The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trey Gowdy pushes back on allegations about Politico leak

In this May 8, 2013, file photo, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., questions a witness during the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee’s hearing on Benghazi on Capitol Hill in Washington.

The letter from Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) earlier today complaining about a leak to Politico from the House Select Committee on Benghazi has antagonized the committee’s chair, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.). Firing back in a letter of his own, Gowdy takes issue that someone in the committee’s orbit had “doctored” an e-mail and leaked it to Politico in an effort to embarrass former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who’s now running for president.

“Regarding your latest, desperate accusation someone “doctored” an email, I would note it is the latest in a series of breathless accusations you have made without effort to provide proof of fact beyond your mere assertion of the claim,” writes Gowdy in his salvo to Cummings.

The context for this mildly nasty back-and-forth springs from this June 17 story by Politico reporters Ken Vogel and Rachel Bade, which uses unnamed sources to discuss the grilling that the Benghazi committee visited upon longtime Clintonista Sidney Blumenthal. The story also detailed e-mails that had been exchanged between Blumenthal and Clinton regarding Benghazi during her time as secretary of state. At one point, Blumenthal boasts of having placed stories at Media Matters. “Got all this done. Complete refutation on Libya smear,” Blumenthal wrote to Clinton on Oct. 10, 2012, right in the midst of the Benghazi furor. Included in the e-mail were links to four stories on Media Matters that challenged messages pushed by Republicans and Fox News about the attacks. Blumenthal was working as a paid adviser for Media Matters and other groups founded by Clinton “enforcer” David Brock, as reported by Politico.

Cummings lashed out at a particular leak in the Politico story alleging that Clinton had responded to that e-mail by writing, “Thanks. I’m pushing to WH.” That detail suggested a certain coziness in Clinton Inc. — that Brock, Blumenthal, the secretary of state and the White House had formed an info-loop protecting them from Republican talking points.

Yet Clinton hadn’t, in fact, written the response alleged in the Politico story; she’d issued that response to another e-mail from Blumenthal regarding a story in Salon about the plans of the Romney campaign. Cummings riffed, “Unfortunately, this is only the latest in a reckless pattern of selective Republican leaks and mischaracterizations of evidence relating to the Benghazi attacks.” He also said someone had “doctored information to the press in order to make unsubstantiated allegations against Secretary Clinton.”

By all accounts, however, the Politico piece was corrected just hours after it posted, suggesting that Politico’s source recognized the mistake and alerted the publication. That’s Gowdy’s view: “The fact this news story was updated in short order is proof your claim is fallacious on its face. If a ‘doctored’ email had been presented to the reporter, clearly the reporter would not have been so quick to make the change.”

The story itself is transparent on this front: Politico doesn’t claim to have reviewed the e-mail itself, instead attributing quotes from the e-mail to “a source who has reviewed the email exchange.

At least in tone, the letter from Gowdy appears to wink at the e-mail leaks to Politico. It even offers an explanation for how a leaker could have mixed up the e-mails and given the wrong impression to Politico. Here it is:

One thing that is crystal clear and perhaps contributed to your misapprehension of earlier emails is that Secretary Clinton did not turn over everything to the State Department. And perhaps even more troubling, she turned over portions of some exchanges without turning over the full exchange. This is precisely the kind of editing and self-selection that could lead an observer to confuse which emails she pushed to the White House and which ones she merely pushed to her senior advisors.

(*Bold text added to highlight a fabulous synonym for “leaker.”)

In any case, the Cummings camp has now statement-ed back at Gowdy, writing, in part:

• Chairman Gowdy never denies the inaccurate leak occurred.
• Chairman Gowdy never condemns the leaking of inaccurate information.
• Chairman Gowdy never says he will investigate who leaked the information.