

The cover-up is often worse than the crime, they say. And that’s true. But these days there is also a corollary in Washington: the partisan outrage over a potential scandal is often more confusing than the alleged cover-up.

So it is with the unfolding Benghazi controversy, which Republicans are eagerly comparing to Watergate and Iran-Contra. Last week, Senator Jim Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, even invoked the possibility of impeaching President Barack Obama for his handling of the episode, despite the fact that Congressman Darrell Issa, the California Republican overseeing the House investigation, said on Sunday that Obama “is not a target.” Senator Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, went on CNN Sunday to argue that lives could have been saved had the military responded quicker to the attacks in Benghazi, even though the Pentagon and the State Department have both concluded that this is not the case.

(VIDEO: Michael Crowley on the Politics of Benghazi)

As more facts have emerged, few of the tidy story lines about the September 11, 2012 attack have held up. Republicans have long maintained that the Obama administration misled the nation by blaming the assault on a spontaneous demonstration, but leaked documents now show the intelligence community independently held this same misconception in the days after the attacks. Meanwhile the White House finds itself trying to explain away old statements that are clearly contradicted by newly public facts.

One of the most newsworthy developments took place on Friday in the White House briefing room, when Press Secretary Jay Carney attempted to deal with incongruities between his past statements and newly leaked documents. He boldly claimed there were no contradictions.

Carney has repeatedly argued that the intelligence community’s talking points on Benghazi had not been substantially edited or rewritten. “The White House and the State Department have made clear that the single adjustment that was made to those talking points by either of those two institutions were changing the word ‘consulate’ to ‘diplomatic facility’ because ‘consulate’ was inaccurate,” Carney said last November.

(MORE: Terror, Security, and Hillary 2016: Making Sense of the Benghazi Hearings)

Now we know that this was not the whole story. According to leaked emails made public last week, the State Department requested substantial revisions to the talking points, including the removal of direct references to Ansar al-Sharia, a group with ties to Al Qaeda.

Rather than acknowledge this contradiction, Carney now maintains that State Department involvement in these revisions do not count as revisions, because they occurred during an “iterative process” before the final draft of the talking points was issued by intelligence officials. It’s a bit like saying a chef had nothing to do with a cake, since he helped choose the ingredients before someone else baked it.

The official White House line—admitting no error—is a bit of a gamble, since it calls into question the meaning and reliability of other White House statements. And with the possibility of other scandals lurking, including the recent admission by the Internal Revenue Service of targeted audits on conservative groups, it runs a real risk of backfiring.

(MORE: Joe Klein: Republicans Chasing Their Tails on Benghazi)

Another unresolved issue is the question of whether turf wars colored the initial public response after the attack. Hardly any corner of the federal government is apolitical; even when officials lack partisan interests, they likely have parochial ones. Based on the evidence revealed last week, inter-agency skirmishing may have affected ostensibly objective reporting in the wake of the Benghazi attacks. The State Department seemed worried that the Central Intelligence Agency was passing the buck; a State spokeswoman also expressed concern that Congressional Republicans would use information about past attacks in Benghazi for political gain. Key sections of the talking points were therefore removed.

This raises real concerns about how information is communicated to Congress and the public in times of national emergency. On NBC’s Meet The Press Sunday, California’s Dianne Feinstein, the chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, made clear that she wanted the system to change, and that she planned to make a formal recommendation in the weeks to come. “I think the talking points should not be written by the intelligence community,” she said. “Talking points can’t be done by committee either. And these were.”

Feinstein’s committee is one of several groups, in and outside of Congress, picking over the controversy as new facts trickle out. Issa said Sunday that he plans a full probe of the State Department’s internal review of the attacks, beginning by taking depositions as early as Monday from Admiral Mike Mullen and Ambassador Thomas Pickering, the report’s authors. “We have an obligation to look for any of the inconsistencies,” Issa said.

Hopefully, clarity can follow as well.

MORE: In Libya: Why the Benghazi Investigation Is Going Nowhere