Ray Maxwell has a helluva story: Hillary Clinton’s most senior aides participated in a Benghazi cover-up. Maxwell says he knows because he was there. Proving or disproving his allegations will be an uncertain task. People will claim he is nothing more than a disgruntled employee with an agenda. I don’t think that’s true. Because I was once in his place.
Raymond Maxwell was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, covering Libya. Soon after Ambassador Chris Stevens and others were killed in Benghazi, Maxwell participated in a secret Sunday session, he says, where Clinton aides Cheryl Mills and Jake Sullivan oversaw a document review with the aim to “pull out anything that might put anybody in the front office or the seventh floor in a bad light.” (“Seventh floor” is slang for the Secretary of State.)
As the House Select Committee on Benghazi held its first hearing Wednesday, the focus was on the Secretary of State’s role in securing American embassies and consulates abroad. Maxwell did not testify, and may or may not be eventually called to speak publicly to the Committee, but his allegations loom in the background.
I’ve met Maxwell and talked with him, though he did not confide in me. When you join State, you serve whomever is in the White House, and like myself Maxwell worked from Reagan through Obama. “For any Foreign Service Officer, being at work is the essence of everything,” Maxwell told a reporter after he was ultimately pushed into an early retirement following State’s internal review of the Benghazi debacle. In 2013, Maxwell spoke to the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Oversight Committee yet kept quiet about the bombshell information. Maxwell impresses as a State Department archetype, dedicated to the insular institution, apolitical to the point of frustration to an outsider, but shocked when he found his loyalty was not returned.
He has revealed what he knows only two years after the fact. People will say he is out for revenge. But I don’t think that’s the case. As a State Department whistleblower who experienced how the Department treats such people, I know it’s not a position anyone wants to be in.
My own whistleblowing seems minor compared to something that might alter the race for the presidency. With 22 years at State, I spent 12 months leading two Provincial Reconstruction Teams in Iraq. The staggering incompetence and waste of taxpayer money I saw, coupled with the near-complete lack of interest I found at the Department while trying to “go through channels,” led me to write a book exposing it all. The response was devastating: my security clearance was pulled; my case was sent to the Department of Justice for prosecution; I was frog-marched out of my office and forbidden to enter any State Department facility; I was placed on a Secret Service watch list as a potential threat to Mrs. Clinton; the pension I earned over a long career was threatened; and only after the intercession of some of the lawyers now representing Edward Snowden was I “allowed” to retire. My case appeared in Glenn Greenwald’s column. All over a book that discussed history and named no names.
For whistleblowers to go public, there is a calculus of pain and gain, and working it out takes time. You try to go through channels: Congressman Jason Chaffetz says Maxwell first told lawmakers his full story privately some time ago. Then you wait in hopes that the information will come out without you, that someone else might speak up first; you hint at the truth, hoping someone will take the bait, but instead see faux investigations and bleats about “it’s just politics” further bury it.
There was a two-year gap between much of what I saw in Iraq and my public coming out. The same was true for Snowden and other whistleblowers. You don’t just wake up one morning and decide to turn your own life, and that of your family, upside down, risking financial ruin, public shaming, and possibly jail time. It is a process, not an event. You have to wonder what your fate will be once the media grows bored with your story, how far your actions will follow you. Fear travels with you on your journey of conscience. In my case, I was ignorant of what would happen once I blew the whistle. Ray Maxwell had examples to learn from. He likely calculated he needed to retire securely from State before taking Team Clinton head-on.
Now of course much of this is politics, in all its forms, though non-political questions about Benghazi still exist, especially as America resumes war in Iraq with its largest embassy vulnerable. Politics still does matter and is indeed inevitable, as the measure of candidates needs to be taken. Among other things, their view of whistleblowers is important.
Document reviews at State following a significant event are not unheard of; an affected office needs to recap how it got to where it is. Conducting such a review in secret, on a Sunday, with some of the Secretary’s most senior advisors personally overseeing things, is in fact unheard of. The details of Maxwell’s story ring true, the place, the procedures. Checks of State Department entry and exit records and room use requests should establish the basic facts. Proving what happened at that document review will be much, much harder and will focus in large part on Maxwell’s own credibility.
Is Maxwell a disgruntled employee with an agenda? Possibly, but whistleblowers act on conscience, not revenge; the cost is too high for that, and in this day revenge is available much cheaper via a leak or as an unnamed source. Going public and disgruntlement often coincide but are not necessarily causally connected. Knowing the right thing to do is easier than summoning the courage and aligning one’s life to step up and do it.
I think Ray Maxwell is credible. I don’t think his timing suggests he is not. We’ll see, paraphrasing Clinton’s own words on Benghazi, if it really matters anymore, and what difference it does make.
Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. His new book, Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent, is available now.