Americans want two things from their government: transparency and integrity. They want to be certain that whatever is being done is for the good of the nation, not for political gain, and that if some policy isn’t working there won’t be a whitewash; they will be informed as to what went wrong. Americans can forgive mistakes, but not being the victims of politics and cover-ups.
The failure of transparency and integrity in American government in the 1960s and 1970s caused Americans to become cynical about the nation’s leaders. First, it emerged that politics compromised the safety, security and success of American troops in Vietnam; commanders in the field felt hamstrung by decisions from stateside, taken for political reasons, that impeded victory and endangered U.S. forces. Second, during the Watergate scandal, those occupying the highest levels of government repeatedly lied to the American people.
Watergate — dismissed as “a third-rate burglary” by then-press secretary Ron Zeigler — ultimately blew up into the political scandal of the century and led to the resignation of President Nixon because of the cover-up that followed the crime. Had Nixon cooperated with the investigation and halted attempts of his subordinates to rescue the Watergate burglars from prosecution, he would be remembered today for his foreign policy successes with China and the Soviet Union, rather than for a disgraced presidency.
The Watergate scandal began with lies from lower levels of government. To protect those lies, higher echelons in the White House scrambled to fabricate more, until the president himself joined in misleading the nation. The snowball of lies led to an avalanche of impeachable offenses that eventually crushed the president.
All Nixon had to do to save his presidency was to tell the truth. It was the cover-up at the highest levels of government, and not the crime, that led to the downfall of a president who had so recently won re-election by one of the largest landslides in history.
That’s a mistake that the Obama administration risks making with the Benghazi attack. As testimony from senior state department officials comes to light, questions have arisen about inconsistencies between how those on the ground witnessed the tragic events in Benghazi that cost four American lives, and how the State Department and the White House described them.
The allegation of mistruths about Benghazi centers on the statements made by Susan Rice following the attack. Rice said that the attacks were a spontaneous demonstration, a carryover from an inflamed protest in Cairo over a video that blasphemed Islam. Last week Gregory Hicks, the deputy to slain Ambassador Stevens, testified that he had been shocked by that claim. In his opinion and in that of other State Department officials, the statements made by Rice were a false narrative about the events in Benghazi.
To avoid a Watergate-type meltdown, it’s important for the White House to come clean with the American people, revealing what it knew about the attack and when. Instead of obfuscating it has to determine which narrative is the truth, and censure anyone who deliberately misled Congress and the public. If Susan Rice was fed erroneous information, the White House should be in the forefront of investigating how and why she was misinformed. Instead of commentary and excuses, it has to reveal the decisions that led to Susan Rice’s questionable assertions to the media. Instead of calling criticism a partisan attack, it has to be willing to cooperate with Republicans to get to the bottom of the Benghazi debacle.
The State Department also has to explain why it didn’t provide adequate protection to Ambassador Stevens. It doesn’t take a terrorism expert to know that Libya was and is a dangerous place, riddled with al-Qaida terrorists. Defense Department officials maintain that requests to scramble F-16 fighters to disperse the terrorists would have taken 20 hours; but if so, why weren’t jets based closer to Benghazi in case of a terrorist attack? Leaving an American ambassador unprotected in such a hostile environment is incompetence; if that’s the case, the incompetents should be forced to resign. If the consulate in Benghazi was only lightly protected because that fit better into the fiction that the Libyan rebels were not affiliated with terrorists, and the ambassador was consequently murdered, those who spun that fairy tale should not live happily ever after in the halls of government.
The tragedy of Benghazi is that four Americans died. The tragedy should not call forth a witch hunt, but neither should the White House go down the Watergate path of obstruction and obfuscation. If the White House wants to end the comparison of Benghazi with Watergate, all it has to do is what Nixon didn’t: tell the American people the truth.