Four questions the House Select Committee must answer about Benghazi

As Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) begins his new committee investigation into the 2012 Benghazi attacks, he is vowing to get to the bottom of what of what happened on what is perhaps the most politically-disputed night of the Obama presidency.

There has been a lot of shouting from both Democrats and Republicans, and Americans have consistently told pollsters that they want more information about the attacks that left four Americans dead. Voters also say that they trust neither the GOP nor the Obama administration's explanations of what happened.

 

Much of this confusion and disagreement stems from when the attacks occurred — just weeks before the 2012 presidential election. The assault on the Benghazi outpost came at a time when partisans were as riled up as ever, and at their most skeptical about any claims made by those on the other side of the Obama/Romney race. Because of that timing, the administration's handling of the Benghazi attacks continues to be viewed through hyper-partisan lenses.

Republicans remain convinced that the Obama administration purposely spun the attacks to insulate the president from criticism that close to the election. And some remain convinced that the administration chose not to send in military support to help the victims, a charge that each congressional investigation so far has deemed without merit.

Democrats, meanwhile, continue to write off lingering suspicion about the handling of the attacks as partisan politicking. But that may not be quite fair either — four Americans are dead and 20 months later no one has been held responsible, and there are still many unanswered questions. Americans of any political persuasion are justified in wanting more information.

The hyper-politicized backdrop has colored each of the numerous previous investigations into the attacks and threatens to define this investigation as well. Democrats are already declaring that the Gowdy committee will be a partisan witch hunt. But, what if it didn't this time around?

At this point, the House Select Committee on Benghazi is a reality. And, it looks increasingly likely that Democrats will participate in the panel. With the political soundbite back-and-forth at least temporarily behind us, and a months-long congressional investigation ahead of us, here some of the questions that the select committee -- if it is truly committed to getting answers and shedding light on what happened on that deadly night in Libya -- will hopefully provide answers to.

Why was the Ben Rhodes e-mail not provided to the Oversight Committee? Were any other relevant documents withheld from the various committees that have investigated the attacks?

The single biggest reason that House Speaker John A. Boehner moved forward with this committee, which conservatives have been calling him to do for more than a year, is the revelation earlier this month that at least one e-mail from a White House adviser concerning how the administration would spin the attacks was not provided to the Republican-led Oversight Committee when it subpoenaed all documents/communication related to talking points provided to National Security adviser Susan Rice.

"The new e-mails released this week were the straw that broke the camel’s back," a senior GOP leadership aide told me on the day that Boehner (R-Ohio) announced he would commission the new House committee to investigate the administration's handling of the attacks.

The American democracy is built on a system of check and balances, and one of the most meaningful accountability checks built into our divided government is the ability of the legislative branch to monitor and review the executive branch's actions and decisions through congressional committees.

While the idea that the new Rhodes e-mail is a "smoking gun" remains far-fetched and has been credibly debunked, it's reasonable for Congress to ask officials in the Obama administration to explain why it was not initially provided to the committees investigating the attacks and prove that there are not other relevant documents that have been withheld.

Are our diplomatic outposts better prepared — almost 2 years later — to anticipate, prevent, or respond to a similar attack?

Setting aside partisan interests, the single most important question that the House Select Committee can answer is whether or not — two years later — we have implemented new safeguards, security measures or other actions to prevent similar tragedies.

Among the recommendations of the Senate investigation:

• Only in rare instances — and only after a formal risk management plan has been put into place —should State Department facilities that fall short of current security standards be allowed to operate.

• The IC [intelligence community] and State Department should ensure all surveillance cameras at high-risk, high-threat facilities have sufficient resolution, nighttime visibility, remote monitoring capabilities, and redundancy to provide warning and situational awareness in the event of an attack.

• The IC must place a greater emphasis on collecting intelligence and open-source information, including extremist-affiliated social media, to improve its ability to provide tactical warnings, especially in North Africa, the Middle East, and other areas where the United States has facilities under high threat.

