Thursday, January 24, 2013

Ron Johnson's Delusional Account of his Benghazi Conversation with Hillary Clinton

This afternoon we took a look at the optics of Senator Ron Johnson's exchange with Hillary Clinton at the Benghazi hearing, but after Johnson published his little piece recapping the discussion tonight, we just couldn't help examining the substance of the dialog.

First, to the video. Here's the whole uncut conversation. Note the obvious hostility on Johnson's part from the very beginning. He can't even get through the obligatory pleasantries without sounding, at best, perfunctory.

In our minds their is little question that Johnson comes off looking much, much worse in the extended C-SPAN director's cut then he does in the cable TV edit. A lot of this probably has to do with the camera angles -- high on Clinton and lowish on Johnson -- but even more of it involves the steady way the tension between the two builds and builds before finally coming to a boil in the last minute.

Then we read Johnson brief op-ed published in USA Today late Wednesday night. The article is full of factual errors about the event that seriously make us wonder if Johnson was paying any attention at all to Clinton's answers. His recall of events that not only happened just 12 hours earlier, but are easily available in video form online, is almost delusional. We'll show you what we mean, line by line.

During her Senate testimony, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that approximately 25 Americans who were on the ground or who witnessed the terrorist attack in Benghazi were immediately evacuated. 
That's not what she said at all. Clinton said that between 25 and 30 people were evacuated from the Benghazi compound. Johnson asks the question at 1:46 and Clinton answers "The numbers are a little hard to pin down because of our other friends ... Approximately 25 to 30." Despite the fact that Clinton specifically included "our other friends," presumably local militia or other people employed at the consulate, among the evacuees, Johnson erroneously claims they are Americans.

Had Johnson read the ARB report, even the declassified version (see page 19), he would have known there were 7 Americans in the consulate when the assault began. We're only through the first sentence and already Johnson is playing fast and loose with the facts.
Secretary Clinton also revealed that neither she, nor her senior people, debriefed or spoke with those people immediately after the attack, or for months afterward, to understand what happened. She stated that she didn't want to be later accused of playing politics.
The word "debrief" was never used by either Johnson or Clinton during the hearing, though Clinton did imply a debriefing occurred when she mentions the FBI interviewing evacuees. (This detail is a bit tricky, however, as we'll see below.)
When I questioned her about the misinformation disseminated for days by the administration, most notably by Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice on Sunday news programs five days after the attack, she asked, "What difference does it make?"
That's not quite how it happened:

Johnson accuses Amb. Rice of "purposefully misleading" the public at 2:40. Clinton talks about tending to the injured evacuees until 3:40 -- remember this: it's an important detail worth Clinton discussing at length -- when she says that the American public was being provided with information that had been vetted by the intelligence community.

The Secretary talks about the fluidity of the situation until 4:10 when she's interrupted by Johnson, who asks his phone call question ... even though Clinton has basically spent the last 90 seconds explaining to the Senator that she did not make such a call to prevent politicizing the debriefing.

Hillary, clearly growing tired of the exchange by now, gamely continues to answer, but is again interrupted at 4:34 when Johnson dismisses her answer as an excuse. There's a few seconds of cross talk before Clinton refers Johnson to the Accountability Review Board (ARB) reports at 4:44.

She begins to differentiate between what is currently known and not known about the incident -- as in today, January 23rd, four months after the event -- when Johnson again interrupts her at 4:57 to reiterate his belief -- sans any evidence -- that the public was intentional misled about protests being the genesis of the consulate siege, saying that the American people could have known that "within days" of the attack, etc.

Finally, at 5:15; 2 minutes, 35 seconds and several interrupted attempts to answer the question later; Hillary has enough.

So it's a long way from Johnson's question to Clinton's answer.
If you don't expeditiously debrief the people who witnessed the attack, how can you understand who initiated it, what weapons they used and who may have been involved? How do you initiate a proper response if you don't know what transpired? How do you move properly to protect other American assets and people in the region? How do you know what failures occurred, so that you can immediately correct them, if you have not debriefed the very victims of those failures? And lastly, how do you tell the truth to the American people if you don't know the facts?
Except Clinton specifically says that the FBI "immediately" went to interview the evacuees at 3:15, rendering this entire graph pointless.

What Johnson's "phone call" meant at the morning hearing evolved several times over the course of the day. At the hearing it seemed like little more than public relation fact-checking exercise. Latter that morning it became a kind of mark of good character. In the early afternoon, it seemed to have something to do with Osama bin Laden. During happy hour is was about everything! But by dinner time Johnson settled on it being a bona fide professional intelligence-gathering technique when he referred to it as a "debriefing."

During the hearing Johnson says the following at 2:17: "The point I'm making is that a very simple phone call to these individuals could have ascertained immediately that there was no protest prior to this. I mean this attack started at 9:40 PM Benghazi time ... but then I'm going back to, again, Ambassador Rice, five days later going on the Sunday shows and, what I would say, purposefully misleading the American public."

