Benghazi Panel: Playing Politics or Seeking Truth?

Benghazi Panel: Playing Politics or Seeking Truth?
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The House Select Committee on Benghazi has met for more than 14 months, cost taxpayers $4 million, and has a straightforward-sounding mission statement: to investigate a terrorist attack and issue a final report with recommendations to prevent similar tragedies in the future.

This was no ordinary attack. Four Americans were killed, including a U.S. ambassador; a U.S. diplomatic facility was torched; and the tragedy became a political issue in the 2012 presidential election. Republicans became convinced that the Obama administration lied about what it knew and when, while Democrats say the tragedy has been purposely drawn out to render it a political issue in 2016.

After Republicans became increasingly frustrated with responses from the White House and other branches of the administration, the House of Representatives voted, mostly along party lines, to establish a select committee charged with investigating the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.

Since its inception, the five Democrats on the 12-member House Select Committee on Benghazi have leveled unrelenting criticism toward the GOP majority, accusing the panel chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), of conducting an investigation not based on substance, but with the goal of perpetuating a political “witch hunt” against Hillary Clinton – the secretary of state at the time of the Benghazi attack and the favorite to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

Democrats cite a House Intelligence Committee report that largely exonerated the intelligence community from wrongdoing as evidence that the events surrounding the Obama administration’s response to the Benghazi attack have been thoroughly examined.

Republicans counter that the previous bipartisan report did not cover the White House, State Department, and other critical agencies not under the jurisdiction of the intelligence committee.

The select committee, which has held just one public hearing since January, has relied mostly on private interviews to gather information, as opposed to public hearings. Details regarding the interviewees are, by design, not made public in order to avoid tainting the recollections of potential witnesses or inform them of potential lines of inquiry, committee sources say.

Many of the interviewees, according to committee sources, are in no way connected to Clinton. Still, Democrats continue to question the GOP on the focus, scope, substance, and motivation driving the investigation, while Republicans cite unanswered questions from the White House and State Department as reasons for continuing to “pursue the truth” on behalf of the families of those who were killed in the attack.

Congress’s partisan divide is mirrored by American public opinion. A recent Fox News poll showed that Americans’ opinions of the committee are also splintered along party lines: 74 percent of Democrats want Congress to move on from the investigation, while the same percentage of Republicans want the panel to press forward.

Slow Document Production?

The actions of the committee in recent weeks have revolved around Clinton’s emails. Clinton’s correspondence became the center of attention following the revelation that she exclusively used a personal email account and server while she served as the nation’s top diplomat from 2009 to 2013.

Clinton turned over 55,000 pages of emails to the State Department last December – messages stored on her private server that she and her legal team deemed work-related. Another 30,000 emails that she said were personal and unrelated to her work at State were destroyed.

Republicans, simply put, do not trust that Clinton handed over all of her work-related emails. They suspect she deleted some messages – after she was subpoenaed by the committee – that could compromise her presidential bid. They have called on Clinton to give her server to a third- party forensic investigator to examine whether it contains classified information or withheld correspondence.

Nick Merrill, Clinton’s traveling spokesman, previously told RealClearPolitics that Clinton has always been willing to testify before the committee, but that Republicans refuse to schedule a meeting. But in a new statement issued Saturday, Merrill said Clinton is slated to appear before the committee at a public hearing in October — despite Gowdy’s preference that the testimony take place in a private setting.

However, the committee has since disputed that an agreement is in place. "Secretary Clinton’s campaign may want to reach out to her lawyer, Mr. David Kendall, with whom the Committee has had ongoing conversations,” Jamal Ware, the committee’s communications director, said in a statement. "As of [Friday] night, Mr. Kendall was still negotiating conditions for her appearance.”

According to Ware, Kendall wants the committee to question Clinton solely on the Benghazi attack, not her exclusive use of a personal email account. The committee contends, though, that her “email arrangement clearly falls within the Select Committee’s jurisdiction,” as laid out in the House resolution that established the panel.

“The Committee will not, now or ever, accept artificial limitations on its congressionally-directed jurisdiction or efforts to meet the responsibilities assigned to the Committee by the House of Representatives,” Ware continued, adding that the committee will announce a hearing date once an agreement between the two parties has been reached.

