Last evening in Manhattan, Senator John McCain met with supporters of a new center named in his honor called the John McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University. McCain spoke and displayed all of the maverick, straight talk qualities that have both propelled his political career and made him a frustrating partner to many in both parties who have wanted him to either be a cookie cutter conservative or a progressive in GOP attire.
McCain said nothing that would surprise those who know him. He said that the Senate and GOP had to move forward on immigration and that the border control issue was being robustly addressed. He said that these contentious bills of the day probably needed to be wrapped up in a grand bargain that included Republicans compromising on raising new tax revenue and Obama and Democrats conceding that entitlement programs had to be transformed and redirected on to sustainable paths. He said that in his entire political career, he had not seen the temperature on an issue so hot as on the post-Newtown gun legislation. One of his key aides pulled me aside and reminded me that McCain had offered in the past an even stronger version of background checks legislation than the Manchin-Toomey version that recently failed in the Senate but may be back.
Last night, John McCain was the Republican that both Democrats and Independents actually do love, way deep down, even as they publicly deny it. When McCain is speaking truths that he did last night, he is tough to resist. The bottom line is that had John McCain not befuddled his brand with Sarah Palin, many MSNBC watchers could have lived with the presidential version of John McCain they heard last night.
And then Senator McCain said to the assembled wealthy blown away by the effusive radical centrism they had just heard, “Watch the Benghazi hearings tomorrow. They will be interesting.”
McCain and Senator Lindsey Graham have locked their jaws on the Obama administration’s management of the terrorist attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and the way information was released afterward. The Senators have asserted that the administration is covering up key details of the attack and charge dereliction of leadership and responsibility against both the President and then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
I have reviewed the Benghazi timelines that conservatives Stephen Hayes and Doug Ross have put together, watched the hearings in which Hillary Clinton prevailed for the most part over theatrically overperforming Senators, and with many, mourned the tragic loss of a great man, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, and three other Americans.
At most, until now, what I have mostly seen in the material is partisan posturing exploiting a real tragedy. The State Department is under-resourced on security, and the GOP has been a key part of keeping the diplomatic accounts far too lean both in terms of core security and in terms of supporting the vital forward-directed diplomatic needs America has in convulsive but important parts of the world today.
It’s clear to me that the Department of State still has byzantine silos and corridors that inhibit fast flow of information and decision-making, and this deserves scrutiny, rebuke, and demands remedy. And while I think that there is no evidence at all that Ambassador Susan Rice manipulated anything and actually performed well, speaking the scripts being handed her by those concerned about revealing U.S. intelligence assets, there also is an obsessiveness about secrecy inside presidential administrations — whether run by Democratic or Republican presidents — that corrodes public trust and undermines some aspects of our form of democracy. It was White House and CIA worry about acknowledging the intelligence assets and contractors in place that resulted in what some on the political right have wrongly framed as ‘lies to the nation.”
But then all of a sudden, the former Deputy Chief of Mission in the U.S. Embassy in Libya, Gregory Hicks, has emerged with a story of his own — outlining requests made on his end for the movement of a U.S. Special Forces unit that he says was blocked. In testimony that has already been released, Hicks makes clear that the unit could not have prevented the loss of life that unfolded. Bret Bair of Fox News has apparently reported that he heard that the Special Forces units could have intervened and made a difference — a matter now in dispute.
But where Hicks, who has all of a sudden found himself embraced by many conservative political action operatives, is absolutely right is that the unit could have helped provide aid and helped to stand off any further terrorist action against U.S. or allied personnel in Benghazi beyond what occurred. One did not necessarily know when or how the conflict would end — others could have perished that night even if the Special Forces personnel would have not mattered in the first two phases of the siege.
Hicks matters not because his testimony reveals that the outcome on the ground per se would have been any different. He matters because none of us knew about his requests or role until a few days ago.
That is unacceptable. I don’t know Hicks, but he has a distinguished record of service. Thus far, his account — which will be discussed at length today in U.S. Senate hearings — has largely been substantiated by spokespeople for the Pentagon and Department of State. He may be angry and wants to set history right about what happened, when. I don’t blame him for this at all and hope that he manages a judiciousness in his commentary that helps the public achieve what it deserves — the truth.
But the administration needs to step back and ask how is it that Hicks, no matter what his story might have been, was never offered as part of the story. He is sharing nothing I yet see that would have changed the outcome on the ground.
Obsessive executive branch secrecy is a problem for the country — and the White House has been caught by John McCain and Lindsey Graham when there was no reason at all that this needed to be the case.
— Steve Clemons is editor at large of The Atlantic and also serves as editor at large of Quartz, a new digitally native news outlet for the new global economy. Clemons also publishes The Washington Note and is founder of and senior fellow at the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program. A version of this article first appeared in The Atlantic.