What could be considered separate political issues instead mushroomed into a battle over the conduct of Obama and other administration officials.
On January 15, 2017, five days before he left the presidency, Barack Obama proclaimed, “I’m proud of the fact that, with two weeks to go, we’re probably the first administration in modern history that hasn’t had a major scandal in the White House.” Scandals of the magnitude of the “Great Barbecue” under President Ulysses S. Grant, Teapot Dome under President Warren G. Harding, Watergate under President Richard M. Nixon, or Iran-Contra under President Ronald Reagan did not rock the Obama administration.
Prosecutors indicted only two officials who served in the administration or in Obama’s presidential campaigns. In both cases the infractions occurred after the officials’ service in government had ended and had no relation to their official duties.
In 2015, more than two years after he resigned as CIA Director, David H. Petraeus pleaded guilty to providing classified information to his intimate partner, who was writing a biography of him. In 2016, General James E. “Hoss” Cartwright, whom President George W. Bush appointed Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Obama reappointed, pleaded guilty to falsely denying to the FBI that he had discussed classified information with reporters. The transgression occurred in 2012, a year after Cartwright’s retirement.
As candidate and president, Obama was sufficiently free of personal scandal that his political opponents invented a pseudo-scandal, based on the lie that he was a fraudulent president born outside the United States. Critics have also focused on some alleged scandals that erupted during Obama’s eight years in office.
The Benghazi scandal involved the killing of J. Christopher Stevens, the U.S. Ambassador to Libya, and three other Americans in two diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya. Stevens was the first U.S. ambassador killed overseas in the line of duty since Adolph Dubbs, the American ambassador to Afghanistan in 1979. The Benghazi controversy exploded during the presidential campaign of 2012 and purportedly implicated President Obama tangentially and his high-profile Secretary of State Hillary R. Clinton directly. What could be considered a political issue and an argument about wise or unwise policy and action instead mushroomed into a battle over the conduct of administration officials, who allegedly failed to protect American diplomats and who misled the American people about the origins of the Benghazi attack.
In March 2011, the United States intervened in a civil war in Libya to back the rebels opposing dictator Muammar Gaddafi, who had ruled the country since 1969. America’s military engagement ceased before the year’s end, when rebels toppled Gaddafi’s government. However, absent any central authority, Libya descended into chaos, with bands of armed militias operating without check across the land. Benghazi, Libya’s second largest city, was an epicenter of militia activity. On September 10, 2012, Ambassador Stevens traveled to a State Department compound in Benghazi with the aim of establishing a permanent U.S. presence in this key city. Just three diplomatic security personnel accompanied Stevens. A nearby fortified CIA annex had ten additional security personnel.
On the night of September 11, 2012, eleven years to the day after the 9/11 attacks in the United States, heavily armed members of Islamic militant groups attacked the diplomatic compound in Benghazi. They easily breached the walls of the lightly defended outpost. Officials inside telephoned the U.S. Embassy in the capital of Tripoli, the Diplomatic Security Command Center in Washington, and the CIA annex. The attackers set fire to the compound, killing Ambassador Stevens and Information Management Officer Sean Smith.
Mortar fire had also killed CIA operatives Glen Doherty and Tyrone S. Woods, both former Navy Seals.
For several years, critics lambasted the Obama administration for the Benghazi tragedy. They charged that President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and UN Ambassador Susan E. Rice had tried to disguise the administration’s weak response to terrorism by misrepresenting the attack as a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic video produced by an American freelancer rather than as a terrorist assault. They argued that Secretary Clinton had personally rejected requests for enhanced security in Benghazi and issued a “stand-down” order that delayed the dispatch of rescue forces. During the 2016 presidential election campaign, the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, asserted that Clinton “decided to go home and sleep” after hearing of the attack.
President Obama and Secretary Clinton responded that these charges of scandal were politically motivated and had no basis in fact. But the controversy endured through the presidential campaign of 2016 and prompted ten investigations—one each by the FBI and an independent commission established by the State Department, two by the Democratic-controlled Senate, and six by the Republican-controlled House. The final investigation by the House Select Committee on Benghazi lasted for two years, from 2014 until 2016.
