Explainer: A Year Of Benghazi Myths

Blog ››› ››› MATT GERTZ

MapOn the evening of September 11, 2012, a heavily armed group of terrorists allegedly led by members of the Islamic militant group Ansar al-Sharia attacked a U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith were killed in the assault. The remaining members of the mission were evacuated to a nearby CIA facility, which came under artillery fire early the next morning. Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods, both CIA contractors who had served as U.S. Navy Seals, were killed in that attack. 

At roughly 10:24 p.m.* on the east coast, Mitt Romney's campaign released a statement accusing President Obama of "sympathizing" with the attackers; this politicization was immediately echoed by the right-wing noise machine.

Over the past year, conservative media figures and activists, led by Fox News, have repeatedly created and promoted lies, smears, and conspiracies related to the Benghazi attack. While the attack raised meaningful questions about how we can best protect U.S. diplomats in dangerous environments, the right has instead sought to use what happened in Benghazi and in the days that followed to bring down President Obama, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other members of the administration.

Much of the criticism has revolved around two lines of attack: That the Obama administration downplayed the role that terrorists played in the attack, and that the administration held back additional U.S. military forces that could have been used to save lives. In reality, President Obama referred to the attack as an "act of terror" during his September 12 Rose Garden speech, and U.S. officials have made clear that all available and appropriate forces were sent as quickly as possible. As former diplomatic security agent Fred Burton and journalist Samuel M. Katz wrote in their book Under Fire:

There was never a question concerning U.S. resolve or the overall capabilities of the U.S. military to respond to Benghazi. There was, however, nothing immediate about an immediate response. There were logistics and host-nation approvals to consider. An immediate response was hampered by the equation of geography and logistics.

In this report, Media Matters chronicles:

The Attack And The Conservative "Blame Game" Response

Calling Benghazi "Terror," Part 1: The Rice Interviews

The Blame Game Continues

Hillary Clinton Takes Responsibility And Right-Wing Media Freak Out

Calling Benghazi "Terror," Part 2: The Debate

Obama Left Them To Die, Part 1: The CIA "Stand Down" Order

The Petraeus Conspiracy

Calling Benghazi "Terror," Part 3: Rice For SecState?

Hillary Clinton's Fake Concussion

Hillary Clinton's Testimony: Fake Anger, Tears

Secretary Panetta's Testimony

Hillary Clinton And The Politicized Congressional Report

Obama Left Them To Die, Part 2: Fox's Unnamed Source

Calling Benghazi "Terror," Part 4: The Talking Points Draft

Obama Left Them To Die, Part 3: The Benghazi "Whistleblowers"

The Incredible Shrinking Whistleblower Intimidation Claim

Calling Benghazi "Terror," Part 5: The Administration Emails

Special Prosecutor Versus Independent Investigators

Calling Benghazi "Terror," Part 6: The Obama Presser

Things Fall Apart

Obama Left Them To Die, Part 4: "Sources"

The Futile Call For A Benghazi Select Committee

The Fringe Valerie Jarrett Theory

As Benghazi Anniversary Approaches, Fox Goes Into Overdrive

The Attack And The Conservative "Blame Game" Response

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Shortly after reports that at least one diplomat had died during the Benghazi attacks, Mitt Romney's campaign issued a statement politicizing that tragedy by attacking President Obama. Even as much of the media condemned Romney's action, Fox News and other right-wing outlets rallied around him, either falsifying the timeline to claim that Romney had issued his statement before it was clear an American had been killed or promoting the notion that the administration was at fault for the attacks.

Conservative media claimed that Obama and Clinton had ignored warnings the embassy could be attacked; that the attacks were the result of Obama repeatedly apologizing for America; and that Obama did not attend daily intelligence briefings and thus was negligent. In fact, even the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee acknowledged that he had seen no indication that the administration had information that could have prevented the attacks; the claim that Obama apologizes for America is a myth; and Obama prefers to read a written daily intelligence briefing.

