Washington loves a scandal, and the simpler the storyline the better. So it goes with the present obsession of congressional Republicans — the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Indeed, the slayings of Ambassador Christopher J. Stevens and three other Americans demand careful scrutiny of security arrangements for diplomatic missions in Libya and other volatile locales. There also are unanswered questions about the availability of U.S. forces to assist in the defense of the consulate and, several hours later, a CIA safe house where the staff relocated.
Those issues are complex and, for obvious reasons, many of the details are classified.
So Republicans are creating a partisan spectacle complete with imaginative conspiracies and a hunt for scapegoats — and scalps.
They claim that Obama administration officials mischaracterized the Sept. 11 attack in Benghazi for political purposes. If voters knew terrorists were involved, the reasoning goes, the president's re-election would have been threatened.
The conspiracy theorists are especially focused on comments made by U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who not coincidentally is a potential successor to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Appearing on Sunday news programs five days after the Benghazi attack, Rice said "the best assessment we have" is that a demonstration against an anti-Muslim video evolved into a full-scale assault on the consulate. She referred to "extremists" and, on "Face the Nation," she said "one of the things we'll have to determine" is whether they were affiliated with al-Qaida.
Rice's comments were undeniably misleading, but they were hardly an unequivocal denial of a terrorist attack. In fact, administration officials acknowledged on Sept. 12 that they were investigating possible terrorist involvement. Four days after Rice's TV appearances, White House spokesman Jay Carney said it was "self- evident that what happened in Benghazi was a terrorist attack," and Clinton publicly linked al-Qaida to the attack on Sept. 27 — more than five weeks before the election.
We now know that Rice hewed closely to talking points written and edited by the CIA and other intelligence agencies, not the White House or the Obama campaign. As drafts of the talking points were vetted by intelligence officials, they changed the word "attack" to "demonstration" and deleted a reference to al-Qaida. In his Senate Intelligence Committee testimony, former CIA director David Petraeus said they didn't want to tip off al-Qaida that U.S. officials suspected their involvement.
Here again, there are questions. For starters, did anyone at the CIA really think that al-Qaida operatives didn't know they would be suspected? And what was to be gained by downplaying the possibility of terrorism in an attack involving rockets and other ordnance?
The answers won't be produced — or even seriously pursued — by a political sideshow.