Clinton Emails Rekindle Benghazi Panel Infighting

Clinton Emails Rekindle Benghazi Panel Infighting
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Nearly 10 months after the House of Representatives created the Select Committee on Benghazi, its chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, stepped in front of a lectern in the U.S. Capitol on March 3, flanked by four Republican committee members. They were there to respond to the New York Times story on Hillary Clinton's exclusive use of a private email account while she ran the State Department, a bombshell that reverberated throughout the political community and thrust the Benghazi panel into the national media spotlight.

 “Despite some attacks from those who claim that all questions regarding Benghazi have been asked and answered, the revelation that Secretary Clinton uses personal email accounts lays that claim bare,” Gowdy said. “It also lays bare the claim that any other committee has issued the definitive report on Benghazi.”

Besides breathing new life into the select committee on Benghazi, the Clinton email disclosure re-ignited a bitter partisan battle that erupted after the Sept. 11, 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Libya that left Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans dead.

Republicans, who insist the attack has never been fully documented or explained, say getting to the bottom of it is important not only for the victims’ families but also to help prevent future attacks on Americans overseas and for U.S. security in general.

Democrats maintain that questions surrounding Benghazi have been thoroughly investigated and put to rest. They accuse the GOP of stoking a tragedy in an effort to discredit Clinton, the party’s presumed 2016 presidential front-runner, who was secretary of state at the time of the attack.

Days after the Times’ scoop, Gowdy’s committee subpoenaed Clinton’s personal emails and called on her to turn her private server over to a neutral arbiter. He also said the panel will ask Clinton to appear before it to address the email and records issues and to answer questions about the Benghazi attack, a long-anticipated event likely to create an even bigger media buzz saw for the embattled Clinton.

Attack Aftermath

The Obama administration initially said the attack on the consulate compound and nearby CIA office was conducted on a mob enraged by an anti-Islamist video. That turned out not to be the case –it was planned and carried out by militants with ties to terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda – and Republicans have long been critical and suspicious of the administration’s early handling of it.

Seven subsequent U.S. investigations of the attack -- spearheaded by the House Government Reform and Oversight Committee, the Armed Services Committee and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence -- concluded security was inadequate at the CIA site, but there was no intelligence failure before the attack. 

In May 2012, the House formed the 12-member Select Committee on Benghazi on a mostly partisan vote. Most Democrats immediately criticized it as a waste of taxpayer money, claiming the attack had been thoroughly investigated and that the new select committee was a partisan political ploy.

Speaker Boehner pushed back and said the committee “doesn't need to be, shouldn't be, and will not be a partisan process.” But soon after, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., dubbed it “the Select Committee on Talking Points.” Democrats considered boycotting but ultimately decided to join the panel.

Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor from South Carolina, runs the investigation the way he would run a grand jury, say panel members. The well-credentialed panel consists of seven Republicans and five Democrats, several of whom serve on Intelligence and other House committees that previously investigated Benghazi, and the majority are attorneys, some with experience as federal prosecutors.

At the committee’s third meeting, in January, Democrats complained GOP members had conducted witness interviews without them, hadn’t requested any documents in months, and were unfocused and moving too slowly. 

“All of this points to a goal and objective of this committee that doesn’t have much to do with finding out the truth and doesn’t have much to do with preventing future attacks,” Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., said at the hearing. 

Gaps in Emails

Gowdy has consistently said that his sole purpose is to follow the facts wherever they lead. He and other Republicans say their hands have been tied by certain factors, such as a slow response by the State Department.

“In my view, it has taken far too long for the State Department to produce documents,” said committee member Rep. Susan Brooks, R-Ind. “They’ve known this was going to be coming since September of 2012, and here we are in 2015. Documents and information should have been provided long before now.”

Additionally, though the department has turned over 55,000 pages of emails, GOP lawmakers point to gaps in them, sometimes as long as weeks. Georgia Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, another Republican committee member, says the iconic photo of the former secretary of state checking her Blackberry aboard a plane to Libya in 2011 illustrates the point. Gowdy has said the committee has no emails from that entire trip.

“That’s the one thing that concerns the committee is: are there emails out there that we haven’t seen?” Westmoreland said. “We have her in pictures emailing on a plane going over to the Middle East but we don’t have any emails from that date. Was she emailing a relative? We don’t know. But you’re on your way to the Middle East, you’re on your way to Libya, it seems like these emails would give us some information about what you’re going to do on your trip.”

Republicans also argue previous committees’ jurisdictions prevented them from investigating the full scope of the attack – Intelligence could only investigate the intelligence community, Armed Services the military, etc. – but the  select committee has cross jurisdiction and can bring together and deepen the previous investigations.

“We’re going to be able to talk to more eyewitnesses, more individuals who were there that night than the other committees,” Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan told RealClearPolitics. “And you take the work that the other committees have done, you take what you learn from the eyewitnesses, there’s documents we still haven’t received from the State Department, so all that is designed for us to get to the truth.” 

Gowdy and other GOP committee members say they have tried to keep committee activities out of the headlines, in part to avoid being accused of trying to torpedo Clinton. They knew Clinton used a personal email months ago, but did not leak that to the press, for example, Gowdy said.

Jamal Ware, an aide to Gowdy and communications director for the committee, said committee members remain focused solely on investigating the attack.

Democrats remain unpersuaded. 

“After 10 months, the GOP-led committee still has no answer to the question – as it pertains to the secretary's emails or anything else – just what are we looking for?" California Rep. Schiff, a Democrat on the select committee, said in a statement after Clinton’s personal email had come to light.

A Democratic House aide summed up: “The problem with that is that all of these (previous Benghazi) reports are pretty definitive and there are a very few questions left unanswered.”

Democrats Infuriated

The panel’s March 6 decision to subpoena Clinton’s emails further infuriated Democrats, who said they were not consulted first. In a letter to Gowdy the next day, all five Democrats called on the chairman to withdraw the subpoenas and publicly release emails Clinton has already provided to the committee. Gowdy has said he will not release the documents in the committee’s possession until he is certain he has all the documents requested.

“Allowing those emails to be made public will help clear up any misconceptions and will also help return the committee to its original purpose, investigating the tragic events in Benghazi, rather than allowing it to become a surrogate for the Republican National Committee,” the Democrats wrote.

Later on CNN, Schiff repeated those claims: “Nothing changed except that the pressure on the Republican members of the committee this week became too great for them to resist from the Stop Hillary PAC people, and the RNC people, so they issued a subpoena for records we already have.”

Ware, the select committee spokesman, rejects any suggestion of political shenanigans. “If we wanted to make political hay, we’d be making partial releases and we’d be leaking stuff, and that is not how Chairman Gowdy works,” Ware told RCP.

In an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press over the weekend – his second Sunday show appearance in as many weeks – Gowdy said he hopes to conclude his investigation by the end of this year. But he added that the timeline depends on the cooperation of those being questioned. 

"I have no interest, zero interest, in you and I having this conversation in 2016, but I don't get to fully decide how quickly it's done,” Gowdy said. “I need some cooperation from people who have access to the witnesses and the information."

James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at jarkin@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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