Clinton and Republicans Wage War Over Benghazi Emails
Three years after the deadly attack, Republicans are still trying to drag the former secretary of state back to Benghazi. But she’s looking ahead to 2016.
The simmering partisan warfare over the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi burst into the open on Thursday with Hillary Clinton’s first appearance before the House Select Committee investigating the attack. Conservatives fought aggressively to defend the committee’s reputation while Democrats slammed it a partisan witch hunt. But after an extraordinary 11 hours of testimony, Republicans struggled to raise any specific allegations that could do lasting damage to Clinton's presidential ambitions.
The simmering partisan warfare over the deadly attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi burst into the open on Thursday with Hillary Clinton’s first appearance before the House Select Committee investigating the attack. Conservatives fought aggressively to defend the committee’s reputation while Democrats slammed it a partisan witch hunt. But after an extraordinary 11 hours of testimony, Republicans struggled to raise any specific allegations that could do lasting damage to Clinton’s presidential ambitions.
Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) opened the hearing by promising to bring justice and transparency to the families of the four Americans killed in Benghazi, Libya on Sept. 11, 2012, and pointed out the committee’s work in being first to obtain the emails of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya killed in the attack, and exposing Clinton’s use of a private email server to conduct official business. They also used the session to blast Clinton’s overall handling of Libya, which has descended into open chaos since a U.S.-led military intervention that had been championed by Clinton.
The top Democrat on the Committee, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, opened with a string of attacks on Republicans, accusing them of drumming up “reckless allegations” designed only to derail Clinton’s 2016 run for the White House. He also mentioned a widely cited gaffe by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy who boasted about the committee’s success in bringing down Clinton’s poll numbers.
“The Republican caucus did not like the answers they got from [previous] investigations, so they set up this select committee with no rules, no deadlines and an unlimited budget,” Cummings said. “And they set them loose, Madam Secretary, because you’re running for president.”
The challenge for Gowdy wasn’t just to prove that his committee is on a dispassionate and non-partisan fact finding mission, but to prove that he’s not wasting everyone’s time with another investigation and is providing new information about how to keep U.S. diplomats safe after the attack on the compound.
Clinton’s challenge was not to sound too dismissive of the committee or to provide any unwieldy soundbites that might appear in future negative campaign ads. During her previous testimony before a Senate panel, she shouted “what difference, at this point, does it make?” during a heated exchange with Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson which quickly turned into a right-wing meme suggesting callous indifference to the four men who died in Benghazi. That interpretation has enraged Democrats who say the soundbite was taken wildly out of context.
In her opening remarks, Clinton sought to emphasize the valor and courage of the four Americans that died in Benghazi and her connection to each of them.
“I knew and admired Chris Stevens,” she said. “He was one of our nation’s most accomplished diplomats.”
“Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty worked for the CIA,” she went on. “They were both former Navy SEALs and trained paramedics with distinguished records of service including in Iraq and Afghanistan.
In a somewhat awkward moment, she noted that she “didn’t have the privilege of meeting Sean Smith,” an information management officer who was killed in the attack, but said “he was a valued member of the State Department family.” On Wednesday, Smith’s mother went on CNN to say Clinton was “absolutely lying” when claiming she was doing everything she could to uncover what happened in Benghazi; Patricia Smith claims the State Department has failed to provide her a meaningful understanding of how her son died and has not been silent about her frustrations.
Later on in the hearing, Clinton reiterated her claim that as secretary of state, she personally neither approved nor denied extra security requests to the Benghazi compound, an issue that has been a perennial concern among Republicans. She also argued that tragic incidents like Benghazi must not discourage the United States from shrinking back from the world diplomatically.
“Retreat from the world is not an option,” she told lawmakers.
In the opening line of questioning, Illinois Republican Peter Roskam questioned the wisdom of the U.S. regime change effort in Libya, which has descended into anarchy following the overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi.
“After your plan, things in Libya today are a disaster,” said Roskam.