For the campaign’s part, Merrill said Clinton understands that emails fall under the purview of the committee. “So unless the committee now believes emails are no longer in its jurisdiction, we are in agreement,” Merrill said. 

In a May court filing, the State Department said it would, upon a full review, release all of Clinton’s work-related emails in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by a Vice News reporter. But drag the process out is exactly what a federal judge ordered. After rejecting the State Department’s offer to post batches of emails on its Freedom of Information Act website every 60 days, U.S. District Court Judge Rudolph Contreras instead ordered monthly disclosures, which will likely last until the first votes of the 2016 election are cast in early February.

Clinton has said on the campaign trail that she wants her emails to be made public as soon as possible. The longer the process is dragged out, the more harm could be done to her campaign as journalists and Clinton’s Republican rivals comb through each batch of emails every 30 days, reigniting a debate that routinely drives the news cycle. The first batch, released earlier this month, revealed that senior Obama administration officials knew that Clinton was using a personal email address.

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the Benghazi panel, told RCP that in hindsight, it “certainly” would have been better if Clinton had not used a personal email account and server. But he added that Republicans have neglected to define the focus or scope of their investigative goals in the aftermath of the Clinton email revelation.

“They don’t know exactly what they’re looking for,” Schiff said in an interview. “Initially it was about whether there was gun-running or whether there were stand-down orders. Now the chairman has pretty much admitted that there is no evidence of that, and the investigation isn’t about those things anymore.”

When Republicans are asked by Democrats to define the focus of the investigation, Schiff added they “fall back on something vague like, ‘We want to find out the truth’ – which is, of course, what you say in every fishing expedition.”

Calling the committee majority’s tactics “a terrible abuse of power,” Schiff predicts the inquiry will continue well into the election season, adding that Democrats cannot determine which documents would be relevant to the probe if Republicans will not say what they are looking for.

“[Republicans] are making quite selective use of the State Department to which they’ve been providing a number of ever-expanding subpoenas,” he said. “[T]he reason that they’ve focused so heavily on the State Department is, for them this is really one about one person and that’s Hillary Clinton.”

Committee Republicans disagree with all of that—and they blame Democrats for prolonging the investigation themselves.

Rep. Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican and an attorney, said the committee’s work could have been finished a year ago had the Democrats not continued to stonewall. As a result, he said, the committee only has 10 percent of requested documents.

“Chairman Gowdy worked his tail off and continues to work his tail off to get to the facts,” Pompeo told RCP. “[He] has had more patience than I would have had – you can write that – with the behavior of [ranking member] Mr. [Elijah] Cummings, who has behaved with enormous, enormous recalcitrance, and has acted as an agent for preventing this committee from performing its tasks.” Pompeo characterized the committee Democrats’ actions as “100 percent defense, zero percent inquiry.”

 “By refusing to comply with all relevant requests for documents, Secretary Clinton and the State Department are actually prolonging this investigation,” House Speaker John Boehner added Thursday, giving his unabashed stamp of approval on the investigation.

Republicans also believe they know where the Democrats’ impetus originates. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), a member of the committee, told RCP in an interview that the Obama administration is intentionally stonewalling them, using “roadblock after roadblock.”

“If anyone is being political, it’s the other side,” Jordan said. “[The administration] won’t give us the information we’ve asked for and have a right to get. They drag their feet on that, and then they turn around and say, ‘Republicans aren’t moving ahead with this investigation.’ Well you can’t move ahead if you can’t get the material.

 “The fact that she’s running for president is irrelevant. What’s relevant is she was secretary of state at the time when four Americans’ lives were lost.”

When asked to respond to Adam Schiff’s assertion that Republicans are delaying the investigation to harm Clinton’s presidential campaign, Jordan said bluntly: “We’re not. Nobody wants to be done more than the chairman, myself, and other members of the committee.”

Substance of Investigation Lost?

While Republicans want to keep the investigation focused on substance, Democrats say the substance lies elsewhere. Democratic congressional sources tell RCP that the State Department is justifiably devoting its time and effort to more paramount issues such as the Iran nuclear deal that was agreed to earlier this month.

On Tuesday, Democrats accused the GOP of interfering with the nuclear agreement for initially asking that Secretary of State John Kerry’s chief of staff, Jon Finer, testify on the same day Kerry is scheduled to appear in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee as part of the Obama administration’s efforts to answer lawmakers’ questions about the accord.

