Publication / DecodeDC/ Scripps News
October 21, 2015
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Question of the day: Is the Benghazi hearing politically motivated?

House Republicans are certain to go after Hillary Clinton with a vengeance Thursday during what is expected to be eight hours of tough questions about the 2012 Benghazi attack and her private email server, but they run the risk of doing more damage to their own reputations than to hers.

Some critics have gone so far as to call the hearing a politically motivated witch-hunt. The former Secretary of State has been through this before during a heated back and forth before the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees in January 2013. But the encounter with the House’s Select Committee on Benghazi is expected to produce a barrage of questions that is far more intense than the earlier hearing.

“I would think that if they just made this into an attempt to get Hillary Clinton scalped, it will blow up on them,” said Geoffrey Kabaservice, author of “Rule and Ruin: The Downfall of Moderation and the Destruction of the Republican Party” and a consultant at the centrist GOP group the Main Street Partnership. “If there was any kind of smoking gun that had surfaced earlier I think the public might have given [the committee] credibility…any kind of points that could have been made are likely to be obscured because of the fact that it’s gone on for so long and gotten caught up in partisanship.”

The legitimacy of the Select Committee on Benghazi has been questioned since it was established in May 2014. Critics have faulted the committee for continuing despite failing to find any wrong-doing on the part of the Obama administration, specifically the State Department, in connection with the September 2012 attacks on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.

Suspicions about Republican committee members’ political motives seemed to gain credence recently when House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said on Fox News, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.”

And soon after McCarthy’s remarks, Rep. Richard Hanna, R-N.Y., said that “a big part” of the Benghazi panelwas designed to go after Clinton.

“I think that’s the way Washington works,” Hanna told a local New York radio program. “But you’d like to expect more from a committee that’s spent millions of dollars and tons of time.”

Kabaservice summed it up this way: “Ideally one would hope that this would be a bipartisan investigation into how the U.S. Ambassador and other members of the embassy were killed—and how this could be prevented in the future—but at this point that effort seems to have been lost in the partisan uproar. Kevin McCarthy made a horrible gaffe by seeming to imply that the hearings were little more than a partisan effort to discredit Hillary Clinton.”

McCarthy, who was making a run for speaker of the House at the time of his comments, later acknowledgedthat his flub was a big reason for withdrawing from the race, but the controversy continued.

In early October, Maj. Bradley Podliska, an intelligence officer in the Air Force Reserve and an ex-staffer on the select committee, publically charged that he was fired after taking issue with the committee’s new focus—a shift from the events leading up to the Benghazi attack to the personal email server Clinton used during her time as secretary of state.

Benghazi committee chairman Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a tea partier and former prosecutor, has said Podliska has no idea what the committee is looking into.

The email server story broke in March amid speculation that Clinton might have handled classified information over a non-governmental email account—something that’s against the law. Further investigation has shown thatsome emails did contain classified information, but there are questions about when the information became classified and nothing has been reported that is related to the Benghazi attacks.

Nevertheless, many Republicans on the committee seized on the private emails and pulled them into their investigation.

“Now Gowdy is saying he is trying to return to the original subject [of Benghazi]. If so, it’s a big yawner—and it will really have little consequence” said Thomas Mann, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington-based think tank.

Gowdy has said that he has some significant revelations in store for the hearing on Thursday and that questions about the committee’s mission by members of the Republican Party are misguided.

On CBS’s Face the Nation, Gowdy said, “I have told my own Republican colleagues and friends, shut up talking about things that you don’t know anything about. And unless you’re on the committee, you have no idea what we’ve done, why we’ve done it and what new facts we have found.”

Additionally Gowdy suggested that the criticism aimed at the committee also was politically motivated.

“It’s not lost on me that the uptick in criticism is [happening] the two weeks before she’s coming,” he told Politico Magazine of Clinton. “I don’t think that that is a coincidence. It’s an attempt to marginalize and impugn the credibility of the panel that’s going to be asking her questions.”

Whether new light can be shed or if Clinton slips up during the hearing Thursday, some members on the select committee have a lot to gain from additional visibility. According to the Hill, more than half of the Republicans serving on the committee have been mentioned as potential candidates to replace Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio. And on the Democrat’s side, Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois is running for the Senate, and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland could have his sights on the Senate, too.

“Everyone in politics–most politicians–have ambitions for their office and look for opportunities to gain publicity that may enhance their visibility and appeal,” Mann said.

Here’s a guess at how this will go down: Republicans will say committee members were civil to Clinton and raised substantive, serious points about her role in Benghazi and about her email server—points that weren’t addressed in previous hours-long hearings. And Democrats will say the Republicans’ line of questioning confirmed that their mission is to discredit Clinton and damage her chances of becoming president. It’s a long road to 2016.