The House Select Committee on Benghazi – led by U.S. Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Spartanburg Republican – will share the spotlight Thursday with Hillary Clinton when it calls the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination to testify in what is expected to be a marathon hearing.
Clinton will be asked about why she did not do more as secretary of state to protect U.S. diplomats in Libya. But Gowdy’s committee also will be under scrutiny.
The GOP-controlled committee was formed in May 2014 to examine U.S. policies that may have contributed to the Benghazi attacks that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, and the response of the Obama administration, including Clinton, then secretary of state.
However, Clinton and other Democrats – aided by the statements of GOP House members – are charging the investigation is nothing more than an effort to damage her chances of winning the presidency.
When Gowdy was named chairman of the House investigation into the 2012 attacks, he said he would insist on keeping his probe above the political fray.
“There are certain things in our culture that have to transcend politics, and I don’t mean to sound naive, but the murder of four fellow Americans and an attack on a facility that is emblematic of our country should transcend politics,” Gowdy said on Fox News Channel the day after he was tapped to lead the committee.
But the political aspects of the probe intensified in March, when it was revealed that Clinton had relied on a personal email account while secretary of state from 2090 to 2103, routing that email through a private server at her New York house.
Clinton’s handling of the emails fast became a major political issue as she ratcheted up her campaign for the presidency. Meanwhile, Gowdy, a veteran prosecutor, told people he was afraid the email issue was a distraction from the original mission of investigating the Benghazi attack and the American deaths there.
Security: ‘Grossly inadequate’
Critics say Gowdy’s committee has taken too long, at 17 months, and at too great an expense – $4.8 million and climbing – to investigate a tragedy that already has been investigated by a half-dozen committees.
Supporters of the committee adamantly defend its work, saying the panel has been forced to investigate for so long because the State Department has been slow to cooperate.
“This investigation has always been about one thing: the death of four Americans,” said U.S. Rep. Mike Pompeo, R-Kan., a committee member. “We owe it to the American people to understand what happened and do what we can to make sure it doesn’t happen again. ... This investigation can only conclude when all the facts are in and the truth has been revealed.”
But some Democrats accuse the committee of rehashing what already has been examined just to damage Clinton.
“It (the committee) has no new answers for the families of the four who were killed on that tragic night or for the American people,” said U.S. Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a committee member. “When you consider the committee’s obsessive focus on attacking Secretary Clinton, the reason becomes quite clear: The majority has little interest in the events in Benghazi except to the degree they can be used to diminish her standing in the polls.”
Clinton, who has called the panel an arm of the Republican National Committee, agreed to testify as long as her testimony was delivered in public. She has spent days off the campaign trail preparing for one of the most pivotal moments of her campaign.
Seven other congressional committees and the bipartisan independent Accountability Review Board already have looked into the Benghazi attack. Nearly all of them criticized the Clinton State Department for insufficiently addressing security issues at the diplomatic facility in Benghazi.
In its 2012 report, the Accountability Review Board – chaired by Thomas Pickering, President George H.W. Bush’s United Nations ambassador – called security at the facility in Benghazi “grossly inadequate.” As a result, four State Department officials were suspended, but they were reinstated by Secretary of State John Kerry in August 2013.
Several other congressional committees in the Republican-controlled House and the then-Democratic-ruled Senate followed. Most reached similar conclusions.
Two Senate committees – the Homeland Security Committee and the Select Committee on Intelligence – noted that in the months leading to the attacks, U.S. intelligence agencies knew of the deteriorating situation in Libya and that an attack was likely. But they did not say the U.S. government had specific intelligence of an imminent attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi. Security at some facilities had been bolstered, but it was not enough.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee said Clinton was “certainly aware” of warnings by the intelligence community before the attacks about the “deteriorating security environment in eastern Libya, including al-Qaida’s expanding operations and the mounting risk to U.S. personnel and facilities.”
The House Judiciary Committee blasted the State Department for “a fundamental lack of understanding at the highest levels ... as to the dangers presented in Benghazi, Libya.”
The investigation by the House Intelligence Committee resulted in a report that debunked conspiracy theories espoused by some congressional Republicans and outside groups that the Obama administration gave orders for security forces to “stand down” during the Benghazi attack.
So far, the House Select Committee on Benghazi has interviewed 53 witnesses, 30 of whom were not interviewed by the eight other groups, and many of them Clinton aides, including an information technology specialist who maintained Clinton’s computer server and her longtime adviser Sidney Blumenthal. The committee has sifted through thousands of pages of documents.
And the inquiry does not appear to be near the end.
Gowdy said his committee will not be finished with its investigation until months before the election next year.
In the meantime, Clinton’s campaign and outside groups backing her candidacy are fighting back with a flurry of press releases and fact sheets, praise for her tenure as secretary of state, even a briefly run TV ad.
They have been reaping the benefit of a spate of bad publicity for the committee that started when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., suggested the panel had caused Clinton’s poll numbers to drop.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable,” McCarthy told Fox News host Sean Hannity. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”
Last week, U.S. Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., told a radio talk show host that “there is a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people – an individual, Hillary Clinton.”
In a Sunday interview on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Gowdy lashed out – and not only at his Democratic critics: “I have told my own Republican colleagues and friends, shut up talking about things that you don’t know anything about. And unless you’re on the committee, you have no idea what we have done, why we have done it and what new facts we have found.”
Gowdy has been preparing for Thursday’s appearance by Clinton for several months, going to great lengths to try to choreograph the hearing to ensure that Republicans stay focused on the Benghazi attack and make no gaffes.
But Democrat Schiff thinks committee Republicans inevitably will get to questions about the emails.
“They will go through the motions the first couple of rounds,” he said Tuesday, “and we will really see what they are after in the last round or two. I think they will hope to wear down the secretary after a long day and get their headline news moment.”