Clinton shot back saying “that’s not a view that I will ascribe to,” despite a widespread consensus that Libya has become a greater security threat to Europe and the West than at at any time in recent memory as rival militias vie for power and the Islamic State gains an ever-increasing toehold.
Clinton proved more capable of parrying other attacks from Republicans, some of which were rather ham-handed. Indiana Rep. Susan Brooks, for instance, came prepared with two piles of emails presented on the dais. The large stack of papers represented Clinton’s Libya-related emails from 2011, she said, and the small stack represented her emails from 2012.
“I’m troubled by what I see here,” said Brooks. “I can only conclude by your own records that there was a lack of interest in Libya in 2012.”
Clinton offered an easy response. “Well, congresswoman, I did not conduct most of the business that I did on behalf of our country on email,” she said. “I conducted it in meetings. I read massive amounts of memos, a great deal of classified information. I made a lot of secure phone calls. I was in and out of the White House all the time. There were a lot of things that happened that I was aware of and that I was reacting to.”
Other questions proved more difficult. Over the years, Republicans have repeatedly charged that the Obama administration blamed the Benghazi attack on an anti-Muslim YouTube video called Innocence of Muslims in order to deflect criticism for the incident. During his turn, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan produced emails Clinton wrote to her family shortly after the attack indicating that she believed that an al Qaeda-like group was responsible for the terrorist attack. He also said that Clinton told Egypt’s prime minister that the Benghazi attack was not motivated by the Innocence of Muslims video, which some U.S. officials attributed to the attack at the time. The video had prompted protests at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo and other capitals throughout the Muslim world.
“Within 24 hours, you had a conversation with the Egyptian prime minister,” said Jordan. “You told him this: ‘We know the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack, not a protest.'”
“Why didn’t you tell the American people exactly what you told the Egyptian prime minister?” he added.
Clinton rejected Jordan’s characterization of what she communicated at the time, and said there was a lot of conflicting intelligence in the hours and days following the incident.
“There was a lot of conflicting information that we were trying to make sense of,” she said. “The situation was very fluid. It was fast-moving. There was also a claim of responsibility by Ansar al-Sharia. And when I talked to the Egyptian prime minister, I said that.”
Clinton was also repeatedly grilled about her relationship with Sidney Blumenthal, a longtime and somewhat controversial Clinton ally who the Obama White House prohibited her from hiring. The two exchanged emails frequently while she served as secretary of state. Blumenthal would occasionally pass along information about the situation in Libya, which Clinton has previously characterized as “unsolicited” advise.
When asked to explain what that meant, Clinton said “It means that I did not ask him to send me the information … As I previously stated, some of it I found interesting, some of it I did not. Some of it I forwarded, some of it I did not.”
Gowdy latched onto the fact in some of her emails, Clinton seemed to welcome his guidance. “You wrote to him, ‘Another keeper, thanks and keep them coming,’” he continued. “’Greetings from Kabul, and thanks for keeping this stuff coming.’ ‘Any other info about it?’ What are you hearing about it now?’”
Clinton qualified her earlier remark, saying “they started out as unsolicited.”
“And as I said, some of them were of interest, I passed them along, and some were not,” she added.
Like a flock of perfectly in sync geese, Democrats on the committee worked in tandem to defend Clinton and dismiss accusations leveled by Republicans. Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said the committee “is simply not doing its job,” noting that Gowdy spent more time defending its credibility than providing new evidence of value about diplomatic security. Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said he just doesn’t “understand the preoccupation with Sidney Blumenthal,” noting that it shouldn’t surprise anyone that old friends will contact each other from time to time. Cummings presented a video of Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) making spurious claims about Clinton that has since been debunked by the Washington Post in an effort to depict Republicans as over-eager partisans.
After a particularly tough round of questioning from Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) spent her time criticizing Pompeo, playing a recent TV clip in which MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell fact-checked Pompeo’s claim that Clinton’s primary source of information for events in Libya was Blumenthal.
Clinton’s presence attracted a massive crowd at the hearing, which took place at the tax-writing Ways and means Committee, the biggest on Capitol Hill. Lines formed out the door, as lawmakers packed into the hearing room.
This post has been updated.
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