It may not be Rule #1 at the highest levels of federal government, but it's certainly in the Top 10, and it goes something like this: if a recent event or scandal promises to unveil something that may be particularly embarrassing, change the narrative.
We saw that a couple of days ago, when Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign decided that the waning days of July would be a great time to release some recent income tax returns and a note from her doctor, assuring everyone that Mrs. Clinton is physically ready for the rigors of the presidency. Why the sudden document drop? It was a desperate move to change the meme. With the e-mail scandal heating up again--amid disclosures that a number of e-mails sent over her private server contains classified information--Team Clinton was looking for something that would push the e-mail controversy to the back burner.
So far, that strategy hasn't worked, but it doesn't mean the former Secretary of State and her handlers won't stop trying. And other bureaucrats will give it a shot as well. If you need proof, look no further than the on-going investigation into the recent shootings at a military recruiting office and naval reserve center in Chattanooga, Tennessee which killed four Marines and one sailor.
Barely two weeks after the rampage, many are wondering why the FBI (and other participating agencies) won't acknowledge the obvious--namely, that gunman Mohammed Abdulazeez was a lone-wolf terrorist, radicalized by the rants of former Al Qaida cleric Anwar Al-Awlaki, whose sermons he downloaded and listened to in the months leading up to the Chattanooga attack. The Obama Administration's reluctance to label it as terror was hardly surprising; after all, this is the same group that described the 2009 Fort Hood massacre as "workplace violence."
But in the last 24 hours or so, the Chattanooga investigation has taken a sudden and rather bizarre turn. While federal agents are still investigating Abdulazeez and his motives, there is a new element in the case which has left many observes stunned and furious.
This latest twist has nothing to do with the shooter, his religion and what led him to open fire on the recruiting office complex and naval reserve center. In fact, the latest element focuses on an individual who should be hailed as a hero--a man whose actions may have saved countless lives in the terrible moments when Abdulazeez crashed his rental car through a gate at the reserve base and began opening fire.
We refer to Navy Lieutenant Commander Randy White, identified as the commander of the reserve center. According to press accounts, Commander White and a Marine tried to defend the complex, returning fire with their personal weapons. For their actions, they deserve the Navy-Marine Corps Medal (at a minimum), but instead, White may be facing disciplinary action for discharging a weapon on federal property.
Retired Army Lieutenant Colonel (and former Congressman) Allen West was the first to break the news, based on information from sources within DoD. Since the base is technically a "gun free zone" (except for security forces and others authorized to bear arms), Commander White was violating federal laws when he tried to defend his command. The Marine who returned fire was (reportedly) one of those killed and so far, the Pentagon has been careful not to smear the reputation of a fallen hero.
But the real question is why? To be fair, any investigation of this type must take a look at how base personnel responded to the attack, and determine its impact on how events unfolded. But hints that Lieutenant Commander White is facing possible charges are not only premature, they suggest another motive may also be a work.
Predictably, social media erupted when news of White's legal troubles surfaced, and it's a fair bet that conservative print and broadcast outlets won't be far behind. But why pick a fight with pro-military and veterans' groups that are already leaping to the commander's defense? It's a confrontation that DoD (and their bosses in the White House) are bound to lose, but they seem determined to play that card, no matter what the cost.
And that brings us back to changing the narrative. By suggesting that Lieutenant Commander White may be facing charges, senior government officials have successfully changed the focus of the Chattanooga investigation, at least temporarily. That should make everyone wonder what new revelations are about to drop, in terms of the shooter's travels and affiliations, and security measures in place at the reserve center at the time of the attack.
As we learned in the days followed the shooting, the reserve base was a largely undefended target, putting sailors and Marines at risk. Abdulazeez was able to crash through an unmanned gate at the facility and open fire. To date, DoD has said nothing about why the gate was secured with nothing more than a chain and a padlock, and the tepid response of base security personnel. It was Lieutenant Commander White and that unidentified Marine returned who fire from inside the perimeter and it was the Chattanooga Police Department--in pursuit of the suspect--who finally cornered Abdulazeez and shot him dead. Base security--based on what we have learned so far--was AWOL.
Keep an eye on the Navy's "prosecution" of Randy White in the weeks ahead. It will provide a convenient distraction while far more serious revelations about the attack dribble out. Sad to say, but it won't be the first time the feds have sought a scapegoat in a terrorist strike against the U.S. military. In the aftermath of the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, much of the attention focused on Air Force Brigadier General Terry Schwailer, the on-scene commander at the time of the attack.
General Schwailer was preparing to relinquish command to his successor when the massive truck bomb went off outside a dormitory housing USAF personnel, killing 19 airmen and wounding dozens more. The official U.S. inquiry, led by retired Army General Wayne Downing, claimed that Schwailer should have done more to prepare for a possible attack. At the time, many observers (including your humble correspondent) felt that General Downing delivered a fair assessment. But over time, it became clear that the Downing investigation was influenced by political pressure from Washington, and the final report was clearly a rush to judgment.
As the designated scapegoat for Khobar, Schwailer paid a steep price: his name was removed from the promotion list for major general and he retired as a one-star. Over the past 20 years, he has waged a protracted, expensive and (to date) futile effort to clear his name. The victims and their families were also denied justice; for years the Clinton Administration ignored evidence of direct Iranian involvement. It wasn't until 2006--a decade after the attack--that a federal judge ruled that Iranian officials were behind the plot, and allowed the victims and their families to seek damages from the Tehran government.
Why was Bill Clinton so reluctant to put the blame where in belonged? Because that would mean keeping a promise to launch military action against those responsible. Clearly, Mr. Clinton wasn't prepared to attack Iran, so evidence of Tehran's culpability was suppressed for years. In the interim, the military's focus on the actions of General Schwailer provided a convenient distraction.
Twenty years later, the same scenario may be playing out again. The government clearly knows more about the Chattanooga attack than it has shared with the public and some of those details may be damning. So, it's time to go after a military guy and change the narrative again.
More on the vindication of General Schwailer from 2008. While a military corrections board ruled he was treated unfairly and should have received his second star, the government challenged that ruling and so far, the courts have sided with the feds.