Politics

05.14.14

New Benghazi Investigation Spooks GOP Leaders

It’s not just the Democrats who are opposed to a new select committee looking into the Benghazi attacks. Many top Republicans are uneasy, too.

Last Wednesday, as the House was preparing for its new investigation into the Benghazi attacks, House intelligence committee chairman Mike Rogers gathered Republican members of his committee for a meeting. While the main purpose of the meeting was to discuss surveillance reforms the committee was about to pass, Rogers also warned his colleagues about the upcoming select committee to investigate Benghazi.

“He was saying this could be a rabbit hole,” one House member told The Daily Beast. “He was warning us that we should not let this investigation get into conspiracy theories.”

Contrary to the caricature of Republicans, as singularly obsessed for political reasons with Benghazi, the reality is quite different. There is deep unease within the Republican leadership that the select committee, which has yet to announce a schedule of hearings, could backfire, and badly. Investigate and find nothing new, and the committee looks like a bunch of tin-hatted obsessives. Investigate and uncover previously-hidden secrets, and it makes all of the other Republican led panels that dug into Benghazi seem like Keystone Kops.

Three Republican sources tell The Daily Beast that the chairmen of the House Intelligence, Armed Services, and Government Reform committees—Reps. Rogers, Buck McKeon, and Darrell Issa, respectively—all opposed the formation of a select committee on Benghazi. All three men have led their own investigations into the matter.

House Speaker John Boehner himself resisted calls to form the committee for nearly a year and a half. Rep. Frank Wolf, a Republican from Virginia, proposed a special select committee on Benghazi first in November 2012. Since then he worked to get a majority of Republicans to sign onto his plan.

But it was not until Judicial Watch in April uncovered a set of White House emails on Benghazi—emails that were not shared with Congress—that Boehner agreed to Wolf’s idea.

Boehner’s calculation was, in part, political, according to one House Republican aide. The Speaker was looking to mollify the Tea Party faction of his caucus who were upset with him about a range of issues, including the federal budget and immigration reform.

“There is a whole combination of factors here,” this aide said. “You have the email. But remember Boehner has also gotten a lot of resistance from House Republicans on immigration. He wanted to turn the page on this.” This aide said that Boehner’s view was that, “OK, I am giving you guys this committee, now it’s on you to make this work.”

“He was saying this could be a rabbit hole. He was warning us that we should not let this investigation get into conspiracy theories.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, for her part, has said she is considering a Democratic boycott of the committee, but has yet to decide.

Since the investigations into Benghazi began in earnest in 2012, the GOP has been divided on what these probes would ultimately uncover. While some claim there was a massive White House operation to cover up the attacks, Rogers and McKeon see a more nuanced story. Rogers has been highly critical of the administration’s failure to call the assault a terrorist attack; but he has not accused the administration of in any way abandoning the CIA officers protecting the agency’s base that evening. McKeon’s oversight work has focused on the failure of the administration to have key military assets in place for the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks when there was ample reason to believe al Qaeda would seek out soft targets to strike on that day.

When Rogers’s committee finally heard in a closed session last year from the CIA contractors who responded on the evening of the attacks, Rogers downplayed their testimony in interviews. On Fox News he said he did not believe the CIA was stonewalling his committee, as others had alleged.

Other lawmakers, however, such as Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Utah Republican who first contacted key State Department whistleblower Greg Hicks, say the Benghazi story is more about how the White House failed to deploy all of its assets on the evening of the attack to save Americans.

Chaffetz, who serves on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform but was not chosen for the select committee, came close to uncovering evidence for his view this month when retired Air Force Brigadier General Robert Lovell testified that the military did not even try to save personnel on the night of the Benghazi attacks, or in his words, “run to the sound of the guns.” 

After Lovell’s testimony, McKeon issued a statement defending his own investigation’s conclusion that no assets were in place to conduct such an operation. “Lovell did not serve in a capacity that gave him reliable insight into operational options available to commanders during the attack, nor did he offer specific courses of action not taken,” he said at the time.

This tension between committees has often played out inside the Republican conference, behind closed doors. And the new, select committee may only make things worse.

“Look at this from their perspective,” one House Republican told The Daily Beast. “This [select] committee in many ways will be checking their work. No one likes that.” Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a Republican from Kansas, told Slate’s Dave Weigel last week: “Mike Rogers fought against this for a year and a half. They used to stand up in conference and say, ‘Quit worrying about it, we’ve got it all taken care of.’” 

Boehner selected Rep. Trey Gowdy, a former career prosecutor, to lead the Benghazi committee. To date, Gowdy has played his cards close to the vest as to what the committee will actually investigate. Last week, at a press conference, Rep. Jim Jordan, who is also serving on the new select committee on Benghazi, said the panel will focus on the “before,” “during” and “after” of the attack. He later explained that this meant probes into why the State Department denied requests for security to the Benghazi diplomatic post and why the early talking points on Benghazi downplayed the possibility that it was a terrorist attack. But Jordan also said the committee would investigate, to borrow Lovell’s phrase, why U.S. forces weren’t “running to the sound of the guns.”

If the Benghazi committee uncovers new evidence that the Obama administration failed to do all it could to save Americans on the evening of the attack, it would be a vindication for their party and a scandal for the White House. But it may also end up revealing prior investigations from Congressional Republicans to be hollow.

If this committee, however, does not find that smoking gun, then it will also prove the low-key warnings of lawmakers like Rogers and McKeon to have been correct all along. No wonder top Republicans were so reluctant to have it move forward.