“So when I hear this mantra about seven or eight previous congressional investigations and ARB [Accountability Review Board], it makes me wonder how did you miss these seven eyewitnesses.”

— Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi,  interview on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Oct. 7, 2015

“The Committee has interviewed over 50 witnesses to date who have never before been interviewed.” 

— Gowdy, letter to Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), Oct. 7, 2015 (as originally issued)

In the battle over the House Select Committee on Benghazi, Democrats have complained that the Republican chairman is inflating the number of new interviews conducted by the committee.

Democrats claim that nearly $5 million has been wasted retreading old ground covered by previous probes in Congress and by the State Department’s Accountability Review Board into the deaths of four Americans in the 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya. Democrats say the committee’s investigation is designed to harm former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton. But Republicans, as shown in the statements above, argue that they have uncovered new witnesses and developed promising new threads of inquiry into the tragedy.

So let’s count the numbers. How many witnesses have never been interviewed? How many new eyewitnesses have been found?

The Facts

First, Amanda Duvall, a spokeswoman for the committee, acknowledged that the claim in the 13-page letter to Cummings that the committee has interviewed 50 never-before-interviewed witnesses was incorrect. She attributed the problem to a “staff error.” After our inquiry, the committee staff uploaded a corrected version of the letter.

“The Select Committee has interviewed 53 witnesses total, 46 of which were never interviewed by any other congressional committee, including seven eyewitnesses,” she said.

Duvall noted that the number was stated correctly in a USA Today opinion article that appeared under Gowdy’s name on Oct. 7. That article stated: “This committee has interviewed 41 witnesses no other committee interviewed.” (In other words, the committee is not counting any interviews conducted by the ARB in its list.) She said more witnesses have been interviewed since then.

Why would the ARB interviews not be counted?  “Our metric is congressional committees,” Duvall said. “The ARB is an internal, executive branch, process, narrow in scope and not independent. The interviews were not transcribed, many were short and conducted in a group setting.”

Still, it’s worth noting that the committee once touted the fact that it had obtained all of the files of the ARB. “Benghazi Committee Gains Historic State ARB Document Access,” a news release in April was headlined.

Excluding the ARB makes a difference in the counting of interviews, as 16 of the people who have been interviewed were previously interviewed by the ARB. That would shrink the number of new interviews to 30. (Seven of the 53 people were interviewed previously by other congressional committees.)

But Gowdy, in his MSNBC interview, specifically mentioned the ARB: “So when I hear this mantra about seven or eight previous congressional investigations and ARB, it makes me wonder how did you miss these seven eyewitnesses.”

But Duvall indicated this was also a misstatement. “We have talked to three eyewitnesses no one has interviewed,” on Sept. 22, June 4 and June 19, she said. “These are part of the seven eyewitnesses no congressional committee has interviewed.” (Four other eyewitnesses were interviewed by the ARB, and three others were interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee.)

So, in effect, there were 10 eyewitnesses, most of whom have been previously interviewed either by a House Committee or the ARB. Two of the new eyewitnesses come from the intelligence community and one from the Defense Department.

Duvall added: “I would ask you to fact check this: Democrats have asked for zero documents and zero witnesses.” (Update: Paul Bell, spokesman for the minority staff, disputed this dig. He provided copies of letters seeking documents and requesting interviews. “We have never claimed we made anywhere near the number of requests the Republicans have, mainly because we think they have strayed from the original purpose of the Committee, but this shows their statement is incorrect,” he said.)

Here’s a breakdown of the interviews of the the 30 people who had not been interviewed by either a House committee or the ARB, as of Oct. 9. The majority appear to be State Department employees, many in media relations.

  • 8 State employees serving in Benghazi who left five or more months before the attacks
  • 4 CIA staff
  • 3 Defense Department employees who corroborated testimony their superiors provided to Congress previously
  • 3 information technology or records staff related to Clinton’s e-mails
  • 2 Clinton speechwriters
  • 2 State Department staff members who worked at the U.S. office at the United Nations
  • 2 staff members of the press shop of the Near Eastern Bureau
  • 1 Defense Intelligence Agency officer who previously responded to questions from Congress about Benghazi in writing
  • 1 State Department employee who served in Benghazi and left more than a month before the attacks
  • 1 State Department contracting officer
  • 1 Diplomatic Security Operations Center staffer
  • Cheryl Mills, former Clinton chief of staff
  • Sidney Blumenthal, outside adviser to Clinton

The Pinocchio Test

The numbers game is important to Republicans because they use the figure to justify how the Select Committee is necessary and breaking new ground. But there is a bit less here than meets the eye, especially if the interviews already conducted by the ARB are included.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with saying that the committee has conducted 30 new interviews — and found three new eyewitnesses. Or, more precisely, the committee could say it has interviewed a total of 53 people, including 30 who have not been interviewed previously and 10 who were in Benghazi on the night of the attacks.

We appreciate the fact that the committee released a corrected version of the letter. And we understand that Gowdy was speaking on live television and perhaps did not mean to mention the ARB, preferring to keep the focus on interviews conducted by Congress. But there’s little reason to hype the numbers and better to remain as precise as possible.

Two Pinocchios

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