The chairman of the House committee investigating the 2012 attacks on American facilities in Benghazi, Libya began a high-profile hearing on Thursday with a sharp defense of his committee’s existence – describing it as the most thorough, ambitious, unbiased effort to uncover how and why four Americans died.
Later in the hearing, which began just after 10 a.m., former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton will testify for hours about her own recollections of the night of the attacks, and about security preparations in the months before.
But Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), began by talking about his own work – defending his committee from allegations that it is a partisan effort disguise as a fact-finding panel. That suggestion was made by a top member of the House GOP, Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), a few weeks earlier. McCarthy, pressed to say what results the Republican majority had produced, noted that Clinton’s presidential poll numbers had declined after the House investigation began its work.
“There are people — frankly in both parties — that have suggested that this investigation is about you. It is not,” said Gowdy, a former prosecutor elected to Congress in 2010. “It is about what happened before, during, and after the attacks that killed them. IT is about what this country owes to those who risk their lives to serve it. And it is about the fundamental responsibility of government to tell the truth.”
Gowdy, in his opening statement, listed what he said were flaws in past investigations, saying they were either incomplete or too close to the Obama administration. He said that his committee was the first to discover valuable facts, including that Clinton had used a private email server to conduct government business at the time of the attacks.
He said that Clinton had not been interviewed on the Hill until now because of Clinton’s own e-mail arrangement, which meant she took valuable emails with her when she left office.
“You kept the public record to yourself for almost two years,” Gowdy said. “And it was you and your attorneys who decided what to reutn and what to delete.”
Organizers have said they expect four rounds of questioning, with each of the committee’s seven Republicans and five Democrats allowed 10 minutes during a questioning period.
The attacks in Benghazi — carried out by militants on the night of Sept. 11, 2012 — killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya, J. Christopher Stevens, as well as a State Department communications specialist and two security contractors protecting a CIA “annex.”
At the time of the attacks, Clinton was secretary of state. The members of the committee — especially the Republicans — are likely to press her about security lapses that made the U.S. facilities in Benghazi vulnerable. They will also ask about Clinton’s reaction to the violence that night, and about the Obama administration’s public statements in the days after the attack.
It seems unlikely that substantial new information about the Benghazi attacks themselves will emerge from Clinton’s testimony. She has already been through a full day of congressional questioning, in late 2013, and the State Department has provided answers to other investigations on the topic.
But on Thursday, Clinton is likely to be pressed about an issue that has emerged since that 2013 testimony. In the course of its work, the House Benghazi committee discovered that Clinton had used a private e-mail address, and a private e-mail server, to conduct State Department business.
Clinton’s use of that server, housed at her home in New York, became a revelation that has dogged her presidential campaign this year. On Thursday, she could face more questions about why she did not use government e-mail, whether her e-mails were vulnerable to hackers, and about whether she has turned over all her private e-mails related to the Benghazi attacks.
For the committee’s Republican chair, Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.), the challenge of the day will be to avoid the appearance that this inquiry is more interested in embarrassing Clinton than in finding facts.
Earlier this month, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) suggested that the Benghazi committee had succeeded in tanking Clinton’s poll numbers. That comment — made to Fox News Channel’s Sean Hannity — helped sink McCarthy’s quest to become House speaker.
On Wednesday, in advance of Clinton’s testimony, Democrats on the Benghazi committee released a transcript of testimony from one of Clinton’s top aides at the State Department. The testimony from Cheryl Mills, given in a closed hearing last month included an account that Clinton had worked late into the night, “devastated” by the news of the deaths.
“What she really was communicating that night is, ‘I’m here because I want my team safe. I’m not here .. . . for any other reason,’” Mills recalled, according to the transcript.
Democrats published the transcript over the objections of Republicans. They said that selective GOP leaks have provided an incomplete and biased account of Clinton’s actions that night.
“Multiple Republican admissions over the past month have made clear to the American people what we have been witnessing firsthand inside the Select Committee for the past year — Republicans are spending millions of taxpayer dollars on a partisan campaign to damage Secretary Clinton’s bid for president,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.). the panel’s ranking member, said in a statement.
A federal indictment issued in the District last year charged Ahmed Abu Khattala, captured in 2013 in Libya, with the murder of all four Americans. It said he organized the attack against the diplomatic compound because he thought it was a front for a secret CIA facility in Benghazi.
Elise Viebeck and Rosalind S. Helderman contributed to this report.