Red Herrings in the The Clinton/Johnson Exchange over Benghazi

Senator Lindsay Graham recently commented in an interview with Fox Television that Mrs. Clinton “got away with murder” during the ten hours of grilling she endured before the country’s best and brightest.    He said too that she is “very good on her feet deflecting these questions.”  How so?  Deliberate analysis reveals the art of Mrs. Clinton’s dodging.  To wit: we may boil down the whole exchange above to two basic questions and a bucket full of distortions:

  • Senator Johnson: Were you fully aware in real-time – again, I realize how big your job is and everything’s erupting in the Middle East at this time – were you fully aware of these 20 incidents reported in the ARB in real-time?
  • Secretary Clinton: I was aware of the ones that were brought to my attention.

Notice that the question has been avoided to a degree; this is called in logic a red herring–a fish dragged across the path to throw a dog off the scent.  Of course, we may be charitable and assume that Mrs. Clinton is trying to allow that she did not know about all of the 20 incidents reported in the ARB.  But her non-specific answer leaves open the possibility that she had been made aware of none of the incidents at all.  By thus avoiding specifics, any variance with the truth is less likely to be revealed.   Next:

  • Senator Johnson: The point I’m making is:  A very simple phone call to these individuals…would have ascertained immediately that there was no protest prior to [the attack]…Why, wasn’t that known and…do you disagree with me that a simple phone call to those evacuees to determine what happened would have ascertained immediately that there was no protest?
  •  Secretary Clinton: With all due respect, the fact is:  We had four dead Americans…Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk one night and [they] decided they’d go kill some Americans. What difference – at this point, what difference does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened and do everything that we can to prevent it from ever happening again, Senator.

This is where the bucket comes in.  First: “We had four dead Americans…” is, a red herring appeal to authority.  Mrs. Clinton is saying in effect, “Sir, duty required more of me than wondering about how this attack started.”

Second, instead of answering the question put to her, Mrs. Clinton asks a question in return:  “What difference does it make at this point?”  Here the distortion is two-fold.  Mrs. Clinton is accusing Senator Johnson of being overwrought, focused on things that don’t matter.  This is an ad hominem red herring–attacking the questioner, rather than dealing with his question.

Mrs. Clinton also allows that the events leading up to the Benghazi attack are too far removed from current events to be relevant–water under the bridge, if you will.  But then she immediately reasserts that it “is”–present tense“our job to figure out what happened.”

This sort of double talk is a contradiction in itself, but a calculated one, I suspect.  For had the Secretary said only: “What difference does it make?” the Senator might well have replied, “Well, ma’am, it makes a very big difference to me; I’m trying to figure out how this protest story came to be, and how it was trumpeted for so long when there was NO evidence to support it. ”

But because Secretary Clinton immediately allows that it is indeed her job to figure out what happened–again, notice the tenses–Senator Johnson is forced to sort out, at least in his own mind, yet another contradiction.  The purpose of such bold sophistry is to throw the questioner off balance.  And it appears that the technique worked, because Senator Johnson offered no follow-up after this exchange.

One hopes that such unflattering analysis of Mrs. Clinton’s verbal maneuverings may be proven wrong.  But I would not count on this.  As my father has said, “When you’ve got a bad apple…you’ve got a bad apple.”  Or if I may paraphrase:  When you’ve got a red herring…you’ve got a red herring.


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