Mission Improbable: Trey Gowdy gets into Benghazi
By: John Bresnahan and Lauren French and Jake Sherman
May 4, 2014 04:44 PM EDT
Speaker John Boehner and House Republicans have decided to create a select committee to expand their investigation into the Benghazi attacks.
Beyond that, nothing is settled. In fact, Republicans may be going on something of a mission improbable to yield new information and turn up new clues in a wide-ranging probe that has already spanned 13 hearings, 25,000 pages of documents and 50 briefings.
There are questions about what the select committee will set out to do and what it can actually yield. And the man who will head the committee, South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, will be following in the footsteps of no less than eight congressional committees in the House and Senate that have investigated the September 2012 attacks on a U.S. mission in Libya.
One thing is for certain: The Gowdy probe will last into the fall — keeping Benghazi in the news for the 2014 midterm elections. And it can serve to tarnish Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s name ahead of a potential 2016 presidential bid, though there’s no guarantee it will work. Democrats also claim it will serve as another way to rile up the GOP base as the picture surrounding Obamacare blurs — with enrollment numbers for President Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement crossing the 8 million mark.
“The speaker has been extraordinarily patient, but it is clear the Obama administration is playing games,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who has played a high-profile role in the Benghazi probe via his seat on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “The focus of the [Gowdy] committee should simply be to find the truth. It is out there, but the House is going to have to pry it out of the White House. The four investigating committees have done a good job finding parts of the truth. A select committee should bring it all together and find all the truth.”
The House leadership will have tighter control over picking the roster for this panel than over any of the disparate committees that have previously probed the attacks on the diplomatic outposts in Libya that killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens.
Gowdy’s committee will immediately take over top billing on Benghazi from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), whose Oversight and Government Reform Committee has led the way on this issue since October 2012. The sometimes unpredictable Issa has promised to cooperate with Gowdy’s effort, and GOP leaders are hopeful that will happen, although they will keep a close eye on cooperation between all the committees involved in this issue, said GOP sources.
Boehner will personally name all the Republicans to the select committee, and it is likely to include members from the four standing House panels that have already conducted Benghazi probes — Oversight and Government Reform, Armed Services, Foreign Affairs and Intelligence, according to GOP lawmakers and aides.
Based on precedent, there will most likely be between 10 and 20 members, with Republicans holding a big edge in the ratio of members over Democrats. There is some question about whether Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will even name members to the panel, which Democrats are already dismissing as a partisan joke designed to try to politically damage Clinton and Obama. A senior Democratic source said the party is already mulling over its choices.
For its part, the Obama administration dismisses the GOP effort to “get to the bottom of Benghazi” as nothing more than a big waste of time and taxpayer money.
Leadership staffers are drafting the resolution to form the Gowdy panel, using as a guideline previous select committees on Chinese spying, global warming and Hurricane Katrina. A draft of the resolution will be circulated inside the GOP leadership by early this week, the sources said.
“It’s not that unusual; they’re not that hard to put together,” said a Republican staffer close to the issue. “The biggest problem will be some of the classified information that the [select committee] will have to deal with.”
A number of Republicans, especially the more hard-line conservative, tea party-inspired junior members, are making their desire to serve on the Gowdy committee known to Boehner and the Ohio Republican’s top lieutenants, these sources said. Serving on the panel could be a plum position during an election year in which the issue is popular with the GOP base.
Names being floated for the select committee include Chaffetz and Reps. Raúl Labrador (R-Idaho) and Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), among others.
Logistics are also difficult. The select panel must hire staff with the proper security clearances to handle highly classified material from the CIA and other intelligence agencies and find suitable space and equipment on the House side of Capitol Hill.
The Gowdy committee will also be required to integrate a huge amount of data on the Benghazi attacks already generated by the other committees, especially Oversight, which has spent 18 months on the issue at this point.
Issa, who has garnered headlines if not praise for his handling of the Benghazi probe, issued a subpoena to Secretary of State John Kerry last week to demand why the State Department has failed to turn over documents sought by the California Republican’s committee. Kerry has until May 21 to respond to Issa’s subpoena, but White House officials said privately that Kerry is scheduled to be in Mexico. It’s not clear if Issa will sit on the Gowdy panel.
