Benghazi Cover Up? How the Petraeus Affair Feeds the Paranoid Style in American Politics


On Sunday’s Face the Nation, Senator Lindsay Graham insisted that former CIA Director David Petraeus testify at the Benghazi hearings in Congress this week despite his abrupt resignation due to an affair he had with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. It was just the latest straw at which Republicans are grasping in their attempt to paint September's deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Libya as the next Watergate. 

Fox News has taken to referring to the Benghazi incident as the "Benghazi cover-up" by default — despite the fact that the evidence has not sufficiently established a cover-up has indeed taken place. Nothing more than a confused timeline and a lot of unclear details in the hours immediately following the attack have been proven yet.

Of course, with a Congressional hearing to take place starting Wednesday and other questionable events kept under wraps during the election, it would be premature to dismiss these concerns entirely. But when several Republican leaders have already been calling this worse than Watergate without any substantiated proof, or when the CIA director resigns as a result of an extramarital affair and it becomes just another red flag in their narrative, it begs the question: how much of this suspicion and paranoia is just for the sake of political leverage? Or, conversely, are these trends evidence of a real paranoia in the Republican Party?

In the 1960s, historian Richard Hofstadter wrote about the tradition he called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” While he admits it is not exclusive to the right wing, he discusses it in connection with the conservative movements of his own time, particularly McCarthyism. In the essay, Hofstadter traces the cause of the paranoia to a feeling of dispossession. “America has largely been taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess and prevent the final destructive act of subversion,” he writes. After the re-election of Obama, it seems that Hofstadter could have seen Bill O’Reilly’s rant on the death of the white establishment himself.

Once this feeling of dispossession becomes a motivating force, the paranoid looks to almost every historical event as part of a vast conspiracy. The enemy is given almost omnipotent qualities: “he wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history itself.” He also has access to a very effective means of control, such as controlling the press or “directing the public mind through ‘managed news.’” This sounds several parallels with the conservative news outlets’ narratives on Benghazi. Obama, stopping at nothing to be re-elected, abused executive power to control the information available to the public after Benghazi. Sources report that the administration was watching in real time and ordered CIA operators to stand down (that is, not help those on the ground) — the implication being that they endangered the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three others for political ends. They were not told to stand down because those higher in command were unclear on details and did not want to endanger even more lives, as Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta contended; they were told to stand down as part of the political agenda of the Obama administration. Such a tidy presentation of the facts leaves no room for the possibility of actual confusion and earnest mistakes in the time immediately after the attack, which would otherwise seem like the likeliest scenario.

There are countless other manifestations of this paranoia; we’ve seen some of the strongest examples this election season. Jack Welch accused the Obama administration of ‘cooking the books’ after unusually positive jobs numbers (though to be fair, one of Obama’s top economic advisers did the same while Bush was in office). When I read some commentators’ descriptions of Obama’s political background, I hear a lot of allusions to sleazy, back-room, Tammany Hall-style operations; I often hear the term “the Chicago machine.” But Fox and other conservative outlets have so elaborated their cover-up theory that it has essentially become fact among the conservative commentariat and their consumers.

Which leads me to another one of the paranoid’s trademarks according to Hofstadter. “The singular thing about all of this laborious work is that the passion for factual evidence does not (…) have the effect of putting the paranoid spokesman into effective two-way communication with the world outside his group — least of all with those who doubt his views.” Fox News and sites like Drudge Report, Breitbart, and Red State function as forums for the development of these conspiracy theories, automatically presenting the series of events in Benghazi as a cover-up without room for other possibilities.

I would like to see General Petraeus testify in the hearings despite his resignation, but only for the sake of quieting the cover-up theories being propagated. But I also think there is nothing he could say to quiet them; it seems that their failure to come up with a decisive answer on what happened only further inflames their frustration, only drives them to smaller and smaller details of how things may have unfolded. It has turned every Republican into an expert on intelligence operations. And now that the Broadwell affair has thickened the plot, we can expect questions more and more specific to the point of irrelevance on the FBI investigation that led to the discovery of the affair.

It seems pretty obvious to me that details were indeed covered up — but probably for intelligence reasons, not political ones. It is unclear to me why an administration running for re-election would prefer an ambassador and Navy SEALs die rather than try to prevent it in any way. I also think blaming something on a YouTube video rather than a terrorist attack looks infinitely more embarrassing than admitting the attack was an act of terrorism. But in the paranoid style of American politics, none of this really seems to matter.