Investigating Benghazi: Why We Need a Select Committee

Investigating Benghazi: Why We Need a Select Committee

By Fred Thompson - November 28, 2012

As we fixate on the latest version of Gen. David Petraeus’ testimony or the misleading statements of Susan Rice, I suggest that we stop and think about the size of what we are dealing with. The Benghazi tragedy raises questions concerning the protection of our embassies, the performance and capabilities of our military and our intelligence community, as well as the decisions of high-ranking officials in the Department of Defense, the State Department, the White House and possibly the Justice Department.

The scope of the questions that involve an array of officials, and sensitive agencies and departments of our government, is unprecedented. The inquiry into what happened and why, along with who is or should be accountable, calls for a focused, responsible effort equal to the seriousness and the complexities the issues.

I’ve seen this rodeo before, both in a constructive manner (Watergate, where I served as a counsel) and a less-than-constructive one (Clinton-era investigations, where I chaired a committee that probed at least one facet of the various scandals). On our present course, the prospects for a relatively short but thorough, credible, bipartisan congressional investigation are not good. The prospects for a disjointed, drawn-out mess, replete with partisan bickering, are much better.

It is easy to identify at least eight congressional committees (four in each chamber) with claims of jurisdiction in the Benghazi matter. No committee has jurisdiction over all of it, and several committees have jurisdiction over parts that overlap with the jurisdictions of other committees. Some of the committee hearings will involve classified information and will be conducted behind closed doors. Members of “Committee A” will not know what a witness told “Committee B” in a closed hearing. Gen. Petraeus’ recent appearance on Capitol Hill demonstrates how difficult it can be to get a consistent story when the witness is making multiple appearances before even the same committee.

Perhaps not all committees with jurisdiction will have hearings, but if half of them do it will produce competing hearings, with competing staffs and competing press conferences over much of Capitol Hill. It will also take longer than necessary, as government officials shuffle back and forth giving repeat performances. Different committee chairmen and their committees will make different rulings on document production, whether to move for immunity for witnesses who refuse to testify on the basis of the 5th Amendment, and a host of other matters.

This is simply not the most efficient and credible way to proceed. And it is less likely to arrive at the truth. The seriousness of the matter calls for something better. It calls for a select committee that is given a specific mandate, a budget and a cut-off date that can be adjusted if it is agreed upon. It needs to be comprised of members of both parties who have been selected by their leadership because of their proven integrity, reputation for fairness, and expertise in a given area.

In a matter fraught with political implications, it is especially important that Congress accept its responsibility and minimize partisanship as much as possible. History demonstrates that this goal is much easier to achieve with a handful of selected people than it is with many. Since 1789, when Congress investigated a failed military expedition, select committees have been utilized to serve such important and sensitive functions, and the Benghazi matter should follow in that long tradition, whether by means of a joint committee of both houses of Congress or by either chamber.

Most select committees have become historical footnotes. Some, however, are well remembered because of the contribution they made to helping Congress carry out its duties of legislating, overseeing the executive branch and educating the American people as to the operation of their government. Ironically, it is because of the success of these panels that some members of Congress and others oppose the formation of one in this case.

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Fred Thompson, the Tennessee Senator from 1994 through 2002, was a candidate for the Republican nomination for President of the United States in 2008.

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