Magazine | June 2, 2014, Issue

Time for Truth on Benghazi

(AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
The select committee should forget about politics and just find out what happened

Speaker John Boehner’s long-overdue appointment of a select committee to probe the Benghazi massacre finally gives the House’s investigation a chance to succeed. It is just a chance, mind you, and “success,” it should be stressed, means revealing truth and ensuring accountability, not partisan electioneering. That said, a focused select committee, chaired by a seasoned former prosecutor, Representative Trey Gowdy (R., S.C.), is the best shot at breaking through the stonewall that surrounds the Obama administration’s derelictions before, during, and after the terrorist attack that killed four Americans, including the United States ambassador to Libya.

This is not to condemn the performance of lawmakers to date. In the 20 months since September 11, 2012, when jihadists stormed the American diplomatic facility at Benghazi — a facility whose purpose remains mysterious — valuable information has indeed been pried from the most opaque administration in history. Congress, however, is simply not designed to conduct an investigation that is in the nature more of a grand-jury inquiry than of legislative oversight.

Capitol Hill’s maze-like assemblage of committees and subcommittees examine complex matters through the prism of their narrow and often competing subject-matter jurisdictions. They step on each other’s toes and leave salient questions unanswered. Wide variations in the competence of members and staff render the quality of standing-committee work hit-and-miss.

Even when a standing committee attempts a thoroughgoing, bipartisan investigation, the result is often politicized findings that sidestep facts and accountability. Witness the Senate Intelligence Committee’s Benghazi report of January 2014. It managed to find the attack “preventable” yet held no one responsible for failing to prevent it. It faulted the State Department but barely mentioned then-secretary Hillary Clinton’s name and somehow found no cover-up despite a deluge of contrary evidence — and e-mails that were withheld from the committee have only recently been unearthed.

Among these was the now-infamous Ben Rhodes e-mail. In it, the White House’s deputy national-security adviser proposed political damage control on the eve of Ambassador (and presidential confidante) Susan Rice’s disastrous appearance on the talk-show circuit the Sunday after the attack — i.e., just seven weeks before the 2012 presidential election. Rhodes’s directive to emphasize that “these protests” were “rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy” was circulated to Obama insiders, including spokesman Jay Carney. They make explicit the theretofore obvious deceit in administration disavowals that the White House had coached Rice or been instrumental in purging references to “al-Qaeda” and “attacks” from the intelligence community’s “talking points.”

The “blame the video” script in Rhodes’s September 14 e-mail, which Ms. Rice followed to a tee, also bears a striking resemblance to statements made by then-secretary Clinton a day before the e-mail. This, in turn, underscores the significance of a 10 p.m. phone call between Clinton and the president while the September 11 Benghazi siege was still raging. The White House initially denied that Obama spoke with Clinton that night, changing its version only after Clinton testified to the contrary. It was moments after Obama called Clinton that she issued a statement blaming the violence on the video.

The explosive e-mails were uncovered not by any of the several congressional committees probing Benghazi but by Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group, which persevered in its Freedom of Information Act litigation through months of administration resistance. This embarrassing fact finally pushed Boehner to appoint a select committee. For now, even the Obamaphile media is taking notice of the administration’s legerdemain.

The select committee is a significant improvement because it need not view a public controversy through the lens of a standing committee’s assigned responsibilities (e.g., armed services, foreign affairs, government reform, or intelligence). Its task, like a grand jury’s, is to find out what happened.

To be sure, a select committee is saddled with innate limitations. It is a congressional committee, after all. Our system prudently denies prosecutorial power to the legislative branch — just as it denies lawmaking power to the executive branch (though that may be news to President Obama). Although the select committee is dedicated to the probe of a single scandal and authorized to issue subpoenas, it still lacks the executive branch’s police powers and ability to file criminal charges — the assets that enable the Justice Department to conduct efficient investigations.

The select committee faces other significant challenges, because while the House may have changed its approach to Benghazi, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats have not.

