The Benghazi Committee Gets Its Moment In The Spotlight, And So Does Hillary Clinton
What will likely be the apex of the House Select Committee's investigation of the Benghazi attack begins and ends today with the testimony of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
In a few short hours, most of the American political world will be glued to television sets and computer monitors watching the much-anticipated testimony of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before the House Select Committee investigating the attack on the American diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya on September 12, 2012. The drama, however, will be as much about the 2016 campaign for the White House as it will the investigation of the events surrounding the attacks:
For days, Hillary Rodham Clinton has been sequestered inside her red brick home in Washington, poring over events that happened more than three years ago and half a world away.
Her preparations for the hearing on Thursday before the House of Representatives’ Benghazi committee have included reviewing broad themes, operational details and the innumerable emails related to the September 2012 attack on the United States Mission in Libya.
But for all of Mrs. Clinton’s mastery over the substance related to Benghazi, the hearing in many ways will amount to a test of patience and will: To succeed politically, she must remain calm, take every question seriously and avoid outbursts during what is expected to be a daylong appearance, even amid her private frustration over what she sees as a Republican-led effort to hurt her presidential prospects.
“They’ll try to attack the secretary on emails, question her server, feign righteous indignation,” said Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California, who has been highly critical of the committee’s motivations. But mostly, Mr. Schiff added, “They’ll hope to wear the secretary down.”
Mrs. Clinton’s testimony, in the Capitol Hill hearing room where she appeared as first lady to defend her proposed health care legislation in 1993, is expected to last eight to 10 hours. And although the committee will devote most of the inquiry to the security at American outposts in Libya and the response to an attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, the lines of questioning will also touch on her broader tenure at the State Department.
“Unless there is a new set of facts, which I firmly doubt,” said Thomas R. Nides, who was deputy secretary for management and resources under Mrs. Clinton and testified about the Benghazi attacks in 2012, “I don’t see how the testimony is going to be dramatically different than 18 months ago.”
But Mrs. Clinton was not a presidential candidate during previous inquiries into the Benghazi attacks, and on Thursday, members will probably also highlight wider questions about her tenure at the State Department, her dependence on the advice of a cadre of political aides and her overall approach in Libya. Mrs. Clinton had pushed the White House to join a NATO-led coalition to oust Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, a move that is widely seen as contributing to the chaos and instability in the country and region.
“The idea that a blood bath of innocent people was imminent in western Libya had the West not intervened just did not bear out,” said Paul R. Pillar, a former C.I.A. analyst who teaches at Georgetown University. “It’s going to be a hazard for her.”
Mrs. Clinton has dismissed the Benghazi committee as a “partisan arm” of the Republican National Committee and called Representative Kevin McCarthy’s comments linking the investigation to her declining poll numbers “deeply depressing” and a “grave disservice” to the Americans killed in Benghazi.
But the former secretary of state, always a voracious student, has also prepared assiduously.
After an intense campaign schedule following the first Democratic primary debate last Tuesday, Mrs. Clinton has had no major events or fund-raisers the past several days. And her aides say that in many ways, preparing for the hearing is more difficult than a debate, for which a candidate can usually anticipate questions from a neutral moderator. Testifying before the Republican-led committee means Mrs. Clinton must contemplate the political motivation behind each inquiry; with every response, she must also anticipate the political traps, these advisers said.
“It’s easier in terms of substance; the harder part is the political dance involved,” said Lissa Muscatine, a longtime friend and speechwriter to Mrs. Clinton, adding, “You have to be really smart in how you actually respond to questions that might have ulterior motives.”
Mrs. Clinton has experience testifying before Congress and knows how mentally exhausting the experience can be. In addition to the 1993 testimony she gave about the Clinton administration’s proposed health care overhaul, Mrs. Clinton faced extensive questioning in 2009 during the confirmation hearings to become secretary of state.
She previously testified about Benghazi on May 8, 2013. Before that, two deputy secretaries of state, William J. Burns and Mr. Nides, testified in December 2012, after Mrs. Clinton sustained a concussion after fainting and was unable to testify.
Political critics will be looking for even the slightest sign of indifference or impatience on Thursday.
As Karen DeYoung at The Washington Post notes, the reality about the committee is that it has always been as much about politics as anything else:
From the start, investigations of the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador, have focused on three questions: Why was security insufficient at the Benghazi diplomatic compound? Why was there no timely U.S. military response? And why did the administration initially describe the attacks as a spontaneous protest, rather than a planned terrorist assault?
As the House Select Committee on Benghazi prepares to question former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday, those questions seem almost beside the point.
The answers, however unsatisfactory to some, have been provided repeatedly by Clinton and many other senior administration and intelligence officials over the past two years, as well as in a series of independent and bipartisan congressional reports, and are unlikely to change.
Instead, attention will be focused on how well Clinton, now the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and her Republican critics behave during what is expected to be at least eight hours of testimony.
Scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., the hearing is to consist of four rounds of questions lasting 10 minutes from each of its seven Republicans and five Democrats.
On the Republican side, members have been cautioned by their chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.), a former prosecutor, to stick to the facts and avoid providing ammunition to Democrats who accuse them of having a political vendetta against Clinton.
Expecting Republicans to use a rapid-fire prosecutorial technique that allows little time for long answers, Democrats are prepared to restate the majority’s questions and try to elicit more thoughtful responses, while also seeking to focus attention on what the administration has done to avoid such attacks in the future.