Here's the thing: it's more than likely that such a phone call wasn't possible; that no one would have been on the other end to answer. Here's what ARB report says (page 27+):

At approximately 0630 local, all U.S. government personnel evacuated [the consulate] with support from a quasi-governmental Libyan militia. They arrived at the [Benghazi] airport without incident.  
Evacuees, including all wounded personnel, departed Benghazi on the chartered jet at approximately 0730 local. Embassy Tripoli staff, including the Embassy nurse, met the first evacuation flight at Tripoli International Airport. Wounded personnel were transferred to a local hospital, in exemplary coordination that helped save the lives of two severely injured Americans
At 1130 local, September 12, 2012, the Libyan government-provided C-130 evacuation flight landed in Tripoli with the last U.S. government personnel from Benghazi...
In coordination with the State Department and Embassy Tripoli, the Department of Defense sent two U.S. Air Force planes (a C-17 and a C-130) from Germany to Tripoli to provide medical evacuation support for the wounded. At 1915 local on September 12, Embassy Tripoli evacuees, Benghazi personnel, and those wounded in the attacks departed Tripoli on the C-17 aircraft, with military doctors and nurses aboard providing en route medical care to the injured. The aircraft arrived at Ramstein Air Force Base at approximately 2230 (Tripoli time) on September 12, just over 24 hours after the attacks in Benghazi had commenced.

Unfortunately, this next step requires some gruesome arithmetic. The ARB report says that there were seven Americans at the compound when the attack started. Four were killed during the attack. Two were "severely injured," one of who so badly that he is still apparently at Walter Reed Hospital. If the other person was anywhere nearly as "severely injured" as his colleague, it stands to reason that neither were in any physical condition to be debriefed until days, if not weeks, after the incident. That leaves only one American who was at the Consulate when the attack began remaining left to be debriefed, and the report is (intentionally) vague about his or her well-being upon evacuation.

We're suggesting that the declassified version of the ARB report insinuates that of the Americans who were at the Consulate when the attack began, the three survivors were so wounded that they were in no position to be debriefed until much later -- days, if not weeks.

So why didn't Hillary bring this up? Well, she did. It's how she began answering Johnson's question about "misleading the American public." Johnson didn't seem to care for that explanation, so he tries to cut in at 3:14, but Clinton keeping moving on and even goes on to address the allegation that Clinton, Rice or anyone else in the administration "purposely misled" anyone. That's sort of the prelude to all hell breaking loose.

The conclusion of Johnson's piece is, as usual, a mess:
Our diplomatic forces in Benghazi were denied the security they repeatedly requested for many months before Sept. 11, 2012. Secretary Clinton stated that she was not told of those desperate requests in the most dangerous region in the world. As a result, our people in Benghazi were ill-prepared to repel or avoid that attack, and four Americans were murdered. For many days after the event, the American people were also misinformed as to the nature and perpetrators of that attack.
That Johnson should equate the deaths of four American foreign service officers in the line of duty with Johnson's imagined conspiracy is as insulting to their memory as it is craven and demeaning to just about any discussion.

In truth, Benghazi is a failure of leadership — before, during and after the terrorist attack.  
To answer Secretary Clinton, it does make a difference. It matters enormously for the American public to know whether or not their president and members of his administration are on top of a crisis and telling them the truth.
All of this is just lip service. Johnson has no interest in finding 'the truth" about what happened in Benghazi. Most of the answers he purports to seek are actually in the ARB report. Johnson sole interest in Benghazi is for use as a political cudgel. Nothing will convince him that there wasn't a "talking points cover-up" designed to willfully mislead the American public, because, to be perfectly honest, Johnson's epistemology isn't all that different from 9/11 Truthers or other conspiracy theorists in so far as they each share an almost pathological inability to critically examine a brief that comfortably fits into their worldviews. Johnson loathes the Obama Administration, therefore all that they do isn't merely wrong, but criminally so.

Unfortunately, today was the best press day of Johnson's career in politics. Johnson's been trying desperately to earn media exposure like this since being elected to the Senate, but failing miserably, to get attention. Today has likely been the first day of his Washington career that his press secretary had to juggle multiple interview requests, and the lesson he's likely going to walk away from this experience is that people will pay attention to me when he's acting like an asshole.

So the next time Johnson brings up Benghazi -- and it will happen, folks -- let the reporter or the token Democrat on FOX or even Hillary Clinton  herself demand Johnson provide evidence to support his theory of a massive Benghazi "talking points cover-up." Anything: an affidavit from a witness, an internal State Department memo, video footage from the consulate. Anything. We already knows no such evidence exists -- we're just really interested in Johnston's explanation as to why that is.

Lastly, we want to point out the massive gulf between the events of the hearing as they are recorded on video for posterity versus Johnson's recollection of those only a dozen hours later. Johnson's own article demonstrates a person who is already confusing important details and forgetting critical facts. Some of his article is downright delusional. If Johnson's memory so poorly serves him over only the course of a work day, then imagine how hard it would be for the survivors of the Benghazi attacks to try and piece together what they witnessed after a full night of ducking enemy fire, the trauma of severe wounds, seeing several of their colleagues killed, and hour after hour of fearing for their lives?

Johnson's preposterous claim that a simple phone call would have straightened any confusion surrounding the Benghazi fiasco is, at best, a profoundly crass attempt to score some political points. At worse, it's an insult to the survivor's resilience. Either way, it doesn't belong in the United States Senate.

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