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03.06.15 10:25 AM ET

Newly Relevant Benghazi Panel Spooks Dems

Some Democrats are worried a new committee to investigate Benghazi will be used solely as a vehicle to hurt Hillary Clinton’s chances in 2016.

When the House created its Benghazi Select Committee last year, it seemed like a joke—derided by mocking Democrats and eye-rolling Republicans, who'd already run through multiple investigations and hearings on the U.S. consulate attack.

Then the committee revealed Hillary Clinton had used multiple personal email accounts for official business at the State Department. And suddenly, Democrats are terrified—terrified that the Benghazi panel is about to become the House Select Committee to take down Clinton, their presumptive presidential nominee.

“I did not want to believe it, but everything I’ve seen so far has led me to believe that this is an effort to go after Hillary Clinton. Period. Clearly this has been a very much drawn out process,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the Benghazi committee, told The Daily Beast.

Ten months after its formation, the Benghazi investigation had seemed lifeless, at least to public eyes. The Benghazi committee’s own investigation was moving slowly: just three hearings have been held, with two focusing on the State Department’s role. And a House Intelligence Committee report found that there was no intelligence failure leading up to the 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Libya.

But with the emergence of a brewing scandal surrounding Clinton’s private email communications, new life has been breathed into the investigation almost overnight. As Secretary of State, Clinton had exclusively used a private email account for government business, shielding her communications from the State Department and public records requests, The New York Times reported earlier this week.

Within days the Select Committee on Benghazi had issued subpoenas for Clinton communications that were relevant to Libya, including warnings to internet firms to protect relevant documents. Already, many of its previous document requests had been related to HIllary Clinton and the State Department.

Following the Benghazi subpoenas, Clinton has called (via a tweet) for the release of relevant emails. Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee and a member of the Benghazi Select Committee, praised the move.

“There is no evidence that the Secretary called for a ‘stand down’ order, interfered with requests for additional security or took any other action suggested by the conspiracy theorists. The quicker these emails can be made public, the sooner we can put these myths to rest once and for all,” Schiff said.

Republican Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy has insisted he wants his investigation to be impartial, not to be partisan nor about Hillary Clinton personally. But the pull of conservatives clamoring for answers regarding the scandal has focused the committee’s attention on the presumptive front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

“We have said from the beginning that our investigation would follow the facts wherever they lead us,” Republican Rep. Peter Roskam, a member of the Benghazi committee, said Thursday.

For Roskam and other Republicans on the committee, the facts have led to Clinton. He was troubled by Clinton’s use of private accounts during her time as head of the State Department, obscuring her communications from their investigation.

“The last time we saw a high government official seeking to edit their own responses was President Nixon,” he remarked.

The Obama administration is trying to drag out the investigation until Hillary Clinton announces a run for the presidency, and then delegitimize the Benghazi committee as being purely political, Republican Rep. Lynn Westmoreland, a committee member, said on Fox Business Thursday morning.

But with his next breath, Westmoreland seemed not to have a problem with it, telling the network, "She owes more to the American people than just about Benghazi. This is about her actions for four years, having two personal e-mail accounts and not putting it on the State [Department networks], as required by law."

Gowdy himself comes off as a reluctant Clinton adversary, having banked his reputation on an impartial investigation into the 2012 attacks. The chairman has been adamant that the committee avoid becoming a sideshow—even as Democrats jeered its creation last year and criticized Republicans for spending taxpayer money on the effort.

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"Speaker Boehner and the House tasked the Select Benghazi Committee with determining all the facts surrounding the Benghazi terrorist attack,” Jamal Ware, a spokesman for the Benghazi Committee said. “As Chairman Gowdy has said, facts are not political. And this committee will go wherever the facts lead."

The majority side of the Benghazi committee has been largely tight-lipped. Until the Clinton subpoenas, there had been little public information coming out of the investigation from its small group of senior staff and lawmakers.

This information blackout is by design. Gowdy, a former prosecutor from South Carolina, has set the investigation up to run like a grand jury proceeding, according to people familiar with the committee’s operation. That meant no leaks.

And this largely worked until the Times report this week. Republicans on the committee insisted the leak did not come from their ranks, but it proved too relevant to ignore—so they responded to it with subpoenas.

Former Ohio Rep. Steve LaTourette, who now leads the centrist-Republican Main Street Partnership, said Boehner deliberately selected Gowdy because of his reputation as deliberate, fair, and not prone to bomb throwing.

“This doesn’t have to be a partisan investigation,” he said.

South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said Gowdy was initially reluctant to take the job because of the highly, charged partisan nature of the debate.

“We talked before he got the job. I was pushing him early on. I said, ‘You know, you are doing something that in many ways is going to be a thankless job, but an important job,’” said the Republican senator. “Last thing in the world he wants to do is to take a life well lived as a lawyer and people basically cash out on his fairness as a lawyer and as an investigator. You know, this is a charge that he’s been given to find out everything within reason—about what happened before, during, and after.”

On Wednesday the committee announced that it was in possession of records with two email addresses used by Hillary Clinton from when she in the Obama administration. The revelation, Republicans said, showed a worrying lack of transparency on the part of the former Secretary of State.

“I think [Gowdy has] had the right attitude about his job,” said Graham, a critic of previous House investigation into Benghazi. “He’s been able to find something that none of these other committees have found and that is, I think, very important for the country.”