Those looking for fireworks from the first hearing of the special Benghazi committee were disappointed, as the low-key session focused on the State Department’s implementation of security recommendations.
In his opening statement, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the panel’s chair, pushed back against Democrats who have questioned the value of the 12-member select committee.
“We know that all the documents have not yet been produced, and we know that there are still witnesses to be examined,” Gowdy said.
But Gowdy, a former prosecutor, didn’t invoke a cover-up over the September 2012 attacks, as some in his party have. Instead, he noted that past attacks on U.S. facilities overseas hadn’t prompted effective reforms—framing the committee, which was established in May with a $3 million budget, as a good-faith effort to improve security.
“To those who believe it is time to move on, to those who believe there is nothing left to discover,” said Gowdy, “we have heard all of that before, and it was wrong then.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the ranking Democrat on the panel, made a plea to his fellow members to keep the focus on constructive solutions from improving security.
“It would be a disservice to everyone involved to be lured off this path by partisan politics,” Cummings said.
Republicans have lobbed a grab bag of claims about the administration’s handling of the attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. They've said administration officials lied to the public about the cause of the attacks, and ordered troops to stand down rather than defend the Embassy. But despite seven congressional probes, 25,000 pages of documents, 50 briefings, and subpoenas of eight people, they’ve uncovered little evidence to justify those charges.
Given the lack of evidence, Gowdy can’t afford to raise conservative expectations too high, or risk alienating independent voters by seeming to conduct a partisan witch-hunt. Raising the political stakes is the potential presidential bid of Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time of the attacks.
Democrats have aggressively stoked skepticism about the panel. As the hearing began, they unveiled a website, "Bengahzi on the Record: Asked and Answered," that uses information gathered in the earlier probes to rebut some of the key Republican charges. And on Tuesday, members of the Progressive Caucus called on Speaker John Boehner to scrap the committee altogether, and instead set up a committee on income inequality.
Wednesday’s hearing was focused on the State Department’s progress in implementing the security recommendations made in late 2012 by the Accountability Review Board, an independent organization. The idea was proposed by Rep. Adam Schiff, a Democrat, and agreed to by Gowdy.
Gregory Starr, the State Department’s diplomatic security chief, said 22 of the ARB’s 29 recommendations had already been implemented.
But questioning a group of State Department officials, Rep. Susan Brooks (R-Ind.) raised the concern that responsibility for implementing the ARB’s reforms is being handled by a department official who ranks only in the fourth tier. Todd Keil, a witness who was a member of an expert panel on security practices, agreed that responsibility for security was too low on the organizational chart.
Keil also noted that the department doesn’t have an effective process to determine whether the upsides to having outposts in certain cities outweigh the risks. He mentioned Peshawar, in Pakistan, as well as Benghazi, as locations that might be ripe for such an analysis.