• The U.S. government cannot rely on local security in areas where the U.S. has facilities under high-threat

All of those recommendations are measurable and Gowdy's committee should be able to conclude decisively if these have been implemented.

Has the State Department taken heed of these recommendations? What is the current status of security at our hundreds of diplomatic outposts across the globe? If one of our embassies, consulates or compounds came under a similar attack today, would we be ready?

The Accountability Review Board report, issued by the State Department by the order of then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, handed down 24 specific policy and security recommendations for how similar attacks can be anticipated and prevented in the future.

Gowdy and his committee have the opportunity to use their subpoena power and elevated investigatory platform to ask hard questions about whether those recommendations have been implemented.

Does Congress need to authorize more money for diplomatic security?

As the House Armed Services Committee wrote:

The President and Congress continue to under-resource the military. Uncertainty about available resources significantly inhibits military planning and leads to decision-making about force lay down that tends to prioritize cost over operational effectiveness. Indeed, the president’s budget request for national security functions has declined every year he has been in office. This trend is expected to continue in Fiscal Year 2015...

It is essential that the U.S. adopt again a sound and sustainable defense strategy that funds DOD at levels that allows the U.S. military to confront the world’s dangers. The majority members acknowledge the significant capabilities available to the U.S. military, as well as the extraordinary dedication and commitment of our service members. Yet, the Department of Defense cannot be expected to prevent or respond to the full range of growing threats, especially as funding declines.

What is the current status of the efforts to bring those responsible to justice?

As the Senate committee investigating the Benghazi attacks wrote earlier this year:

FINDING #14: More than a year after the Benghazi attacks, the terrorists who perpetrated the attacks have still not been brought to justice. The IC has identified several individuals responsible for the attacks. Some of the individuals have been identified with a strong level of confidence. However, insight into the current whereabouts and links between these individuals in some cases is limited due in part to the nascent intelligence capabilities in the region.

The nation is thirsty for justice. A complete accounting of the status of the investigation into the attacks and efforts to bring the attack organizers to justice would be a major step toward answering some of the biggest lingering question marks.

What about the other questions?

Denis McDonough, Deputy National Security Advisor, left, updates the President and Vice President on the situation in the Middle East and North Africa. National Security Advisor Tom Donilon and Chief of Staff Jack Lew are at right on Sept. 11, 2012. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)
Denis McDonough, then deputy national security adviser, left, updates President Obama and Vice President Biden on the situation in the Middle East and North Africa. Then-National Security Adviser Tom Donilon and then-Chief of Staff Jack Lew are at right on Sept. 11, 2012. (Pete Souza/ The White House)

Critics, particularly on the right, will point to other lists of questions -- Where was Obama on the night of the attack? What about the "stand down" order? -- and argue that this list is incomplete.

The thing is, those questions have largely already been answered by investigation after investigation. As it stands currently, none of the numerous investigations have found any evidence of a Obama administration conspiracy. Republicans including Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham continue to insist that there is a "cover up," however report after report has debunked that line of rhetoric.

As for the "stand down" order that some conservatives insist was given by Clinton, the report issued by the Republican-run House Armed Services committee concluded:

There was no “stand down” order issued to U.S. military personnel in Tripoli who sought to join the fight in Benghazi.

In fact, almost every single "unanswered question" still claimed by conservatives -- at least the ones that politically target Obama and Clinton -- was directly answered or debunked by the Senate Select Committee investigation into the attacks as well as independent fact checkers.

But that underscores why this committee matters, and why another committee investigation of the Obama administration's handling of the Benghazi attacks has the potential to be a very good thing: the American people, despite the many investigations and reports, still don't have a uniform understanding of what happened on that night and in the days and months that followed.

Gowdy and his committee could do a true public service by providing a well-written, concise, yet complete, narrative account and statement of facts about what happened on the night of the Benghazi attacks.

Those on both sides of the aisle agree that the death of the four Americans in Benghazi was tragic. So, hopefully lawmakers on both sides of the aisle can finally stop playing politics and truly provide an account of what happened -- and how we can prevent it from happening again.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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