“This is either embarrassingly poor planning or a flimsy attempt by Republicans to scuttle the Iran deal,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s ranking member, said in a statement. “Either way, this is a preposterous abuse of authority.”

The next day, Republicans called on Finer to instead testify on Wednesday, the day after Kerry’s appearance in front of the House panel, on the subject of the State Department’s compliance with document requests. Gowdy said Finer was specifically chosen by Kerry as the “point person” on document production, adding that he would call off the entire hearing if the department produces the requested materials.

“The department has used every excuse to avoid complying with fundamental requests for documents,” Gowdy said, adding that he already accommodated a delay requested by Finer. “Our committee is not in possession of all documents needed to do the work assigned to us.”

Gowdy threatened to subpoena Finer if he does not show up to the hearing or if the State Department further delays document production. “It has become apparent … that emails directly related to the committee’s jurisdiction … have been withheld by the department,” he said.

In a July 20 letter to Gowdy, State Department Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield said Finer had a “central role in the Iran negotiations,” and therefore must “focus their efforts … on responding to the House and Senate’s questions and concerns” about the Iran nuclear accord. Committee sources say it is unclear whether Finer will attend the Wednesday hearing.

Selective Release of Information?

Jamal Ware told RCP in March that the Republicans would not be using the committee as a political ploy, as Democrats suggested. “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 said.

Yet Democrats say that is exactly what transpired in the following months.

The committee released 60 emails exchanged between Clinton and former adviser Sidney Blumenthal, who was sending unverified intelligence to Clinton regarding Libya. Gowdy challenged the State Department to say whether those 60 messages were included in the 55,000-page batch handed over by Clinton. The department ultimately concluded, an official confirmed to RCP at the time, that Clinton did not provide 15 of the 60 emails.

Pompeo said Blumenthal’s testimony was a necessary aspect of the investigation because it brought to light the “knowledge base upon which [the State Department] was making decisions, because it was not limited to what was being provided through the intelligence community channels.” According to Pompeo, Blumenthal told the committee he does not know if the information was accurate.

Despite Clinton’s assertion that the intelligence information from Blumenthal was “unsolicited,” emails suggested otherwise. “Thanks for keeping this stuff coming!” Clinton wrote to Blumenthal in July 2012.

In addition, the committee made public a copy of a March subpoena of Clinton’s emails, in response to Clinton’s claim in an interview that she “never had a subpoena.” (Schiff, who has endorsed Clinton for president, told RCP he did not watch the interview but said there “clearly” was a subpoena.)

Despite disclosing those two sets of documents to the public, Republicans on the committee have yet to honor Democrats’ requests to make public the transcript from Blumenthal’s closed-door, nine-hour deposition. Democrats, along with Blumenthal’s lawyer, accused Republicans of leaking “distorted” excerpts of the transcript to conservative media outlets, while Gowdy contends that releasing the entire transcript would jeopardize the investigation.

“The committee has been very selective about releasing information,” said Schiff. “When they think it can cast the secretary in an adverse light, they’ve made no surprise of their desire to do so.”

Rep. Jordan countered that releasing the 60 emails was justified, telling RCP it allowed for the revelation that the State Department did not have 15 of them in its possession – messages that he and other Republicans on the committee believe should have been handed over to the department. Clinton’s public record, they argue, remains incomplete.

On releasing the subpoena of Clinton’s emails, Jordan said the goal was to correct an inaccurate statement made by the former secretary of state, not to upend his rival political party’s presumptive presidential nominee.

“That’s just clarifying the record when the secretary makes a statement that’s not accurate,” he said. “You can say, ‘It’s not accurate, and here’s the actual document that actually proves it’s not accurate.’ That is not selective release of material for political reasons. That’s just setting the record straight so the American people have the truth.”

Democrats continue to maintain that the committee’s work in recent weeks proves that the investigation is only about her.

“[The Republicans] are turning the select committee structure into just one more facet of the partisan gamesmanship on the Hill, and setting the precedent that whoever is in the majority can establish a select committee and use it to engage in presidential politics,” Schiff said. “And that’s a terrible precedent to set for the institution.”

Republicans will continue to pressure the State Department to comply with its requests, while Democrats hope what they view as a political charade will cease to exist by Nov. 8, 2016. 

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