The Republican-led House of Representatives has struck a new committee to investigate the 2012 assault on the U.S. compound in Libya, breathing new life into efforts to make the Benghazi attack stick to the president and the woman who may try and replace him, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.
With the midterm elections just a few months away and potential 2016 candidates — namely, Clinton — weighing their options, the committee’s work will be infused with political overtones as it carries on for months and months.
The idea for a new committee emerged last week after a White House email about the Benghazi incident was made public for the first time.
Four Americans, including U.S. ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, were killed in the Sept.11, 2012, attack that was carried out by co-ordinated militants. Republicans argue the email from aide Ben Rhodes shows the White House was directly involved in editing and pushing talking points that blamed the “spontaneous” attack on an anti-Islamic video that had sparked protests in Egypt, Yemen and elsewhere in the region.
Several Congressional committees and the State Department have already examined what went wrong. But Republicans say another review is needed because there are still unanswered questions, the email raises new ones, and the Obama administration has stonewalled and refused to co-operate.
Clinton is one of the people they want answers from and putting her in front of a committee would once again give Republicans the chance to pin the debacle on her. When she appeared in front of committees in January 2013 she said she took responsibility for the incident.
If she does run for president the Republicans will do their best to make Benghazi a campaign issue and burn it into voters’ minds that she has a black mark on her record as secretary of state. Some Democrats view this new committee as a long-term strategy to discredit Clinton and in the short-term it will rally the Republican base as they go to the polls this fall.
The committee will be chaired by Republican Trey Gowdy, a former prosecutor, and owing to the Republicans’ majority in the House of Representatives, they will have a majority of members and get to determine witness lists. Democrats are in the midst of an internal debate over whether to participate or boycott.
“This is a political stunt,” House Democrat leader Nancy Pelosi plainly stated Friday morning.
Republicans call email 'smoking gun'
The talking points in the newly revealed email were sent to Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, who appeared on the Sunday talk shows in the days following the attack. The White House says the talking points were to prepare Rice for questions about “the general situation in the Muslim world,” not about the Benghazi attack specifically.
Republicans don’t buy it and say the email is a “smoking gun” that proves President Barack Obama’s administration went to great lengths to spin the Benghazi story, mislead Americans and cover up that the attack was in fact a foreign policy, intelligence and security failure. Why would Obama and Clinton do that? Because it was weeks before the 2012 election, the Republicans contend.
But this isn’t about politics, Republicans insist. They say it’s about transparency and accountability, and reject accusations they are on a witch hunt and are fabricating a scandal that doesn’t exist.
“This is all about getting to the truth. There's not going to be a side show. There's not going to be a circus. This is a serious investigation,” House Speaker John Boehner told reporters.
If they were really serious they would allow an equal number of Democrats on the committee, the other side argues, but the proposal was immediately shot down by Republicans.
That, and the fact that the Republican Congressional Committee issued a fundraising appeal linked to the new Benghazi committee proves, according to Democrats, the new hearing is a partisan exercise that will do nothing more than waste time and taxpayer money.
“After two years, 13 hearings, 50 briefings, eight reports, 25,000 pages of documents, and millions of taxpayer dollars spent on the issue of Benghazi, it looks like Republicans are more concerned about an email than they are about the four Americans who lost their lives,” Representative Xavier Becerra, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, told reporters Wednesday.
Committee is a 'political farce'
Democrat Eliot Engel said during a debate Thursday that the Republicans aren’t after the truth, they’re after a “political win” and are willing to politicize the deaths of four Americans to score it.
“This select committee would be nothing more than the next chapter in this political farce just in time for the midterm elections and with 2016 peeking over the horizon,” the New York representative said.
Engel said he was reminded of Iraq and questioned why the Republicans weren’t keen in that case to get to the bottom of false intelligence that he said ultimately led to the deaths of not four, but more than 4,000 Americans.
In The New Yorker, writer Jane Mayer said she’s also been reminded of the past — the early 1980s in Lebanon — and how differently Congress reacted. First the U.S. embassy in Beirut was bombed, killing 63 people, then a Marine compound, killing 241, then the C.I.A.’s station chief was kidnapped and murdered, then another bombing on a U.S. government outpost.
Through all of that, Congress didn’t call for president Ronald Reagan to be impeached; they held an investigation — only one — and issued bipartisan findings and recommendations, Mayer wrote. Democrats and Republicans pointed fingers, but at the perpetrators of the attacks, not at each other.
Times have changed in Washington. The blame game mostly involves the Republicans, Democrats and the White House only, and key players — such as the criminals who committed the attack — are largely on the sidelines. No arrests have been made.
Clinton has called Benghazi her biggest regret and her forthcoming book due out next month will likely give more insight into her feelings about it. She said this week, there is no reason to hold more hearings and she's "absolutely" satisfied with previous reviews. Republicans aren't, though, and as Clinton acknowledged, "They get to call the shots in Congress."