Commentary Magazine


Topic: House Select Committee on Benghazi

Both Parties Face Traps on Benghazi, IRS

A year ago, as the news of the IRS scandal was breaking and the fallout from Benghazi was also becoming better known, Democrats were on the defensive about possible misconduct by the administration. A year later, their panic has subsided. By steadfastly denigrating the very idea that these scandals are, in fact, scandals, the administration, its political allies, and its cheerleaders in the media have begun to see issues like Benghazi as a battle cry for their base as much as it is for the Republicans. Far from worrying about the impact of investigations into the effort to target conservative groups by the IRS or what happened in Benghazi and its aftermath, liberals are cheered by the decision by the House GOP caucus to embrace these issues.

The conceit of the Democrats’ approach is one that is shared by many fearful conservatives. They think that what is being depicted as an obsessive pursuit of either minor wrongdoing or non-scandals will turn the Republican Party into a laughingstock in much the same manner that the government shutdown did. Since they take it as a given that there is no substance to the accusations of a cover up about government actions either before or after Benghazi or that the IRS controversy involved anything but overzealous bureaucrats, they believe the deeper the GOP dives into these investigations the more Democrats will benefit.

There is some substance to these concerns, since many in the GOP caucus have shown themselves to be incapable of conducting sober investigations or being able to avoid succumbing to grandstanding when they’d be better off at least trying to pretend to be on a bipartisan search for the truth. But, as we noted here last week, the reason these issues are still alive is that there are some serious questions still left answered about administration conduct and the lies that were told after Benghazi. The same goes for the IRS investigation. Though the creation of a select committee on Benghazi is a trip for Republicans, Democrats need to be wary of both underestimating its chair Rep. Trey Gowdy, a veteran prosecutor, and also of getting stuck in the position of defending what may turn out to be the indefensible.

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A year ago, as the news of the IRS scandal was breaking and the fallout from Benghazi was also becoming better known, Democrats were on the defensive about possible misconduct by the administration. A year later, their panic has subsided. By steadfastly denigrating the very idea that these scandals are, in fact, scandals, the administration, its political allies, and its cheerleaders in the media have begun to see issues like Benghazi as a battle cry for their base as much as it is for the Republicans. Far from worrying about the impact of investigations into the effort to target conservative groups by the IRS or what happened in Benghazi and its aftermath, liberals are cheered by the decision by the House GOP caucus to embrace these issues.

The conceit of the Democrats’ approach is one that is shared by many fearful conservatives. They think that what is being depicted as an obsessive pursuit of either minor wrongdoing or non-scandals will turn the Republican Party into a laughingstock in much the same manner that the government shutdown did. Since they take it as a given that there is no substance to the accusations of a cover up about government actions either before or after Benghazi or that the IRS controversy involved anything but overzealous bureaucrats, they believe the deeper the GOP dives into these investigations the more Democrats will benefit.

There is some substance to these concerns, since many in the GOP caucus have shown themselves to be incapable of conducting sober investigations or being able to avoid succumbing to grandstanding when they’d be better off at least trying to pretend to be on a bipartisan search for the truth. But, as we noted here last week, the reason these issues are still alive is that there are some serious questions still left answered about administration conduct and the lies that were told after Benghazi. The same goes for the IRS investigation. Though the creation of a select committee on Benghazi is a trip for Republicans, Democrats need to be wary of both underestimating its chair Rep. Trey Gowdy, a veteran prosecutor, and also of getting stuck in the position of defending what may turn out to be the indefensible.

If all this exasperates Democrats, it’s understandable since they thought that they had already finished weathering the storm of Obama’s scandal-plagued 2013.

After ducking for cover in the wake of the revelations about the IRS’s targeting of conservative and Tea Party groups, the confusing inconclusive narrative that House investigators were able elicit from witnesses diluted public outrage. And when Lois Lerner, the key figure in the scandal, invoked her Fifth Amendment rights against self-incrimination—but only after making a statement declaring her innocence and seemingly waving those rights—that led to a partisan squabble in the House Oversight Committee chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa that allowed Democrats to portray the whole thing as a witch hunt led by an intemperate partisan. That most Democrats voted not to charge Lerner with contempt for refusing to testify shows that they believe not only that there is no scandal but that Republicans will pay a price for pursuing it.