On top of all these challenges, two other questions remain for Gowdy’s select committee: What is the key goal, and by when?
The House will be out of session all of August and is expected to adjourn by early October so members can campaign for reelection.
That leaves 3½ months for the Gowdy committee to do its work and prepare a report for the House, if it is to have any impact by Election Day. The White House will most likely slow-walk its responses to the South Carolina Republican’s panel, although a subpoena to Clinton — considered likely by many Democrats and Republicans — would get huge media coverage.
Gowdy, a 49-year-old former federal prosecutor now serving in his second term, believes the same thing as many House Republicans: that the Obama White House is covering up the extent of its role in the explanation of the Benghazi attacks.
The Republicans are convinced that the White House, State Department and even the Pentagon are deliberately lying about what happened in the remote Libyan outpost. And they, as well as many hard-line conservative Republicans nationwide, believe that it is the Obama administration’s “Watergate moment,” one serious enough to jeopardize Obama’s hold on the Oval Office, as well as Clinton’s chances of ascending to the presidency should she run.
“Well, I have evidence that not only are they hiding [Benghazi information], there is an intent to hide it,” Gowdy said of the Obama White House during a Friday interview on Fox News. “I can’t disclose that evidence yet, but I have evidence that there was a systematic, intentional decision to withhold certain documents from Congress.”
Issa has issued eight subpoenas on Benghazi. Although more than 25,000 pages of documents have been turned over to congressional investigators, the State Department demands its documents be returned at the end of every workday, a cumbersome process that means hauling thousands of pages of documents back and forth every day between Capitol Hill and Foggy Bottom.
“This administration’s focus since that event has been on pursuing those who did harm to Americans, who killed Americans, and bringing them to justice, and taking action to ensure that the failures in security that helped cause this or lead to this event were addressed and changed,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said on Friday after word of the Gowdy select committee leaked.
White House officials privately dismiss as not revelatory the latest round of internal Benghazi emails turned over to the conservative group Judicial Watch in response to a Freedom of Information Act request. Boehner, Gowdy, Issa and other House Republicans have complained that the failure by the White House to turn over those emails to Congress was the last straw and persuaded Boehner to create a select committee on Benghazi, something that he had refused to do since Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) first floated the idea in December 2012.
According to an Obama administration official, the White House never gave Republicans the emails because Congress never asked for them. A May 2013 subpoena from the Oversight Committee sought any communications between U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice and a specific group of State Department aides. Rice did a round of interviews on the Sept. 16 Sunday shows following the Benghazi attacks, blaming the incident on reaction to an American-made anti-Muslim video, although Obama himself had already said it was a terrorist attack.
Yet the Oversight subpoena never mentioned senior White House officials like Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications or other senior White House aides who helped develop talking points for her Sept. 16 TV appearances. Administration officials did not believe they were legally required to release the Rhodes email to Oversight.
Congressional Democrats and White House officials say the Republicans are “constantly shifting the goalpost” on Benghazi. According to an administration official, Republicans said Obama didn’t label the Benghazi attack a terrorist attack, which wasn’t entirely accurate. Then Republicans asserted the White House “politicized” CIA talking points, which turned out not to be true either. At that point, some Republicans suggested the White House and Clinton ordered the Pentagon not to try to rescue Stevens and the other Americans trapped in the Benghazi outpost. That claim did not stand up to scrutiny either.
An Accountability Review Board report looked closely at actions of State Department officials related to Benghazi security requirements and warnings about a potential attack on the outpost, even though Republicans claimed top State Department officials didn’t come under scrutiny.
“The bottom line is this is a tragedy perpetrated by jihadists in Benghazi, not by diplomats in the State Department,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), an Oversight member and frequent Issa critic. “The conspiracy theories that somehow someone in the U.S. government had to be responsible have been proved totally false.”
Connolly added: “This is nothing but a crass attempt to energize their base because this issue polls well at the expense of the foreign policy interest of the United States. Shame on Speaker Boehner for finally giving it his blessing.”