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Right Mauls Hillary Clinton Over Envoy's Murder in Benghazi

Right Mauls Hillary Clinton Over Envoy's Murder in Benghazi

By Toby Harnden - May 13, 2013

In a temporary office beside a shopping mall in northern Virginia, half a dozen young Republican operatives were hunched over their computers as the House oversight committee questioned witnesses about last September’s deadly attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.

Their focus was on one person: Hillary Clinton. As the testimony implicated the former US secretary of state in an alleged effort to cover up what led to the murder of Christopher Stevens, the ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans, the operatives sprang into action.

“At the key moments we downloaded it, cut it, threw it up on [the blogging platform] Tumblr and posted it on YouTube,” said Joe Pounder. “It takes two minutes and all of a sudden it’s out there.” All four videos were about Clinton.

After last week’s hearing Pounder — whose name befits his reputation as a hard-charging “oppo” (opposition research) specialist — also made a two-minute video juxtaposing Clinton’s testimony in January and that of three State Department witnesses contradicting her. It went viral.

Pounder is co-founder of America Rising, along with Matt Rhoades, Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign manager, and Tim Miller, former spokesman for the Republican National Committee. The group is dedicated to amassing material to use against Democrats across the country.

Their top target right now is Clinton, the overwhelming favourite to secure the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. “We want to fill the void on the right between now and when she has a political operation up and running,” said Miller.

Clinton left the State Department in January after four years away from the maelstrom of domestic politics, enveloped in a warm cloak of bipartisan goodwill and a 69% approval rating. But Republicans now sense she is vulnerable on Benghazi and want to capitalise by redefining her tenure as America’s top diplomat.

“Her time as secretary of state was very nebulous,” said Miller. “There’s a vague sense of her being an ambassador flying around the world, people seemed to like her, but there was no tangible achievement. The only tangible thing people will remember is Benghazi.”

Last week’s riveting testimony by Gregory Hicks, deputy to Stevens in Tripoli, and two colleagues propelled questions about Benghazi, previously a preoccupation of the right, into the political mainstream.

In addition, leaked emails showed that the White House and the State Department altered “talking points” drawn up by the CIA and blamed the attack not on al-Qaeda-linked terrorists but on demonstrators protesting against a crude anti-Islam video made in California.

Clinton’s spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, citing “issues” of “my building’s leadership”, insisted on amendments so the talking points made no mention of al-Qaeda or CIA warnings about inadequate security at the Benghazi consulate.

Hicks, his voice cracking with emotion, recounted how he was told not to talk to a Republican congressman who was visiting Tripoli to investigate the attack. After he did so, without a State Department lawyer who had been sent to sit in on such meetings, he received a call from Cheryl Mills, Clinton’s chief of staff, who was “upset” and demanded a report on the visit.

Republicans accuse Democrats of a cover-up designed to protect both President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign and Clinton’s probable bid to succeed him in 2016.

The growing furore over Benghazi has brought back memories of the rancorous battles surrounding the scandals of President Bill Clinton’s tenure in the White House from 1993 to 2001, when Mills was one of the fiercest protectors of the Clintons.

After her name emerged at the hearing, Philippe Reines, a Hillary Clinton spokesman and adviser, emailed reporters insisting that the lawyer had been sent for the “protection and comfort” of diplomats and Mills had called only because she had heard some had been “unsettled by their interactions” with the congressman.

Mills, he maintained, was simply “taking a moment to talk to the people on the ground . . . making sure they’re OK”.

Hicks, who claims he has been demoted for speaking out about Benghazi, is hard to discredit, however. A diplomat for 22 years, he voted for Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary and for Obama in the presidential election.

David Bossie, a former congressional investigator who was pitted against the Clintons in the 1990s, said: “Cheryl Mills was an enforcer, a leader of the Clinton obstruction machine and a lawyer and gatekeeper within the White House.

“You didn’t get any closer to the Clintons than her. We now understand that after Benghazi Hillary Clinton was trying to keep a lid on what the American people had a right to know.”

Footage of Clinton asking indignantly in January “what difference does it make” whether Americans were killed because of “a protest” or some other reason is certain to appear in 2016 attack adverts.

For their part, Democrats are invoking the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that Hillary Clinton had alleged in 1998 during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, portraying the Benghazi questions as a witch-hunt.

“The idea that Hillary-hating ever went away is insane,” James Carville, Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign manager, told the website Politico. “It was just dormant.”

Ironically, a tell-all ebook by a former Romney adviser to be published this week argues that the Republican lost to Obama last November in part because of his clumsy reaction to the Benghazi tragedy.

Gabriel Schoenfeld, in A Bad Day on the Romney Campaign, writes that Romney’s statements after the attack “left the candidate naked, embarrassed and disarmed”.

Jonathan Collegio, spokesman for American Crossroads, a group led by Karl Rove, former top aide to President George W Bush, argued that last week’s hearing was a turning point and Republicans were no longer pulling their punches about the Benghazi affair.

American Crossroads, he said, had released an advertisement attacking Clinton over Benghazi because it was an issue that could resurrect her 1990s image as a polarising figure. “It brings back all of the worst aspects of the Clintons but in a much more serious context than Lewinsky or arcane real estate deals."

“People died and while that was happening it looks like she was trying to protect her own legacy at the State Department.” 

 

Toby Harnden is the Washington bureau chief of The Sunday Times. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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