Welcome to the New, Surprisingly Civil GOP Approach to Benghazi

The first hearing of the House Select Committee on Benghazi highlighted a new path for Republicans looking to keep pressure on the White House over the 2012 attack.

Chairman Trey Gowdy and Rep. Elijah Cummings prepare to start a House Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi hearing on Capitol Hill, September 17, 2014 in Washington, DC. 
National Journal
Sept. 18, 2014, 1 a.m.

When a Re­pub­lic­an mem­ber of Con­gress in­vokes the Sept. 11, 2012, at­tack on the U.S. Con­su­late in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Amer­ic­an dip­lo­mats, he is nev­er more than a hair’s breadth away from be­ing ac­cused of par­tis­an grand­stand­ing.

So it’s un­der­stand­able, if sur­pris­ing, that the first hear­ing Wed­nes­day of the House Se­lect Com­mit­tee on Benghazi was as apolit­ic­al as any hear­ing on the at­tacks so far. At the hear­ing, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., civilly con­duc­ted the com­mit­tee’s busi­ness—an al­most eer­ie de­par­ture from some of his past be­ha­vi­or in hear­ing rooms. His pre­vi­ous tone of right­eous in­dig­na­tion was re­placed with grav­itas.

“Giv­en the grav­ity of the is­sues at hand, I would rather run the risk of an­swer­ing a ques­tion twice than run the risk of not an­swer­ing it once,” Gowdy said at the start of the hear­ing.

On the whole, the hear­ing was nowhere near as ex­plos­ively par­tis­an as some were ex­pect­ing. As The Wire‘s Rus­sell Ber­man notes, the words “Obama” and “Clin­ton” were all but ab­sent from the three-hour-long hear­ing. It was so sub­dued, in fact, that some ob­serv­ers nod­ded off in the middle of it. If that was polit­ic­al grand­stand­ing, it was a par­tic­u­larly bor­ing way of go­ing about it.

As the hear­ing wore on, however, Re­pub­lic­an mem­bers be­came in­creas­ingly testy with those testi­fy­ing, es­pe­cially Gregory Starr, the State De­part­ment’s as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary for dip­lo­mat­ic se­cur­ity. So while Gowdy, a former fed­er­al pro­sec­utor, played the good cop, he could rely on fel­low Re­pub­lic­ans like Reps. Mike Pom­peo, Jim Jordan, and Peter Roskam to put Starr through the ringer.

So, what has changed since the 2012 Benghazi at­tacks? For one, the State De­part­ment has cat­egor­ized 30 “highest risk” em­bassy posts, and has sent out teams to en­sure that they meet se­cur­ity stand­ards. Starr also read­ily ad­mit­ted areas that the Benghazi em­bassy per­son­nel’s 30-day ro­ta­tions, for ex­ample, were not con­du­cive to their safety. “Con­stantly ro­tat­ing like that was not in our best in­terest,” Starr said. “We needed to change it.”

The State De­part­ment’s fail­ure in Benghazi re­mains at the fore­front of many con­ser­vat­ives’ minds. Last week, Fox News com­mem­or­ated the two-year an­niversary of the at­tack with a spe­cial called 13 Hours: The In­side Story. Me­dia Mat­ters found that, in the 20 months fol­low­ing the at­tack, Fox broad­cast more than 1,000 seg­ments fo­cused on Benghazi—an av­er­age of about 13 per week.

And two years after the at­tack, new ac­cus­a­tions are still com­ing to light. Ray­mond Max­well, a former State De­part­ment deputy as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary, re­cently told Sharyl At­tkisson that State De­part­ment em­ploy­ees had in­struc­ted him to scrub neg­at­ive in­form­a­tion from doc­u­ments be­fore they were handed over to in­vest­ig­at­ors. If his al­leg­a­tions are true, they would blow the Benghazi in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to the stra­to­sphere of polit­ic­al scan­dal. But, as Slate‘s Dave Wei­gel asks, why did Max­well wait so long to come for­ward?

