Hillary Clinton has done Trey Gowdy an enormous favor. In anticipation of her testimony on Thursday before the Benghazi select committee he chairs, and with a lot of Republican help, she has framed the committee as a partisan political witch-hunt obsessed with dashing her presidential ambitions.
To regain credibility, all Gowdy needs to do is demonstrate that it is not. Meaning: all Gowdy needs to do is focus on why the United States had its officials stationed in Benghazi, one of the world’s most dangerous places for Americans.
What mission was so essential that it was necessary to keep Americans on-site when the jihadist threat had become so intense that other nations and organizations were pulling their people out?
These questions implicate disastrous policy that was, very much, bipartisan policy: (a) withdrawing American support for the Qaddafi regime that our government was funding and allied with against jihadist terror; (b) switching sides to aid and arm the jihadist-rife “rebels” who opposed Qaddafi; (c) waging a war under false pretenses – i.e., working for Qaddafi’s ouster, without congressional authorization, under the guise of a U.N. mandate that only permitted the protection of civilians; and (d) transitioning from support of Libyan jihadists to support for Syrian jihadists – i.e., transitioning from the policy that has left Libya a failed state with a growing ISIS and al Qaeda foot print, to a policy that contributed to the ascendancy of ISIS – by among other things, abetting the shipment of weapons from Libya to Syria.
Getting answers on how and why these actions were taken is the business of statesmanship, not partisanship. It is a business for which the committee, to this point, has shown little zest.
Well, on Thursday, Chairman Gowdy will have the nation’s attention. It’s now or never.
Camp Clinton’s relentless attacks on the committee should have had little persuasive force. The Clintons exude partisan hardball, a fact only highlighted by the herculean efforts Mrs. Clinton has made to impede fact-finding. That she is nevertheless getting traction owes to three factors.
The first two are obvious. There is the stunning cluelessness of Congressman Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.), who discredited the committee by publicly suggesting – bragging might be a better way of putting it – that it has succeeded in damaging Clinton’s presidential campaign. Then there are committee Democrats, who have maintained from the start, in naked partisanship, that the GOP-ordained panel is a farce.
For the third, Gowdy has no one to blame but himself. He has insisted that the committee do almost all of its work behind the scenes, despite the fact that this is not a criminal investigation of private wrongdoing shrouded in grand jury secrecy rules but, rather, an investigation by the people’s representatives to establish public accountability for government derelictions of duty.
There is, of course, a place for doing private interviews. They can be more productive than the posturing and sometime-circus atmosphere of open congressional hearings. But if you do virtually everything in secret, you give your opposition the opportunity to define your actions and motives without adequate rebuttal – a lesson a lawyer as sharp as Gowdy should have learned from the number Camp Clinton did on Ken Starr.
In the absence of open committee hearings that could have proved the good faith of committee Republicans to the public, we got months upon months of silence. Gowdy, inadvertently or not, then fueled the witch-hunt accusations by seeming to come to life only after news of Clinton’s lawless private server system surfaced in the spring.
There are extraordinarily good reasons for pouncing on Clinton’s obstruction: No fact-finding investigation can be competent and complete unless the investigators get access to the relevant evidence – and obstruction by key players is itself important evidence of their state of mind, shedding critical light on their actions.
Gowdy, however, did not stir until the Clinton private email scheme surfaced – a lapse compounded when the chairman conceded that he’d known about private system for months before news of it broke publicly, yet had failed either to (a) use his subpoena power to compel production of the emails, or (b) raise holy hell in Congress and the media – something he is quite good at – that would have shamed the Justice Department into seizing the private servers months earlier.
By doing next to nothing in public for over a year and then quite publicly complaining about the emails only after they became a subject of controversy, Gowdy has helped Democrats portray his investigation as political opportunism only tangentially related to the only thing that makes the emails pertinent – what they tell us about the security failures that led to the Benghazi massacre and the “blame the video” fraud that followed it.
Thursday, Chairman Gowdy has the chance to make things right. He will fail, however, if he does not tightly focus on the flawed policies and serious errors in judgment for which not only Mrs. Clinton but the Obama administration and congressional leaders of both parties are responsible.
Six more pieces of unsolicited advice for the committee:
1. The Accountability Review Board: be ready to destroy its credibility in the first five minutes, or just adjourn the hearing.
Mrs. Clinton is nothing if not utterly predictable. She and the State Department have been touting the ARB to anyone who would listen – from the time its report was issued in 2012 through her most recent dismissive comments about Gowdy’s committee. But the ARB investigation is a patent joke. It was the State Department investigating itself: Giving the ARB the undeserved benefit of the doubt, its purpose was not to establish accountability but to posit curative steps that would prevent a similar debacle from happening in the future. So even if the ARB were not a farce, it had a very different purpose from the Gowdy committee’s.