The White House shrewdly calculates that the moment for Republicans to grab broad public attention was when the Benghazi attack had recently happened. But at that time, with a notorious assist from CNN’s Candy Crowley, the Obama campaign brushed Mitt Romney back off the plate. In perpetual frustration over GOP quiescence, we political wonks are not surprised that Republicans talked themselves into going dark on Obama’s reckless security lapses and post-attack fraudulence — in this instance, the GOP obsession was to narrow the 2012 campaign to a referendum on the struggling economy. Most Americans naturally assume, however, that if there were anything to Benghazi, the Romney campaign would surely have exploited it. Those pressing for Benghazi accountability have struggled to overcome this hurdle to public attention. The president is betting that the flap over the e-mails is just a temporary irritant: Continued stonewalling and ridiculing the select committee as a partisan witch hunt will, he reckons, put the public back to sleep.

#page#Taking these cues, congressional Democrats bitterly belittle Benghazi as a faux scandal manufactured by Fox News and the Tea Party. As a trial balloon, they have flirted with not participating in the select committee, absurdly arguing that it is not “bipartisan” because there will be only five Democrats compared with seven Republicans. (Congressional committees, including select committees, routinely reflect the controlling party’s majority — and certainly did when Nancy Pelosi was speaker.) Bet your bottom dollar, though, that Democrats will participate and vigorously defend both their president and their presumed (though not by me) 2016 presidential favorite, Mrs. Clinton. Having watched the shenanigans of Representative Elijah Cummings (D., Md.) in hearings on the IRS scandal, they know that the best way to discredit a committee’s work is to be on the committee.

Nor do the Democrats lack ammunition to work with. The select committee must focus on the shameful lapses leading up to the attack, not least the administration’s reduction in security despite multiple terror strikes against Western targets (including the diplomatic facility itself), and despite pleas for increased security by U.S. government personnel in Libya, including Christopher Stevens, our murdered ambassador. But why were we in Benghazi? To understand that, one must harken back to the Obama policy shift that turned our government against the Libyan regime.

Though Moammar Qaddafi was then regarded as a U.S. counterterrorism ally, Obama jumped into the Libyan civil war on the side of the “rebels,” notwithstanding the pervasive presence of jihadists — very much including al-Qaeda elements — among them. While many conservatives (myself included) strenuously opposed this policy shift, it was strongly supported by leading congressional Republicans. Indeed, it was in Benghazi — a notorious launching pad for terrorists joining the anti-American jihad in Iraq — that Senator John McCain in April 2011 publicly called the rebels “my heroes” and demanded that they be supplied with weapons, intelligence, and other military support.

The administration’s post-Benghazi-massacre claim that the violence was attributable to an anti-Muslim video rather than to a “broader failure of policy” has always been indefensible. Nevertheless, expect Democrats to remind Republicans, and the public, that if the failed policy empowered jihadists and heightened the threat of anti-American terrorism in Benghazi, it was very much a bipartisan policy.

For his part, Chairman Gowdy cannot shy away from such inconvenient facts. Charles Krauthammer observes that, in steering the revitalized effort to get to the bottom of Benghazi, Republicans on the select committee must “keep the proceedings clean, factual, and dispassionate.” More sage advice has never been offered.

There are several palpable areas of inquiry: Why did the administration maintain a shadowy compound in one of the most dangerous places in the world for Americans? Why was security for it so appallingly lacking? What role did willful blindness to Islamic-supremacist ideology — at the White House, at Foggy Bottom, and on Capitol Hill — play in the mulish failure to acknowledge the threat and adjust security accordingly? Was security compromised, and was the predictably resulting jihadist attack covered up, because of election-year politics — by an Obama campaign that was claiming to have “decimated” al-Qaeda and counting Libya as a success story? It will be critical for Gowdy to pursue all these threads. It is thus vital that he retain capable professional staff — former prosecutors and investigators, as well as intelligence and military veterans — to combat the administration’s foot-dragging, privilege claims, and sundry non-disclosure tactics.

Most essential, however, is that Gowdy maintain his focus. There is a simple explanation of why Benghazi remains significant despite tireless efforts to bury it: Our wartime enemies attacked our sovereign territory in Libya and killed our nation’s representative; the attack was easily foreseeable and preventable, yet threats were ignored. The obvious cause of the ensuing massacre was covered up, our enemies have been strengthened, and no one has been held accountable. Much of the public still wants to know how and why that happened. The point is not to engage in partisan theatrics in an election year or to embarrass — or avoid embarrassing — elected officials who designed a flawed policy. It is to find out what happened so that, through any necessary changes in policy and personnel, we can stop it from happening again.

Just the facts, please.

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