The Obama administration repeatedly cited the results of investigations, which showed no wrongdoing on the part of the President or his Secretary of State. Administration officials said that their early description of the attack as something other than a terrorist operation resulted from faulty CIA intelligence, not a deliberate attempt to mislead the public. Clinton, they noted, worked until late that night dealing with the Benghazi crisis. They said that there was no “stand-down” order and that no American troops could have arrived in Benghazi in time to save the American personnel.
The administration acknowledged that the State Department should have been more responsive to requests for heightened security at Benghazi but that the decisions were made by lower-level officials, not Secretary Clinton. Eric J. Boswell, the Assistant Secretary of State for Diplomatic Security, resigned under pressure, and the State Department suspended three other officials. None was indicted, and none of the investigations recommended criminal charges for any administration official.
Hillary Clinton’s Private Email Server
The U.S. House’s Benghazi hearings revealed that Secretary of State Clinton had used a private email server for both personal and official business correspondence. The email controversy plagued Clinton throughout her 2016 campaign for the presidency.
Critics charged that Clinton had sought to avoid transparency and had recklessly exposed classified information to foreign hackers. On March 27, 2016, Washington Post reporter Robert O’Harrow, Jr., wrote that Clinton and her staff “paid insufficient attention to laws and regulations governing the handling of classified material and the preservation of government records, interviews and documents show. They also neglected repeated warnings about the security of the BlackBerry while Clinton and her closest aides took obvious security risks in using her basement server.”
The email controversy received more coverage in the mainstream media than any other topic in the 2016 campaign. It prompted investigations by the FBI, the State Department’s Inspector General, and the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which heard eight hours of testimony by Clinton in a one-day marathon session.
A May 2016 report by the State Department’s Inspector General found that Clinton had violated State Department procedures, had not received official authorization for her use of a private email server, and had not appropriately ensured the security of her work emails. However, the report found no evidence of criminal conduct.
On July 5, 2016, FBI Director James B. Comey, Jr., released the results of an FBI investigation. He announced that while “there is evidence of potential violations” of criminal statutes covering the mishandling of classified information, “our judgment is that no reasonable prosecutor would bring such a case.” In a nearly unprecedented public discussion of the decision not to level any criminal charges against Clinton, Comey publicly castigated her, saying, “Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.”
Then, just eleven days before the election, he reported the reopening of the Clinton investigation based on emails discovered in the computer of former U.S. Representative Anthony D. Weiner, whose wife was an aide to Hillary Clinton. Two days before the election, Comey said that the new email review had not changed the FBI’s recommendation against prosecution.
Republican presidential candidate Trump and his campaign team assailed Comey for not recommending Clinton’s indictment and charged that political bias had tainted the FBI investigation. At campaign rallies and the Republican National Convention, Trump and his surrogates led anti-Clinton chants of “Lock her-up!” In reference to purportedly private emails that Clinton had not turned over to the government, Trump said in July 2016, “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing. I think you will probably be rewarded mightily by our press.”
A final June 2018 report of the FBI’s Inspector General concluded that the FBI had conducted a thorough, good-faith investigation and reached the right conclusion untainted by political considerations. The report criticized FBI agents Peter P. Strzok II and Lisa Page for exchanging their own emails critical of Trump, which gave the appearance of political bias, although it found that their political views did not influence the investigation. The report chastised Director Comey for unilaterally deciding to criticize Clinton publicly and for releasing his letter reopening the investigation shortly before the 2016 election.
President Obama had a minimal role in dealing with the email fallout. He said that he did not know about the private email server until its public revelation. In a Fox News Sunday interview on April 10, 2016, he defended Clinton, saying, “Hillary Clinton was an outstanding Secretary of State. She would never intentionally put America in any kind of jeopardy.” He added, “There’s a carelessness, in terms of managing emails, that she has owned, and she recognizes. But I also think it is important to keep this in perspective.” He guaranteed that he would not interfere with ongoing investigations into her private email server.
Clinton’s use of a private email server raised serious issues. It violated federal regulations and put in jeopardy the preservation of official records. Although investigators uncovered no evidence of foreign hacking, the reliance on the private server at least posed the risk of such a security breach. However, the matter became overblown because of Clinton’s candidacy, her inability to put the issue to rest, and the relentless attack strategy of her political opponents.
Copyright © 2019 by The New Press. Adapted from a longer essay which originally appeared in Presidential Misconduct: From George Washington to Today, edited by James M. Banner, Jr. Published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.