Washington was just starting to wade through its Watergate sewer in the summer of 1973 when Sen. Howard Baker, the Republican from Tennessee, summarized for the ages The Question that ultimately rises to the top of all worthwhile Washington scandals:
"What did the president know and when did he know it?"
Now, in the shambles of forgotten facts and fatuous gasbagging that followed this fall's Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate's building and annex in Benghazi, Libya, in which four Americans died including exceptional U.S. ambassador Chris Stevens, we must ask an adaptation of that question.
And we must ask it not just about our president, but also about ourselves: "What did we know and when did we know it? And why don't we know (even now) what we knew and when we knew it?"
As the Senate and House intelligence committees scramble belatedly to do the work they left undone helter-skelter of their fall campaigning -- and as some journalists finally scramble to piece together key facts they assume they are learning for the first time -- here is an untold truth that needs to be told: A lot of what we will be discussing will strike you as news of vital intelligence info. But it really isn't news -- because it isn't new. We knew it in mid-October (or could have known it if we'd found where to read it). And we could have known it just after the Benghazi tragedy. For it was there to be journalistically gathered and reported, just like America's intelligence specialists were assumed to be doing.
On the evening of Oct. 15, the website of what I consider America's finest newspaper, The New York Times, published a terrific story, datelined Cairo, by David D. Kirkpatrick.
It presented info about the Benghazi attackers that seemed like what CIA and other intel intelligentsia must have gathered at the time of the attack (and after) and funneled to decision-makers including President Barack Obama.
But there are two reasons you may not have thought this fact-filled report was big front-page news: First, on the website and in the newspaper the next morning, it was labeled "Memo from the Middle East" and had an un-newsy analytical lead. Second, the next morning's newspaper ran it not on Page 1 but A6.
But read the facts presented in the story and it will strike you as newsworthy even now. Especially after you've heard months of accusations from Republicans that the White House, the president and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice were wrong to keep suggesting it may have started as a protest over an anti-Muslim video.
Kirkpatrick's news-filled story quoted interviews with Libyans who were at the consulate while the attack was under way, and the reporting of a Libyan journalist who worked for The Times. It reported:
1. The armed attackers were members of a local Islamist militant group, Ansar al-Shariah, which is aligned with al-Qaida. Some identified themselves as members of this group.
2. The armed fighters didn't come to protest, they came to attack -- and did.
3. But the fighters also said during the attack they were angry at the video. Some gave it as their reason for attacking.
"To Libyans who witnessed the assault and know the attackers, there is little doubt what occurred: a well-known group of local Islamist militants struck without any warning or protest, and they did it in retaliation for the video," The Times article reported.
But back in the USA, some Republican partisans quickly transformed the Benghazi tragedy into political attack theater.
The Benghazi attackers' outspoken anger over the video could explain why, for days, the CIA and other U.S. intelligence didn't rule out the possibility it all began as an anti-video protest -- even though the terrorists were well armed.
Indeed, the CIA's daily briefing to the president reportedly didn't rule out that possibility for some time. If the CIA vacuums had collected what The Times gathered, those vehement Republican denunciations probably should have been aimed not at Obama, et al, but at their hero, then-CIA Director David Petraeus.
And finally: Ask yourself how Washington's angry venting might have been changed if, on Oct. 16, The New York Times had treated Kirkpatrick's excellent report as a big hard news story, displayed in the upper right-hand corner of its front page for all to see.
(Martin Schram writes political analysis for Scripps Howard News Service.)