Politics & Policy

Benghazi Committee Trades Fire with Conservative Watchdog

Benghazi committee chairman Trey Gowdy (James Lawler Duggan/Reuters)

After a two-year investigation, the House Select Committee on Benghazi is weeks away from issuing its final report on the federal government’s response to the 2012 terror attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Libya.

First, however, it’s hoping to discredit its most persistent conservative critics.

Republican Committee spokesmen are accusing Judicial Watch, the conservative watchdog group pursuing a parallel inquiry into the Benghazi attacks, of drafting in the Committee’s investigative wake while claiming credit for some of its most important discoveries. They say they held their tongues after Tom Fitton, Judicial Watch’s president and an erstwhile ally, accused them of “bungling” the investigation in a March interview with the Washington Post. But as the release of the final report nears, GOP lawmakers, led by committee chairman Trey Gowdy, are worried that the group will over-politicize their much-anticipated report. So they’ve opened fire, accusing Judicial Watch of mischaracterizing the facts in a rush to enhance its reputation and boost fundraising.

Gowdy and his group believe that Judicial Watch has muddied the waters ahead of the final report in an effort to create the false impression that it is privy to inside information about the investigation. Fitton denies that charge. “That’s just an excuse to justify their attacks,” he says. “They’re obviously on the defensive about their incompetence, and the fact that the public has been kept in the dark about key issues that the Committee should’ve disclosed many years ago. Who would look at, at least the public reporting, or even our press releases, and say that we had any contact or any connection with the Committee?”

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At the heart of the issue are two separate State Department records disclosing the communications of then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton in the days and hours immediately following the September 11, 2012 attack — records that Fitton described in an April 27 Breitbart op-ed as “the two big reveals” of Clinton’s Benghazi testimony. He said the documents were only disclosed because of Judicial Watch’s public records lawsuits against the State Department – “and despite the incompetence of Congress.”

Benghazi Committee Republicans, however, reject that assertion, claiming neither document was acquired as a result of Judicial Watch’s litigation. Select Committee spokesman Matt Wolking claims that it would be impossible for Judicial Watch to know when the committee received key documents, because Republicans on the committee “do not coordinate or share information with outside political groups.”

That the two key instigators of the official investigation are now at each other’s throats suggests a deepening divide between congressional Republicans and conservative activists.

The escalating feud is difficult to arbitrate, because there’s no way to verify when the Committee first received the documents until they’re released in its final report. It’s also ironic, since an e-mail uncovered through one of Judicial Watch’s public-records requests was what prompted the Select Committee’s creation in the first place. That September 14, 2012 message, from Obama adviser Ben Rhodes to the rest of the White House, emphasized the need to “underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy.” Its release convinced then-Speaker John Boehner of the need for a Select Committee.

That the two key instigators of the official investigation are now at each other’s throats suggests a deepening divide between congressional Republicans and conservative activists: The former are anxious to avoid the appearance of a political witch-hunt, while the latter still hope to wield Benghazi as a stake through the heart of Clinton’s presidential bid.

One of the two documents in question summarizes a telephone conversation between Clinton and then-Egyptian prime minister Hisham Kandil that took place on September 12, in which Clinton says the attack “had nothing to do with [a] film” and was likely planned by an al-Qaeda affiliate. The other is an e-mail exchange between Clinton and her daughter the night of the attack, in which she said the ambassador and another State Department officer were killed by “an Al Queda-like [sic] group.”

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The documents were publicly unveiled for the first time during Clinton’s marathon hearing before the Select Committee on October 22, 2015, and immediately set off a firestorm on the political right. Clinton’s critics — including Judicial Watch and several Republican members of the Committee — brandished the records as proof that Clinton and other Obama administration officials lied to the American people when they blamed the attack on a spontaneous demonstration sparked by an anti-Islamic YouTube video.