Calling Benghazi "Terror," Part 1: The Rice Interviews

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After U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice appeared on the Sunday political talk shows on September 16 to discuss Benghazi, the Obama administration came under fire for not calling the attack a planned act of "terrorism," and for engaging in a politically motivated "cover-up." But Rice made clear during her appearances that her comments were based on "our current best assessment" that the Libya attack was not premeditated, acknowledged that the perpetrators were "extremists," and said that future investigations and analyses by intelligence services "will tell us with certainty what transpired." It would later be revealed that her suggestion that the attack was linked to an anti-Islam video that had embroiled the Middle East came from talking points generated by the CIA.

The Blame Game Continues

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Throughout late September and early October, as Republican congressman Jason Chaffetz, one of Romney's top campaign surrogates, led the first hearing into the security situation in Benghazi prior to the attack, conservative media figures continued to claim that Obama had allowed the attacks to happen through negligence and a failed foreign policy. Critics pushing this claim ignored the multiple terror attacks that occurred during the Bush administration.

Hillary Clinton Takes Responsibility And Right-Wing Media Freak Out

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In a series of mid-October interviews, Clinton took responsibility for the Benghazi attacks, saying: "Listen, this is my State Department. I take responsibility. Security for the U.S. diplomatic posts is a State Department function." The right-wing media responded by misrepresenting her comments, falsely portraying her as trying to deflect blame, and lobbing sexist attacks.

Calling Benghazi "Terror," Part 2: The Debate

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During the October 16 presidential debate, moderator Candy Crowley corrected Romney's false claim that Obama did not refer to the Benghazi attack as an "act of terror" during a speech from White House Rose Garden the day after the attack. Conservatives quickly moved to rewrite the timeline in order to deny what Obama had said, attack Crowley, and defend Romney. In fact, Obama had clearly called the attack an "act of terror" in his September 12 Rose Garden address on the attacks and during two September 13 campaign events.

Obama Left Them To Die, Part 1: The CIA "Stand Down" Order

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In late October, Fox News reported that CIA operators in Benghazi had been told by their superiors to "stand down" rather than rush to the aid of their colleagues in the diplomatic compound. The right-wing media used the report to allege that President Obama and his administration had decided to willingly "sacrifice Americans" in Benghazi. But the CIA denied that any stand-down orders had ever been given, no additional evidence has ever emerged suggesting such orders were given, and reinforcements actually arrived from Tripoli in time for the second attack on the CIA facility.

The Petraeus Conspiracy

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Following the early November revelation of Gen. David Petraeus' affair with his biographer and his subsequent resignation as CIA director, right-wing media claimed that Obama had been blackmailing Petraeus to keep him from "spilling the beans" about Benghazi. There was no evidence that this claim was true and the charge was widely condemned by more credible outlets.

Calling Benghazi "Terror," Part 3: Rice For SecState?

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In November, Susan Rice's name was floated in the press as a potential nominee for Secretary of State. The right-wing media quickly joined an effort led by Sens. John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and Kelly Ayotte to prevent that nomination from coming to pass by attacking Rice for her comments about Benghazi during her September 16 Sunday show appearances.

Rice was criticized for using a set of administration talking points characterizing the attacks as stemming from a spontaneous demonstration. A draft version of those talking points had included language suggesting the perpetrators had been affiliated with Al Qaeda, and the right-wing media said the removal of that language was part of a political cover-up. In reality, as Petraeus had previously testified, changes were made to the talking points in order to protect the criminal investigation and our intelligence-gathering process.

Hillary Clinton's Fake Concussion

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In late December, shortly before she was scheduled to testify before Congress regarding Benghazi, Hillary Clinton fainted and suffered a concussion, and was subsequently hospitalized with a potentially life-threatening blood clot in her head. The right-wing media accused her of faking the concussion to avoid testifying on Benghazi.

Hillary Clinton's Testimony, According To The Right: Fake Anger, Tears

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When Hillary Clinton expressed sorrow for the Benghazi victims and anger at members of Congress who offered spurious criticisms during her January 23 congressional testimony, she was accused of faking emotion. Her testimony was attacked with falsehoods and innuendo -- such as the claim that Clinton "made no mention" of the real time video her office allegedly had during the attack -- aimed at pushing the baseless conspiracy that the administration had covered up what happened in Benghazi. In fact, Clinton made clear during her testimony that the State Department did not have access to real time video.