As for Benghazi, the sheer volume of congressional investigations about Benghazi that performed little in the way of actual probing similarly fed the impression that the country was ready to move on rather than searching for more answers.

But the discovery of a smoking gun email from Deputy National Security Director Ben Rhodes that seemed to speak of doctoring the talking points about Benghazi in order to downplay talk of terrorism and reinforce the false narrative about the attack being a case of film criticism run amok has reignited the controversy. House Speaker John Boehner’s decision to finally seat a select committee to investigate the matter may have come a year too late since the chaotic and largely incompetent hearings on the issue have done much to give former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other administration underlings cover. Democrats are divided as to what to do about the Benghazi committee because they are unsure whether taking part in the hearings will lend credence to the GOP probe or if staying away will make it easier for Gowdy to lead the probe toward dangerous territory for the administration.

But rather than solely focus on how much rope to give Republicans to hang themselves, Democrats shouldn’t blithely assume that Gowdy will not uncover more embarrassing revelations about the various aspects of the tragedy, including the failure to heed warnings about terrorism as well as the misleading talking points. Just as Republicans need to worry about playing their roles as dogged pursuers of the truth rather than a political attack squad, so, too, Democrats need to be careful not to overplay their hand.

Democrats acted this week as if they think they have nothing to lose in defending Lerner against contempt charges or stopping the GOP from forcing her to divulge whether anyone higher up in the government food chain had a role in the targeting of conservatives. By the same token, they seem to think that obstructing or mocking the Benghazi investigation will only help them in the midterms as well as protect Clinton’s 2016 presidential prospects.

Yet if Republicans conduct a serious investigation of Benghazi—as Gowdy intends to do—Democrats would be wise to join the South Carolinian in pursuit of the truth. If the probe comes up with nothing embarrassing for the administration and Clinton, they will have lost nothing. But if the select committee—which will have subpoena power and legal counsels conducting a thorough legal process—does learn that the Rhodes email was just the tip of the iceberg, then they, and not the Republicans, will be the big losers if they continue to kibitz on the sidelines. 

The ability of the administration and the media to table these stories is finished, and the sooner Democrats realize that the better off they will be.

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Dude! Benghazi Won’t Go Away Until We Get the Truth

Democrats will probably greet the news that the House of Representatives is assembling a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack by cheering what they think is a Republican charge down a rabbit hole that will do them little political good. That is a viewed shared by some more objective observers like our Max Boot who think the controversy over the infamous talking points is not that big a deal and fear that the entire discussion about Benghazi is a distraction from the administration’s more important foreign-policy failures. He’s right that the administration’s fiascos on issues like Ukraine, Syria, and the Middle East peace process are a bigger deal in the grand scheme of things. And he’s also right that the question of why our diplomats were not better protected, why help was not sent in time to save them, and, even more importantly, why none of the terrorists have been caught are actually far more egregious administration shortcomings than the false story about the attack being caused by an Internet video.

But even when those concerns are taken into account, House Speaker John Boehner is right to convene a select committee. Indeed, the decision is long overdue since the various competing committees that have already held hearings on the issue have generally botched the issue because of the uncoordinated questions from members more interested in grandstanding for the television cameras than in ascertaining the truth. A select committee with staff that will depose witnesses cannot be so easily dismissed.

