Among the unsung victims of the September 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi was the First Amendment.
To protect its fragile narrative that an anti-Muslim video had agitated a Libyan crowd into attacking the consulate, the Obama White House and its allies set out to identify and punish the maker of that video, and this they did with a speed and severity that the attackers themselves were spared. Scarier still, to the degree the major media noticed, they cheered.
In a phone conversation I had with video maker Nakoula Basseley Nakoula last week, he had one pressing question: “Why did the government release the deal? Why did they put my life in danger?”
Nakoula was referring to a plea deal he made with the federal government after his arrest in June 2009 for his role in a check-kiting scheme. A thirty-year resident of the United States and a citizen, the native Egyptian agreed to cooperate with authorities in nailing the scheme’s mastermind, Eiad Salameh.
Given that Salameh was still on the loose at the time, and a genuine threat to Nakoula if he knew the terms of the arrangement, the sentencing transcript was sealed. That transcript remained sealed at least until the trailer for the video titled "The Real Life of Muhammad" was uploaded to the Internet on July 1, 2012 and likely for the next two months thereafter.
The New York Times accurately describes the video’s content: "The trailer opens with scenes of Egyptian security forces standing idle as Muslims pillage and burn the homes of Egyptian Christians. Then it cuts to cartoonish scenes depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a child of uncertain parentage, a buffoon, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child molester and a greedy, bloodthirsty thug."
The posting of the video followed by a day the ascension of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi to the presidency of Egypt and came after two years of increasingly savage and often lethal Muslim attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christian community.
“I owe this country my life,” Nakoula, a Coptic Christian, told me. “I don’t want to see Americans treated like Coptic Christians. If they watch my movie, maybe this won’t happen.” Although there has been speculation that Nakoula was some sort of double agent, I believe his motives for making the video are as stated. If so, the video represented the kind of political speech the First Amendment was designed to protect.
Nor did the video violate YouTube/ Google’s terms of service regarding hate speech. Said Google after the controversy erupted, “The video stays up because it is against the Islam religion but not Muslim people.”
As I reported last week then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton a released her first salvo gainst the video less than an hour before Ty Woods and Glen Doherty died defending the CIA annex in Benghazi.
“Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet," said Clinton in a release posted about 10:30 p.m. Washington time on September 11. "The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. . . . But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.”
To be sure, this was the same Hillary Clinton who, a year earlier, happily applauded Broadway’s Book of Mormon, a scandalously potty-mouthed riff on the Mormon religion with charming lyrics like “F*** you, God, in the a**, mouth, and c**
In his Rose Garden speech on the morning of September 12, President Barack Obama reinforced Clinton’s point. “Since our founding, the United States has been a nation that respects all faiths,” said Obama in an indirect but obvious dig at the video. “We reject all efforts to denigrate the religious beliefs of others.”
Less than 48 hours after that Rose Garden speech, federal apparatchiks had leaked the key documents that the federal government would use to bury Nakoula. Key among them was the previously sealed sentencing transcript that the Smoking Gun published on September 14 under the all too revealing headline, “Producer Of Anti-Islam Film Was Fed Snitch.”
Just as troubling, the apparatchiks may have been sharing their strategy for silencing Nakoula with the New York Times immediately after, if not before, the Benghazi attack. According to the Times, “Earlier in the week, federal officials appeared to be investigating whether Mr. Nakoula had been the person who uploaded the video to YouTube.”
Earlier in the week? The Timesreported this on September 15, just three days after the smoke had cleared in Benghazi. By this date too, theTimes was fully aware of the terms of Nakoula’s parole. Were Nakoula the one who uploaded the video, argued the Times, “He would have violated the terms of his sentencing in a conviction in a 2010 check-kiting case, which includes restrictions against his using the Internet without permission from a probation officer.”
Less than two weeks after the Smoking Gun article, a federal judge ordered Nakoula to be detained without bail for various parole violations, the most salient of them the very one that the Times had predicted, unauthorized use of the Internet.
Nakoula has been in detention ever since. When I called him last week, he was still confined to a halfway house in Orange County, California. Although relieved to have been sprung from a federal pen deep in West Texas where I first contacted him, Nakoula does not understand why the feds have retained him six months after he was supposed to have been freed. “Why did you punish me again?” he asks angrily of the Justice Department. “Why? It was not in original judgment.”
Although the feds and their media allies insist Nakoula was arrested for parole violations, that is obviously not the real reason why he was -- or remains -- imprisoned. Even before his arrest, President Obama marked Nakoula as an unperson.
“Here's what happened,” Obama told David Letterman a week after Benghazi and a week before Nakoula’s arrest. “You had a video that was released by somebody who lives here, sort of a shadowy character who -- who made an extremely offensive video directed at -- at Mohammed and Islam.” The normally irreverent Letterman solemnly finished the president’s thought, “Making fun of the Prophet Mohammed!” Yes, confirmed Obama, “Making fun of the Prophet Mohammed.”
This appalling exchange characterized the media-White House offensive against Nakoula. He never had a chance.
By imprisoning this “shadowy character,” Obama was able both to appease the Muslim world and to remove Nakoula from the reach of those very few people in the media who might want to give him a fair hearing.
Not content with silencing Nakoula, Obama promptly moved to have the video trailer taken off the Internet. As the New York Times reported on September 14, 2012, “Google said on Friday that it would not comply with a White House request to reconsider the anti-Islam video that has set off violent protests in the Arab world in light of its rules banning hate speech on YouTube, which it owns.”
In February 2014, however, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Google to take the video trailer down ostensibly at the request of an actress whose voice had been overdubbed to criticize “the Prophet Mohammed.” Said Google in reply, "We strongly disagree with this ruling and will fight it."
Said the rest of the media: nada. Reactionaries may still cling to the First Amendment as a way to explain their frustrations, but the White House has already moved on.