Secretary Panetta's Testimony

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After Defense Secretary Leon Panetta sat for an interview and testified before Congress about Benghazi in early February, the right-wing media selectively edited his remarks to portray President Obama as "virtually absent" from the response to the attack. In fact, Panetta testified that White House officials were kept informed of events throughout the incident.

Hillary Clinton And The Politicized Congressional Report

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In April, Republicans on five congressional committees released a report asserting that Clinton had lied when she told Congress she was unaware of requests for additional security at the Benghazi compound. According to the report, Clinton had personally read and signed off on a cable responding to one such missive. Right-wing media subsequently pushed this claim in attacking Clinton as a liar. In fact, there is nothing to indicate Clinton had reviewed the document -- all messages from the State Department to diplomatic facilities abroad are sent out over the secretary's signature according to tradition.

Obama Left Them To Die, Part 2: Fox's Unnamed Source

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In late April, Fox News' Special Report with Bret Baier hosted a confidential "Benghazi source" for a three-part interview to express his opinion that the Obama administration could have saved the staff that were killed during the attacks. That opinion had been refuted by military experts and nonpartisan analysis that had already made clear that no additional forces could have reached Benghazi in time, and the source's claims were swiftly debunked by experts who pointed out that the claims were "pure speculation and not based on any real facts."

Calling Benghazi "Terror," Part 4: The Talking Points Draft

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In early May, The Weekly Standard published the CIA's original draft of the talking points that were used by Susan Rice during her Sunday show interviews. The right-wing media claimed the document proved the Obama administration had concocted the link between the attack and an anti-Islam video cited by Susan Rice and other administration officials. In fact, that document made clear that the CIA itself believed there was a link between the two. The draft said that the attacks were "spontaneously inspired by the protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo" -- protests that came in response to the video.

Obama Left Them To Die, Part 3: The Benghazi "Whistleblowers"

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Conservative media coverage of congressional leaks leading up to a May 8 Benghazi "whistleblower" House hearing and the hearing itself featured falsehoods, conspiracies, and hysterics, including attempts to compare Benghazi to Watergate. Much of the coverage revolved around claims that Libya's deputy chief of mission Gregory Hicks believed that a "stand down" order had been given to Special Forces in Tripoli to prevent them from aiding the diplomats in Benghazi. In fact, the Special Forces unit stayed in Tripoli in case it was needed to respond to an attack there, if the unit had tried to reach Benghazi it would have arrived hours after the attack concluded, and the head of Special Forces in Tripoli subsequently testified that no "stand down" order was given.

The Incredible Shrinking Whistleblower Intimidation Claim

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Basing their claims in part on the allegations of Victoria Toensing, a partisan lawyer who was involved in attempts to drum up scandals during the Clinton era, right-wing media (as well as New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd) claimed that Hicks had been "muzzled" and then demoted by his State Department superiors, including Clinton aide Cheryl Mills, for giving information about Benghazi to Congress. In fact, Hicks spoke to Congressional investigators, the FBI, and twice with the State Department's investigators. In his testimony he acknowledged receiving no direct criticism from Mills. And he was not "demoted" but rather testified that he asked not to go back to Libya and was placed in a temporary position. He retained his rank and salary, and is waiting for a suitable position to come open.

Calling Benghazi "Terror," Part 5: The Administration Emails

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On May 10, ABC News' Jonathan Karl published an "exclusive" report based on 14 versions of the Benghazi talking points, as well as summaries of emails between the aides who edited them. According to Karl, the emails showed that the talking points were "scrubbed of terror reference[s]" at the behest of the State Department and White House. In reality, the documents provided little new information, as Petraeus had testified months ago that the intelligence community signed off on the final draft of the talking points, and that references to terrorist groups in Libya were removed in order to avoid tipping off those groups. The report nonetheless generated a media firestorm with commentators claiming the changes had been made for political purposes and highlighting Petraeus's ambivalence with the final set of talking points.

