Emotional testimony from a top diplomat who was in Tripoli, Libya, during the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi made it clear Wednesday that the White House misled the public by not immediately calling it what it was -- an organized act of terrorism.
Obscuring the truth for partisan political advantage during a re-election campaign is atrocious behavior unbefitting any American president. And that bad faith was compounded if Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission in Libya, was demoted for questioning the initial account, as he claimed in testimony in the House of Representatives.
Hicks said "my jaw dropped and I was embarrassed" when he heard United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice on Sunday talk shows four days after the Sept. 11, 2012, attack, insisting the violence grew out of a spontaneous anti-American protest sparked by a video that disparaged Islam.
That differed from what Hicks said Ambassador Chris Stevens told him in a phone conversation from Benghazi in the moments before Stevens died. He said the consulate was under attack, Hicks said. And Rice's account was also contradicted by a top Libyan official who said on television that same Sunday that the attack was a planned action by militants. President Barack Obama subsequently acknowledged it was an organized terrorist assault. But the initial misrepresentation, Hicks testified, delayed the FBI's ability to investigate what happened.
Republicans in Congress have made a determined and appropriate effort to get to the bottom of this matter, but they risk turning off the public with their hyperbolic and hyperpartisan approach. Dark intimations that the administration could have saved the lives of Stevens and three others killed that day if it had responded differently once the consulate was under siege is Monday-morning quarterbacking at its worst.
These hearings should be about finding out what went wrong, making sure career state department officers are not punished for their cooperation, and ensuring that our embassies and outposts have enough security resources. It's not about the 2016 election.
This partisan fight over Republican and Democratic versions of the facts undermines the compelling need to improve the safety of career foreign service representatives. Diplomatic postings in unstable nations are inherently dangerous. But if security concerns isolate our emissaries from the native populace, they won't be able to do their jobs. A delicate balance between safety and accessibility is needed, and after Benghazi, how much security is enough must be re-evaluated.
The Accountability Review Board created to investigate the attack made 24 recommendations, and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered all of them implemented. The steps included relying less on host governments for security, sending more U.S. Marine guards to the nation's missions and assigning a State Department official to oversee high-threat posts. The White House must see that officials follow through, and Congress has to provide funding so effort won't flag.
Rather than bombast and political gamesmanship from both parties, what's needed here is sober fact-finding and reform to protect the lives of the nation's diplomats.