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The cover-up that wasn’t

Even in a news environment dominated by melodramatic, often bogus, group narratives, the Susan Rice affair stands out. What began as a tragedy in Benghazi has degenerated into a classic Washington farce, with Fox News and its allies pushing GOP political correctness, politicians faking indignation for TV cameras, and “mainstream” pundits advancing a false storyline for dramatic purposes.

Thank heaven the United States faces no serious foreign policy issues, because otherwise you’d have to think this is a crazy way to choose a Secretary of State. Unless — as my mentor Bob Somerby speculates at his indispensible dailyhowler.blogspot.com website — we’ve degenerated to where the dopiest possible answer to a problem is always the default option.

I hold no particular brief for Susan Rice. President Obama can nominate the current U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations to replace Hillary Clinton, or he can nominate somebody else. It’s all the same to me.

Maybe a touch of nostalgia is even in order. To see a Washington media pile-on this transparently phony, one would have to hark back to 2000, when Al Gore supposedly claimed he’d invented the Internet. Or even to 1996, when Hillary Clinton’s indictment in the make-believe Whitewater scandal was supposedly a done deal.

Even more remarkable is that Susan Rice’s supposed participation in the Benghazi “cover-up,” as Rush Limbaugh and various Fox News pundits have called it, took place on national TV. Anybody with a computer can watch the video clips or read the posted transcripts.

Upon which a person with an ounce of intellectual honesty would be forced to concede two things: First, Rice never said what dishonest paraphrases say she did; second, that she DID say exactly what her vociferous critics insist she denied.

It all started, as the world knows, on Sept. 11, 2012, when a mob armed with rocket-propelled grenades, mortars and automatic weapons stormed the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, murdering U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three aides. It was the first such fatal incident in 30 years. Almost universally revered, Stevens’ loss was keenly felt.

Five days later, Ambassador Rice appeared on all the Sunday political talk shows to give the Obama administration’s response. Speaking from “talking points” written by the CIA, she made essentially the same statement everywhere she went.

Repeatedly stressing that a preliminary FBI investigation had yet to establish basic facts, Rice said it appeared that “extremist elements with heavy weapons” had “hijacked” what began as a “spontaneous reaction” to violent demonstrations in Cairo sparked by a video insulting the prophet Muhammad. (Similar eruptions occurred all over the Muslim world that day.)

Now, in a criminal courtroom, taking a grenade launcher to a political demonstration would be considered evidence of premeditation. Just as, in a rational world, the phrase “extremist elements with heavy weapons” would be seen as synonymous with “terrorists.” Indeed, somewhat to Mitt Romney’s subsequent embarrassment, President Obama had already described the Benghazi tragedy as an “act of terror” on Sept. 12.

However, many observers suspected a more elaborate plot. So on “Face the Nation,” Bob Schieffer asked Rice a pointed question: was there — as one Libyan politician had claimed — evidence of a link with al-Qaida?

Rice answered cautiously. “We do not have information at present,” she said “that leads us to conclude that this was premeditated or preplanned.”

Then she added, and do pay attention, conspiracy theorists, because this last bit has eluded some of our esteemed Washington press corps’ deepest thinkers: “It’s clear that there were extremist elements that joined in and escalated the violence. Whether they were al-Qaida affiliates, whether they were Libyan-based extremists or al-Qaida itself, I think is one of the things we’ll have to determine.”

Got that? Contrary to Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Charles Krauthammer, Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham and their many followers in the so-called “mainstream” media, such as Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank and New York Times resident fruitcake Maureen Dowd, Rice never denied that the Benghazi tragedy was a terrorist attack.

Why on earth would she? Why would anybody? Further-more, Rice specifically speculated that al-Qaida might be responsible — not that U.S. intelligence has established a connection even at this late date.

“Meanwhile,” Bob Somerby asks, “why wouldn’t ‘al-Qaida sympathizers’ take part in a spontaneous demonstration over the anti-Muslim video?”

Yet even CBS’ Schieffer has joined the attack. Interviewing the irascible Sen. McCain, Schieffer pointedly endorsed McCain’s highly inaccurate version of Rice’s comments — characterizations directly contradicted by transcripts of his own program.

“The dirty little secret here,” writes the Washington Post’s David Ignatius, “is that our intelligence analysts don’t know, even now, how all these factors came together outside the consulate on the night of September 11 so that the consulate was overrun.”

Alas, the rest of us have come to understand all too well the chronic ineptitude of our nation’s celebrity press corps.

(Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President” (St. Martin’s Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.)

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