Since last September, many Americans have had the sick feeling that their government was getting away with a cover-up of massive proportions. Four Americans representing our country in Libya were left unprotected by their own government, and then abandoned during the terrorist attack that would eventually claim their lives. It seemed the problem would never be rectified and accountability would never be assessed.
All of that changed last week with the testimony of three courageous State Department employees before the House Oversight Committee. Their statements, along with e-mails leaked from the White House, the State Department, and other agencies, provided damning evidence of an administration cover-up in the months before the 2012 election. No longer able to ignore the obvious, major media organizations now are asking serious questions about the Obama administration’s behavior.
As serious as the cover-up is, it may be overshadowed by what happened before and during the attack. There is already substantial reason to believe that gross negligence, as well as shocking political and military timidity, may have been directly responsible for the loss of our ambassador and the three others, creating an international crisis in one of the most politically sensitive regions of the world.
Although it has taken eight months for us to get answers to a very few questions, those answers make one thing abundantly clear: Now is the time for the House of Representatives to form a relatively small, special bipartisan committee with broad subpoena power to focus on this matter.
The special committee should hire respected, experienced counsel. The counsel should be responsible for the committee staff, and have the authority to question all of the public witnesses. Giving the counsel 30 or 45 minutes in which to question each witness will ensure all of the appropriate facts see the light of day. The current practice of giving each committee member five minutes, with each usually having his own line of questioning, is not designed to get to the bottom of anything. A hostile or reluctant witness doesn’t even have to be especially clever to avoid having to answer anything of substance in just five minutes.
The present situation, with five or so different standing committees that have other responsibilities (which seem to be expanding, with the IRS scandal, etc.), is time-consuming and runs many unnecessary security risks. After last week, the House may feel that it has the wind at its back, but that feeling may be fleeting.
Expectations are now higher than ever before. There is likely to be competition among the committees to try to quickly follow up with more big witnesses, but this would be a mistake. The investigation must be built from the bottom up, not the top down — based upon exhaustive interviews and thorough investigation of e-mails and documents. Only then will the committee be ready to publicly question the so-called big witnesses.
Benghazi involves the State Department., military operations, foreign relations, intelligence, and government operations. There are standing committees for each of these areas, but no committee with jurisdiction over all of them. The special committee, which has been utilized regularly for important matters throughout our history, could use expertise from all of these committees while avoiding the mess created by five committees’ competing for witnesses, running separate investigations, while at the same time attending to their normal committee responsibilities. Further, history tells us that a select committee such as the one I describe is much more likely to attract whistleblowers with knowledge of important facts. Good work has already been done on Benghazi, but a committee of members selected because of their standing with their peers or their expertise, a committee with a specific congressional mandate, will simply have more credibility.
Today’s media will turn on Republicans at the first sign of disorganization and highlight every witness who does not produce a smoking gun. They will pounce on the first comment made by a member that shows it’s “all political.” These are pitfalls that can be better handled by a smaller, disciplined committee.
The stakes are extremely high for the administration, and it is likely to use everything at its disposal to thwart any investigation and resist disclosure. There are several well-worn tactics available to them, including ongoing criminal investigations and the veil of security clearances.
The administration may purposefully direct information to the intelligence committee because they know it cannot be shared with other committees. When the White House and other executive offices are probed, claims of executive privilege can be expected. Legal battles may ensue. Material will be withheld with the excuse, “We’ve already turned over thousands of documents,” regardless of their relevance or the importance of what is being withheld.
There will be delay, delay, delay, then the release of select information late on Friday afternoon, to be called, when it is subsequently brought up in the committee, “old news.” Or there will be information turned over to the committee then leaked, so the committee can be blamed, providing an excuse to slow walk or deny them further information. Every attempt will be made to discredit an investigating committee and its members.
The obstacles are higher than they may look today. All of this can best be overcome with a unified effort, a single strategy, and a specific congressional mandate. That kind of effort has the best chance of reaching the truth. The American people, and especially the relatives of those who lost their lives for our country, deserve nothing less.
— Fred Thompson is a former U.S. senator from Tennessee.