We should get an­swers to these ques­tions soon. Rep. Jason Chaf­fetz told Fox News that Max­well will testi­fy be­fore the se­lect com­mit­tee “at some point.” At the hear­ing Wed­nes­day, Gowdy said he hoped to re­con­vene the com­mit­tee in Decem­ber, with fur­ther testi­mony from Starr.

Max­well has test­i­fied about the State De­part­ment’s re­ac­tion to Benghazi in the past, in front of the House Gov­ern­ment and Over­sight Re­form Com­mit­tee. The Over­sight Com­mit­tee’s Demo­crat­ic rank­ing mem­ber, Rep. Eli­jah Cum­mings, has ex­pressed be­wil­der­ment over the fact that Max­well nev­er men­tioned the doc­u­ment shuff­ling in front of his com­mit­tee.

“Max­well was in­ter­viewed by our com­mit­tee, the Over­sight and Gov­ern­ment Re­form Com­mit­tee,” Cum­mings told Slate. “He was called by Chair­man [Dar­rell] Issa as a wit­ness. And he nev­er talked about this. He had plenty of op­por­tun­it­ies to do it.”

Mem­bers at the hear­ing Wed­nes­day did not, sur­pris­ingly, men­tion Max­well’s al­leg­a­tions, but stuck to the play­book: try­ing to fig­ure out what se­cur­ity meas­ures the State De­part­ment has im­ple­men­ted since 2012.

Gowdy dis­played re­straint for the first two and a half hours of the hear­ing, but took his clos­ing re­marks as an op­por­tun­ity to rip in­to Starr and the State De­part­ment writ large. He poin­ted out that, in 1999, then-Sec­ret­ary of State Madeleine Al­bright re­acted to the 1998 em­bassy bomb­ings in East Africa by call­ing for the cre­ation of an un­der­sec­ret­ary for dip­lo­mat­ic se­cur­ity—the same po­s­i­tion that the Ac­count­ab­il­ity Re­view Board called for after the Benghazi at­tack.

Of the 40 re­com­mend­a­tions a sep­ar­ate, in­de­pend­ent best prac­tices pan­el made to the State De­part­ment, 38 were ac­cep­ted, 30 were im­ple­men­ted, eight are on­go­ing, and two were re­jec­ted. One of the two re­com­mend­a­tions the State De­part­ment re­jec­ted was the pan­el’s No. 1 sug­ges­tion: the cre­ation of the un­der­sec­ret­ary po­s­i­tion for dip­lo­mat­ic-se­cur­ity over­sight.

“What is it about that re­com­mend­a­tion that is so talis­man­ic that it couldn’t have been made pri­or to the Benghazi at­tack?” Gowdy asked Starr. “Why is State De­part­ment cling­ing to this leg­acy of power that has failed?”

Starr—who, as it stands, is the closest thing the State De­part­ment has to such an un­der­sec­ret­ary—ar­gued that the un­der­sec­ret­ary po­s­i­tion would dis­tract from the mat­ter at hand be­cause they typ­ic­ally get as­signed a vari­ety of du­ties.

“I am not dis­trac­ted by that role,” Starr said. “I can fo­cus ex­clus­ively on se­cur­ity.”

It would ap­pear that Re­pub­lic­ans have figured out a way to keep Benghazi a pri­or­ity—al­beit a smal­ler one, now that the threat of an­oth­er war in Ir­aq is dom­in­at­ing news—without ap­pear­ing that they are grasp­ing for neg­at­ive head­lines ahead of an elec­tion. The old play­book: Badger State De­part­ment of­fi­cials to the point of tears while darkly ask­ing what Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton knew and when she knew it. The new play­book: Muddle through the more sober, pon­der­ous ques­tions of dip­lo­mat­ic policy, and hope to turn up a lead. So far, the lat­ter seems to be work­ing.

Cor­rec­tion: A pre­vi­ous ver­sion of this story mis­stated Chair­man Gowdy’s plans for a Decem­ber hear­ing. He plans to call back Asst. Sec­ret­ary Starr to testi­fy again, not Sec­ret­ary of State John Kerry.

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