“There’s no ‘there’ there” is how President Obama described the investigation of his administration’s handling of the aftermath of the Benghazi incident. During a joint press conference held with British Prime Minister David Cameron on Monday, the president said that allegations that the White House participated in a cover-up amounted to a “sideshow” and alluded to political partisanship as the primary driver of the new round of investigations.
“The fact that this keeps on getting churned out, frankly, has a lot to do with political motivations,” he said. “We’ve had folks who have challenged Hillary Clinton’s integrity, Susan Rice’s integrity, Mike Mullen and Tom Pickering’s integrity. It’s a given that mine gets challenged by these same folks. They’ve used it for fundraising.”
Republicans run the real risk of overstepping their reach in this investigation. They believe they smell political blood in the water, but as they found out in the 2012 election, if they overreach and don’t focus on what’s important they run the risk of turning this into nothing more than a political circus. They need to slow down, rein in the loose cannons, take a deep breath, and be reminded that the goal is to bring the perpetrators to justice and implement solutions to prevent it from happening again.
Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has called Benghazi “the most egregious cover up in American history,” feigning amnesia of the Iran-Contra cover-up or the Pentagon Papers from the Vietnam War era.
If Republicans approach this investigation as if it were worse than Iran-Contra or Vietnam, then they will have greatly misjudged the patience and intelligence of the American people. It would be clear that they have greatly misplaced the trust being placed in them to uncover any truths that might explain why four Americans died in Benghazi.
So far there have been nine hearings or investigations on Benghazi as well as a scathing report from the Accountability Review Board. The ARB report focused on the security conditions of the embassy mission and Benghazi outpost and made 29 recommendations on how to improve embassy security. On Sunday’s Meet the Press, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calf.), the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, made allegations that the report did not go far enough in its investigation.
Issa told David Gregory, “We believe it was insufficient. We believe that it’s likely that they did not interview all the people.” Issa also noted that his committee did not have access to the source material that led to the report. "We’ve got the classified report but we don’t have any of the interviews you did,” Issa said to Pickering.
That assertion was immediately rebuked by Ambassador Thomas Pickering who not only stated that the information was contained in the classified report but that he had requested and was denied an opportunity to testify in front of Issa’s committee. “We were told the majority said I was not welcomed at that hearing. I could come at some other time,” Pickering said.
The Washington Times reports Issa has requested that Pickering and Mullen “submit to a transcribed interview with committee staff and to appear before the panel later for a public hearing.” Issa stated “It is necessary for the committee to understand whether the criticisms of the ARB’s work that we heard from witnesses on May 8, 2013 are valid.”
Issa is referring to the testimony given by three career professionals, Gregory Hicks, Eric Nordstrom, and Mark Thompson, who testified that they either did not see the classified ARB report or were not interviewed. The three gentlemen represented senior management personnel onsite in Tripoli while the Benghazi outpost was under attack.
The Los Angeles reports Issa is “concerned that Pickering and Mullen did not challenge the administration’s account of events," but the Republicans must be careful to not overstep their bounds in questioning the integrity of Pickering and Mullen. The ARB is an independent body setup by Congress and Pickering and Mullen both have impeccable reputations. Pickering holds the personal rank of career ambassador, the highest in the United States Foreign Service, and has served for over 40 years under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Mullen is the former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff and served as the top military adviser to Obama and President George W. Bush. Any attempt to besmirch the reputation of these career heroes will surely backfire.
Some Republicans have started talking about impeachment hearings and comparing this incident to Watergate. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) stated, “People may be starting to use the ‘I’ word.” Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee exclaimed, “This is more serious [than Watergate] because four Americans did in fact die. And President Obama has yet to explain why did they died.”
All of this talk is of course an example of severe overreach. Creating a talking-points memo that clearly states it was an initial assessment is not a crime. Breaking and entering and unlawful surveillance is. Talks of impeachment seem extremely premature, and Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) would agree. On ABC This Week, McCain told Martha Raddatz, “I will even give the president the benefit of the doubt on some of these things.” During a town hall discussion last February McCain also said, "I do not believe that the president has committed impeachable offenses — that's high crimes" On CNN’s State of the Union, Collins told Candy Crowley that she did not believe impeachment hearings were warranted.
Even Republican pollster Scott Rasmussen is leery of Republican overreach. Responding to Senator Lindsey Graham’s (R-S.C.) comment that "dam is about to break" on the issue and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton's suggestion that “it could bring down the Obama administration”, Rasmussen wrote, “For that to happen, it's going to take a lot more than we know today.”
That hasn't stopped Republicans in Congress. Five Republican-led committees are investigating the Benghazi incident and there have also been calls for a special select committee. In April, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) released an interim progress report of the five committees to the members of the House Republican Conference, and after several months the five committees concluded that “these preliminary findings illustrate the need for continued examination and oversight by the five House Committees.”
Five committees, nine investigative hearings, two reports, and the Republicans are still fixated on the talking points memo.
During his Monday press conference, Obama asked rhetorically “who executes some sort of cover-up or effort to tamp things down for three days? So the whole thing defies logic.” And Rasmussen polls show that although people are interested right now, “voter perceptions about the murder of the U.S. ambassador in Benghazi, Libya last year and how the Obama administration has explained it are basically unchanged despite last week’s high-profile congressional hearings on the incident.” Even though “eight out of 10 people believe it is important to learn what actually happened”, only “10% of voters nationwide rank national security issues as their top concern.”
Republicans need to be careful not to over step their reach, stay focused and keep their priorities in order. They need to tread carefully and professionally because a political witch hunt will signal doom for the party. If they reach too far, too fast and miss they will have given locker-room material for a 2016 Clinton candidacy. And no one recovers from a scandal like a Clinton.