As to the talking points themselves, however, I think those counseling conservatives to move on are wrong. What we have seen this week is not just the usual spin on events that you get from any White House. This administration has been acting as if no one, not Congress, the press, or the people, has the right to answers about its actions during and after the Benghazi attack. In a telling moment last night on Fox News, former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, one of the people responsible for the famous talking points that claimed the attack was a case of film criticism run amok, had this exchange with Bret Baer:

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Democrats will probably greet the news that the House of Representatives is assembling a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attack by cheering what they think is a Republican charge down a rabbit hole that will do them little political good. That is a viewed shared by some more objective observers like our Max Boot who think the controversy over the infamous talking points is not that big a deal and fear that the entire discussion about Benghazi is a distraction from the administration’s more important foreign-policy failures. He’s right that the administration’s fiascos on issues like Ukraine, Syria, and the Middle East peace process are a bigger deal in the grand scheme of things. And he’s also right that the question of why our diplomats were not better protected, why help was not sent in time to save them, and, even more importantly, why none of the terrorists have been caught are actually far more egregious administration shortcomings than the false story about the attack being caused by an Internet video.

But even when those concerns are taken into account, House Speaker John Boehner is right to convene a select committee. Indeed, the decision is long overdue since the various competing committees that have already held hearings on the issue have generally botched the issue because of the uncoordinated questions from members more interested in grandstanding for the television cameras than in ascertaining the truth. A select committee with staff that will depose witnesses cannot be so easily dismissed.

As to the talking points themselves, however, I think those counseling conservatives to move on are wrong. What we have seen this week is not just the usual spin on events that you get from any White House. This administration has been acting as if no one, not Congress, the press, or the people, has the right to answers about its actions during and after the Benghazi attack. In a telling moment last night on Fox News, former National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor, one of the people responsible for the famous talking points that claimed the attack was a case of film criticism run amok, had this exchange with Bret Baer:

BRET BAIER: According to the e-mails and the time line, the CIA circulates new talking points after they’ve removed the mention of al Qaeda and then at 6:21 the White House, you, add a line about the administration warning on September 10th of social media reports calling for demonstrations. True?

TOMMY VIETOR: I believe so.

BAIER: Did you also change attacks to demonstrations in the talking points? VIETOR: Maybe. I don’t really remember.

VIETOR: Dude, this was like two years ago. We’re still talking about the most mundane thing.

BAIER: Dude, it’s what everybody is talking about.

While Vietor is being rightly mocked for his cavalier and sophomoric attitude about a famous lie, it’s actually quite telling. Democrats are befuddled as to why the Benghazi story is still being discussed since they think there’s nothing to it and that we should have all moved on a year ago. But it won’t go away until they start telling the truth.

This exchange came on the heels of the delayed release of the shocking email from Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes and the repeated arrogant lies told about this communication by White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. This is more than mere fodder for conspiracy theorists and partisans who watch Fox News. They speak to an arrogant contempt for the public and the press that is rooted in a belief that this administration is above scrutiny and that anyone who wants to know the truth about the misleading talking points or anything else about this event should just shut up.

Though their performance on this issue may argue to the contrary, Republicans can walk and chew gum at the same time. They are perfectly capable of persisting in efforts to get to the bottom of Benghazi while holding the president accountable for what is happening in Ukraine, Syria, and the Middle East.

As I’ve written previously, Benghazi won’t be a decisive factor in the 2014 midterms or the 2016 presidential election. But this story isn’t going away no matter how much Obama and his putative successor Hillary Clinton want it to. That’s not because GOP fanatics are deranged haters but because the White House seems to think telling the truth is an option rather than an obligation. That’s a belief that was reinforced for a long time in much of the mainstream media that seemed to take its marching orders from the White House. But the belated release and attempts to cover up and then lie about the smoking gun email on the talking points has aroused even some sectors of the press that might once have been counted on not to try to expose the administration to ridicule.

It’s not too late for a select committee to explore why Ambassador Chris Stevens and four other Americans were left to die in Benghazi without adequate protection or U.S. forces being able to rush to their aid. It should press the administration about its failure to catch the terrorists even though they continue to operate in plain view in the region. And it should also force officials to finally fess up about their political motivations for trying to pretend that a video rather than a revived al-Qaeda coalition was responsible as well as to how and why this was covered up.

These are not trivial concerns and if the House does its job, finding the answers to these questions will not be either a distraction from other foreign-policy failures or a political bonanza for Democrats. We can’t move on until we know the truth and that is something that has not happened yet. Much to the frustration of the White House, Benghazi will be over when we find out the truth and not a day sooner.

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