Gowdy told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the hearing “is about the three tranches of Benghazi, what happened before, during and after.” But he acknowledged that Clinton would “have a lot more information about the before than . . . the during and after.”
He indicated that questions would focus on what he said were new e-mails “we just received” from then-U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, one of the four Americans killed in the attacks, to the State Department requesting more security during the months before the attacks. Another area of interest, Gowdy said, was a series of e-mails sent to Clinton’s private server by former aide Sidney Blumenthal.
The Blumenthal messages are long expositions on Libya’s internal politics, some sent before, but most after the 2012 attacks on Sept. 11 and 12. The messages — many of them released by the State Department this year — were later revealed to have been written by a former CIA officer who, along with Blumenthal, was seeking business opportunities in Libya.
Although the question of why Clinton was receptive to Blumenthal’s voluminous communications — some of which she forwarded to other State Department officials with his name removed — may elicit interesting and perhaps discomfiting testimony from the former secretary of state, it seems unlikely to reveal new information about security at the Benghazi installation.
From the beginning, it has been clear that the national controversy surrounding the attack on the Benghazi outpost was as much about domestic American politics as it was about international security or alleged concerns about the safety of American diplomatic personnel. Indeed, in large part because it happened in the course of the final months of a Presidential campaign, the attack started to become a partisan issue even before the bodies of the four dead Americans were returned home. In some sense, the roots of the political side of this argument can be traced to what many have called the Administration’s initially confused response to the attack that included blaming the attack on an obscure anti-Muslim video that had been posted on YouTube months earlier and had become the target of protests across the Muslim world even though there had been no protests in Benghazi that day. Shortly thereafter, there were reports that there had been at least some forewarning that an attack might take place, and the initial White House narrative seemed to have collapsed. For weeks and months afterward, Republicans contended that the Administration had spread this story in an effort to deflect attention from the attack and extent to which it undercut the Obama/Biden re-election message about having largely defeated al Qaeda since taking office. This contention was seemingly reinforced by revelations that the talking points released by the Administration regarding the attack in the weeks after the attack had been changed to remove any mention of organized terrorism. Additionally, legislators began to raise questions about whether there was adequate security at the compound at the time of the attack, and whether Ambassador Chris Stevens, who was among those killed in the attack, was thwarted in his efforts to obtain more security for the diplomatic compounds in Libya.
Over the course of the three years since the attacks, there have been numerous investigations about what happened in Benghazi that day, as well as the response before and after the attack and the issues surrounding embassy security. At least five separate Congressional committees have investigated the matter, including the House Intelligence Committee, and none of them have found any evidence of wrongdoing or impropriety. The questions regarding the Administration’s initial reliance on the claim that the attack was motivated by an obscure YouTube video now seems in retrospect to have been motivated largely by the CIA’s initial assessments in the days after the attacks, but the fact that the story was being spread in the midst of a highly partisan election led many to the conclusion that it was part of some kind of cover-up even though there is no evidence of the same. Despite all of that, though, Republicans on Capitol Hill were not satisfied with the investigations that had been conducted so far, and were certainly not satisfied with the answers Clinton had given in previous testimony. As a result, a Select Committee was formed in the House, and a new investigation was launched.
The most notable thing about the Select Committee’s investigation, of course, has been the fact that it has mostly been conducted behind closed doors and that it has been largely focused in recent months on things only tangentially related to the Benghazi attack itself. Although there have been numerous current and former government officials and employees interviewed by investigators and committee members, today’s hearing will be among the first public hearings the committee has held and may well be one of the last times it meets in public until a final report is released, something not likely to happen until just months before the 2016 General Election. For the past several months, the committee has seemed more focused on Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State than it has on the Benghazi attack itself. It’s because of this that the Committee has been criticized by Democrats as nothing more than excuse for partisan attacks on Clinton herself, an interpretation that’s hard to deny when you actually look at the evidence. Indeed, in many respects the potential political impact has been tarnished by Republicans such as Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and New York Congressman Richard Hanna who have essentially admitted, inadvertently and otherwise, that the committee’s primary focus is causing political problems for Clinton rather than finding some new information about the Benghazi attack.
Because of the political overtones surrounding the committee and its work, then, the focus of today’s hearing won’t be be on what Clinton has to say in response to questions regarding the attack itself and the issues surrounding it. For the most part, those questions have already been asked and answered in the numerous investigations that have already been held. Instead, the focus will be on how Clinton answers the questions, and whether she provides any political ammunition to her opponents. In her last appearance before Congress on this issue, Clinton provided such a moment in the form of her now famous confrontation with Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson and in which Clinton utters the now famous line“What difference, at this point, does it make?” Even Clinton’s allies seem to admit that it was a mistake for Clinton to lose her cool like that, and it’s likely that Republicans on the committee will attempt to goad her into similar responses today. If she can avoid that, though, and if she can avoid any real gaffes then it seems likely that she’ll get out of this hearing in fine shape. The only caveat to this would be if there is some smoking gun lurking out there that hasn’t been revealed yet, but given the number of investigations and leaks that have been made public so far that seems rather unlikely.
In any case, the hearings begin at 10am this morning and are expected to last well into the early evening. If you’re at all interested, I’m sure all the major cable news outlets, as well as C-Span, will be covering it extensively.