Has Benghazi become the Obama administration’s Watergate?

New reports show that the State Department 'extensively edited' talking points about the terrorist attack on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya. Most Americans disapprove of the way President Obama has handled it, presenting the administration with a major political problem.

Joshua Roberts/REUTERS
White House spokesman Jay Carney speaks during a news conference at the White House Friday. Carney denied Republican accusations of a cover-up in last year's deadly attack in Benghazi, Libya, which killed the US ambassador and three other Americans.

What sent Richard Nixon into political disgrace during the time of Watergate was “not the crime, but the cover-up.” Or so historians and pundits have been saying for nearly 40 years.

Smarting ever since, Republicans now are trying to make the same point about the Obama administration’s handling of last year’s terrorist attack on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, when US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

The “cover up” in this case is alleged to be political fiddling with the talking points initially used to describe the attack at a time when President Obama was running for reelection and didn’t need any suggestion that he’d failed on an important national security issue – a point his then-rival Mitt Romney immediately tried to make, which earned the GOP hopeful a wrist-slap from some Republicans.

Democrats and other left-leaning sources are clearly on the defensive, and with good reason.

“Americans are more likely to disapprove than approve of the way President Barack Obama has handled the aftermath of last September's attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and many think that the administration intentionally misled the American people about the attack,” according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll.

The poll found that 42 percent of Americans said they disapprove of the way it has been handled, while 27 percent said they approve, reports Huffington Post.

Not surprisingly, Republicans disapprove 78-4 percent and Democrats approve 56-7 percent. Most troubling for the White House, Independents disapprove by a margin of more than two-to-one (47-19 percent).

As political as the terrorist attack in Benghazi has become, Republicans naturally see campaign ammunition for 2014 and perhaps 2016.

Republican strategist Kyle Downey tells the Associated Press that Benghazi has exposed a trove of Democratic vulnerabilities, which might grow as inquiries continue. For example, he said, Republicans should use the findings to challenge the competence, truthfulness and judgment of 2016 presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton – Secretary of State at the time, who has taken “full responsibility” for the episode.

The drip-drip-drip of trouble for the administration regarding Benghazi continued Friday when ABC News reported State Department e-mails showing that official talking points on the attack were “extensively edited as they evolved from the drafts first written entirely by the CIA to the final version distributed to Congress and to US Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice before she appeared on five talk shows the Sunday after that attack.”

“Summaries of White House and State Department emails … show that the State Department had extensive input into the editing of the talking points,” ABC reported.

In a piece headlined “Spinning Benghazi,” the New Yorker’s Alex Koppelman writes: “For a long time, it seemed like the idea of a cover-up was just a Republican obsession. But now there is something to it.”

“It’s striking to see the twelve different iterations that the talking points went through before they were released to Congress and to United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice,” Koppelman writes. “Over the course of about twenty-four hours, the remarks evolved from something specific and fairly detailed into a bland, vague mush.”

Much of what comes out of political spokesman (and politicians themselves) is spin. But this was about an event in which an American ambassador and others were killed in an apparently preplanned and coordinated attack that revealed failures in intelligence and security preparations.

Left, right, and center, pundits put their own spin on Benghazi.

“Was all this incompetence? Or was it politics disguised as the fog of war? Who called these shots and made these decisions? Who decided to do nothing?” asks Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan. “Will this story ever be completely told? Maybe not. But it's not going to go away, either. It's a prime example of the stupidity of all-politics-all-the-time. You make some bad moves for political reasons. And then you suffer politically because you made bad moves.”

On her MSNBC show Friday night, Rachel Maddow tried to put Benghazi into broader context, citing many Republican scandals and failings.

“One of the challenges for conservatives pushing Benghazi conspiracy theories is the leap of imagination,” Maddow blogged the same day. “In order to actually see the elusive wrongdoing that only Republicans and Fox News can see, one must accept bizarre accusations with no basis in fact… has Fox News convinced you that Barack Obama is an inhuman madman? If yes, then it stands to reason Benghazi is the most important story in the world. If no, this story is about a tragic attack that left four Americans dead, but it's about little else.”

Benghazi certainly was a tragic attack, no matter how its aftermath is spun. But it’s become far more than that.

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