But it was a farce. Mrs. Clinton hand-picked the investigators, who conveniently and compliantly did not bother to interview her and other key Benghazi players. Moreover, it is abundantly clear that Mrs. Clinton withheld hundreds of her own emails from the ARB and that it did not have access to other highly relevant information. Further, a top State Department official has publicly stated that he walked in on an effort led by then-secretary Clinton’s staff to conceal unflattering information from the files being amassed for review by the ARB.
Clinton is going to keep hammering at the talking-point that there is nothing to see here because the ARB already did a thorough investigation, which – surprise! – cleared her. Gowdy and other committee Republicans have to be prepared to destroy the ARB as a sham. If, in the Washington way, they tip-toe around the sham because Hillary’s carefully chosen investigators were – surprise! – old Washington hands, the ballgame is over. The ARB can’t just be bruised; it has to be, and deserves to be, beaten to a pulp.
2. Mrs. Clinton’s soliloquies have to be mocked.
One of the reasons Clinton shrewdly declined to submit to a private committee interview is the calculation that she can control the public forum. There is no judge at a congressional hearing – no impartial presiding official who can order and shame witnesses (or, for that matter, questioners) to stick to the subject and not use the proceeding as a soap box. The former secretary and senator figures she can run the clock making long speeches spiced with faux indignation (“What difference, at this point, does it make …?”), with the Congress critters eventually becoming bored, frustrated, and ready to pack it in.
The way good trial lawyers deal with this tactic is to mock it. When Clinton starts this routine, probably in the first few minutes, somebody has to be ready to ask her how many times she practiced that speech in front of the mirror before coming to the hearing. They have to be ready to remind her of the question she has failed to answer – and that she has failed to answer it. Either the questioners control the witness or the witness controls the hearing. There’s no middle ground.
3. Similarly, committee Republicans have to be ready for the shenanigans of committee Democrats in service of Mrs. Clinton’s evasions.
Someone needs to be armed with the number of witness interviews committee Democrats have skipped, the documents they’ve not bothered to review.
Gowdy has said the reason for all the committee’s behind the scenes work was to assemble and master the facts of the case. Well, now’s the time to show you’ve mastered them: call your adversaries on their misstatements, show everyone that there is a real investigation here that they are trying to obscure. Be ready with the endorsements of Clinton’s candidacy they’ve touted. And while marshaling all this information, it would be effective to remind people that this is about murdered Americans who deserved the Democrats’ attention, not their gamesmanship.
4. The thousands of recently produced emails and documents.
As late as this week, the Obama State Department dumped 1300 of Ambassador Stevens’ emails on the committee. This stonewalling has gone on for years.
Mrs. Clinton is going to be ready to catalogue the investigations by the executive branch and several congressional committees in order to suggest that Benghazi has already been exhaustively probed. Gowdy’s committee, she’ll repeat, is unnecessary – just a Republican stunt to derail her campaign.
To refute this effectively, committee Republicans have to be ready to list, in exacting detail, the mounds upon mounds of evidence that was never reviewed – emails hidden, witnesses ignored – in those investigations. Incomplete, incompetent investigations get to the bottom of nothing, no matter how impressive-sounding the investigative body. And again, the Americans killed and wounded, their loved ones, and the country deserved better from Washington.
5. Remember Gregory Hicks.
Mrs. Clinton, the State Department, and the White House have their story down on the “Blame the Video” fraud they perpetrated: “We had determined that the anti-Muslim video was responsible for the rioting at the American embassy in Egypt earlier on September 11, 2012; in the fog of war, it was reasonable to presume that the video had the same instigating effect when it came to the violence in Libya.”
Committee Republicans must be armed with the facts that show the White House and State Department knew from the first minutes that the Benghazi siege was a terrorist attack, and that intelligence community talking points were willfully edited to conceal that fact. The CIA did not believe the video had anything to do with the violence. More significantly, Greg Hicks – the senior State Department official on the ground in Libya that night after Stevens was killed – was categorical is asserting that the video “was a non-event” in Libya. The video story appears to have been concocted for public consumption late on the night of the attacks … very shortly after Secretary Clinton and President Obama spoke on the phone.
6. Leave the criminal investigation to the FBI.
Mrs. Clinton’s reckless mishandling of national defense information is not the subject of the committee’s inquiry. Congress does not have the legal means or authority to resolve whether laws were broken. To give the appearance that this is what the committee is trying to do would play into the Clinton narrative that the committee is a partisan witch-hunt.
The emails are relevant to the cause of political accountability: showing what actually happened in the key Benghazi events and illustrating that Mrs. Clinton and the State Department had a motive – their disastrous performance of their duties – to withhold evidence. That’s what the committee is there to explore. Leave the criminal case to the FBI and the Justice Department.