#share#A Select Committee staffer says Republicans first grew frustrated with Judicial Watch a few weeks later, on November 13, 2015, when the group published a press release that allegedly misstated when the Committee first received Clinton’s e-mail to her daughter. Judicial Watch claimed the committee received the document only after it was released to Judicial Watch. Republicans on the Committee say they got their hands on the document a month earlier, and subsequently asked the State Department to clear it for public release.

Committee members take similar issue with Judicial Watch’s assertion that it drove the State Department’s release of the internal e-mail summarizing Clinton’s conversation with Prime Minister Kandil. In an April 14, 2016 press release, Judicial Watch claimed that the government only handed over the e-mail to the Committee on October 13, 2015, “after two federal court judges ordered the State Department to produce more Benghazi-related records to” the conservative watchdog group. The committee staffer says that’s simply not true, claiming that they received an unredacted version of the e-mail in August 2014, before Judicial Watch had even filed the lawsuit they now credit with uncovering it.

Fitton says Committee Republicans are running a baseless smear campaign to cover up their own investigative inadequacies.

Judicial Watch furiously rejects these and other accusations, and Fitton says Committee Republicans are running a baseless smear campaign to cover up their own investigative inadequacies. “The Select Committee, rather than figuring out what went on in Benghazi, and holding those accountable and doing that kind of work, is spending its time calling up media and attacking Judicial Watch with silly ‘gotcha’ typo issues and arguments that are in dispute,” he says. “I would think they’d be pleased by our efforts to bring transparency to this process, but they absolutely resent it.”

Fitton categorically denies all but the most minor factual errors, and turns several charges back around on the Committee. “I understand that the e-mail [from Clinton to her daughter] was given to the Committee before it was given to us,” he says. “But the only reason it was given to the Committee is because they found it in response to a search for us — and then they gave it to us,” he says. “The same goes with the pressure on the Egyptian call-sheet document,” he says, claiming that the document’s public release was tied to a lawsuit his organization was pursuing against the State Department.

Fitton admits that the Committee could have quietly obtained unredacted copies of the documents well before airing them publicly at Clinton’s October hearing. But that, he says, raises another question: If the Committee possessed both documents earlier why didn’t they release them immediately? “Why didn’t they disclose the unbelievable news — or the incredible news then, back in 2014 — that Hillary Clinton was caught red-handed in a lie as a result of this information showing that she communicated about an al-Qaeda attack with the Egyptian foreign minister?”​ Fitton asks. “Why would they withhold that?”

Wolking says Judicial Watch’s charge that his Committee is overly-secretive is “a descriptor the Committee takes as a compliment while the investigation is still ongoing.” He says Fitton has been frustrated with the Committee ever since Gowdy, “to preserve the integrity of the investigation,” first rebuffed his alleged request to share information in the fall of 2014.

He also points to the large “Donate” button at the bottom of each of Judicial Watch’s Benghazi reports as proof the organization is trying to boost its fundraising by taking credit for documents originally obtained by the Committee. But he insists that the Committee’s aggressive pushback is not retaliation for the group’s increasingly harsh criticisms. Republican lawmakers, he explains, are primarily concerned with Judicial Watch’s inaccurate assertions about the investigation.

Fitton says his organization has no choice but to solicit donations. “Congress can finance its investigation with confiscatory taxes and trillions of dollars in public debt — Judicial Watch has to rely on voluntary contributions to do the work that Congress isn’t doing,” he says.

#related#The Select Committee plans to release its report on the Benghazi attacks in a matter of weeks. Until that time, committee spokesmen say they’re under no obligation to explain why they kept some documents close to the vest, and promise to keep pushing back on Judicial Watch and any other group they believe misconstrues the committee’s activities. “When the committee releases its report, transcripts of witness interviews, and other evidence, everyone will be able to see the thoroughness and fairness of this investigation for themselves,” says Wolking.

But with the squabble between Judicial Watch and Select Committee Republicans only intensifying in the run-up to the report’s release, it seems unlikely either side will back down anytime soon.

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter for National Review.


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