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Pompeo Has Been Undermining the State Department Since the Benghazi Investigation
Trump's nominee for secretary of state must answer for the false claims and recycled conspiracies he propagated.
In October 2015, while former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endured 11 hours of public questioning before the House Select Committee on Benghazi, few imagined that the former secretary of state was facing off against one of her potential successors, then-Kansas Republican Rep. Mike Pompeo.
Pompeo was one of the standouts on the committee, and his stated mandate was to understand the attacks on U.S. facilities in Libya and how similar events could be prevented in the future. Yet for Republicans, their explicit target was Clinton — and their work spawned controversies that wounded her candidacy for president and still swirl today.
The Benghazi investigation also had an impact Pompeo may soon come to regret.
Coming after seven other congressional investigations and an independent review co-led by a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the inquiry did not fundamentally change the public’s understanding of the tragedy. Yet by persistently attacking the State Department and questioning its mission, the committee undermined the legitimacy of the institution and the competence of its personnel. The result is a diplomatic corps that is bruised, demoralized, and risk-averse.
As Pompeo prepares to lead the State Department after being nominated by President Donald Trump, it is important to recall his role in the Benghazi investigation and the troubling legacy it left.
The inquiry concluded in June 2016, lasting longer than the investigations into the Kennedy assassination, Pearl Harbor, or the Sept. 11 attacks. Yet after more than two years, 800 pages, 75,000 documents, and interviews with over a hundred witnesses, Pompeo still believed the select committee’s work was incomplete. So he co-authored fifty more pages of “additional views.”
Pompeo’s views are mostly false claims and recycled conspiracies, certainly not offered in the spirit of making the State Department more effective. He insists then-President Barack Obama deliberately misled the American people by attributing the attack to a spontaneous protest in response to an anti-Muslim video that sparked riots across the region. He asserts the Obama team did not do enough to get the military involved, and that the administration stonewalled the investigation.
These claims are easily refuted. Admittedly, the Obama administration’s initial response to the Benghazi attack was confused, not out of any motivation to deceive the public but because the attacks themselves were confusing. In the recent criminal trial against Ahmed Abu Khattala, the Libyan terrorist who was apprehended by the United States in 2014, the government was unable to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that he directed the attack against the Benghazi facility. (Khattala was found guilty of terrorism but not the murder of four Americans.) If the precise circumstances of what transpired that night remain unclear more than five years later, it is no wonder they were confusing in the chaotic hours immediately after.
Second, Pompeo insists that the administration failed to rush military assets to Benghazi even though senior officers repeatedly testified that relevant forces were either unavailable or inappropriate to the evolving conditions on the ground. The Obama administration subsequently deployed specialized forces to protect diplomatic facilities outside war zones following the Benghazi attack — a process that was completed well before the select committee issued its report.
Finally, Pompeo accuses the Obama White House of not cooperating with the select committee, including by preventing interviews with officials who were in the White House Situation Room on the night of the attacks. In fact, the White House provided three witnesses who were there, including one of us (Fishman). Pompeo did not attend any of those lengthy interviews.
Although Pompeo’s views on Benghazi don’t hold up to scrutiny, their legacy persists. For diplomats on the front lines, their broader lesson is to shy away from risk altogether. The costs of brave diplomacy, such as that exemplified by our late colleague Ambassador Chris Stevens, just aren’t worth the political firestorm if something goes wrong. Further, the partisan investigation set the stage for the recent hollowing out of the State Department, with budgets slashed, senior positions unfilled, and experienced ambassadors racing to retire.
The State Department needs a leader who will work to rebuild the institution, fight for its budget, and champion its mission. The good news is Pompeo has studied State’s bureaucracy — during his questioning of Clinton, he claimed to have closely read the department’s “Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review” — and understands the challenges diplomats face abroad. And now that he has some experience as CIA director, perhaps he has new appreciation for the importance of strong diplomacy.
Let’s hope so.
The assault on the State Department didn’t start when Trump took office. It began with the partisan investigation into Benghazi. To be successful in his new role, Pompeo will have to undo the damage he helped create.