The subsequent release of the actual emails showed that the email summaries ABC had reviewed were misleading, making it appear that the White House was more interested in removing mentions of specific terrorist groups for political reasons than was actually the case. They also showed that Petraeus was actually unhappy with the talking points because they downplayed the role of the anti-Islam video in the attack, undermining the right-wing narrative. ABC News later published an extensive editor's note on their initial story, and Karl apologized for getting the story wrong.

Special Prosecutor Versus Independent Investigators

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Right-wing media panned the independent report of the State Department's Accountability Review Board while demanding the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate Benghazi. The ARB's report was a credible, non-partisan account from Thomas Pickering, a career diplomat, and retired Adm. Mike Mullen that sought to establish what went wrong in Benghazi and how to better protect U.S. diplomats in the future. The appointment of a special prosecutor would likely result in a permanent, partisan attempt to damage the Obama administration.

Calling Benghazi "Terror," Part 6: The Obama Presser

After Obama recalled during a May 13 press conference how he had previously described the attacks in the context of terrorism, both right-wing media and mainstream outlets pretended that he had not. In fact, as he mentioned, Obama called the attacks an "act of terror" on September 12 and September 13.

Things Fall Apart

From mid-May through June, with mainstream outlets having caught on to the lack of evidence behind the right-wing's Benghazi smears, Fox began throwing out whatever allegations it could and hoping that something would stick. These included pretending that President Obama and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon were absent during the attack (in fact, a photo shows them discussing the situation in the Oval Office); pretending that Ambassador Pickering is reluctant to testify on Benghazi (in fact, he had asked to testify publicly); and smearing former State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland for misleading the American people about the Benghazi attacks through her role in editing the draft talking points (in fact, she expressed concern that revealing in the talking points the names of terrorist organizations suspected of being involved would jeopardize a criminal investigation).

Obama Left Them To Die, Part 4: "Sources"

With their scandal faltering, in late June Fox put together a Benghazi special highlighting a series of false claims and misinformation that they had hyped for month, including the exclusive report that "sources" say that stand down orders were given. The previous week, Republican-led House Armed Services Committee acknowledged no such order had been given, citing testimony from the commander of the Special Forces team in Tripoli.

The Futile Call For A Benghazi Select Committee

In July, Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX) circulated a discharge petition for House Resolution 36, which called for a select committee to investigate the attacks in Benghazi. (A discharge petition is a parliamentary procedure that takes a resolution out of committee and brings it directly to the floor for a vote.) Stockman's discharge petition was opposed by House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) and HR 36's sponsor Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) and thus had no chance of passing. But Fox heavily promoted the effort, and Fox contributor Allen West was a featured speaker at an anti-Obama group's rally calling for the petition's passage.

The Fringe Valerie Jarrett Theory

In early August, a fringe conservative website reported based on anonymous sources that Obama adviser Valerie Jarrett was the decision-maker during the Benghazi attacks and issued a stand down order to American armed forces that night. This was not a credible claim -- its author had a history of making absurd, hyperbolic claims about Obama, his sources were unnamed, and numerous military figures have publicly testified no stand down order was ever given. But Rush Limbaugh, and later Fox News' Steve Doocy, nevertheless floated the conspiracy.

As Benghazi Anniversary Approaches, Fox Goes Into Overdrive

In the week leading up to the anniversary of the Benghazi attacks, Fox continued to push a variety of false claims about the story. Notably, the network hyped a misleading ABC interview with Hicks in which he defied his own sworn testimony to claim he had been "punished" for speaking out about Benghazi. Fox's campaign went so far as to equate the Benghazi attacks, in which four Americans were killed, with the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, in which nearly 3,000 Americans were killed. 

*Edited for accuracy.

Posted In
National Security & Foreign Policy, International Conflicts
Network/Outlet
Fox News Channel, ABC
Stories/Interests
Libya, Benghazi, Featured
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