Democrats on the House Select Committee on Benghazi plan to release a slew of interview transcripts in an effort to disprove Republican claims of “significant breakthroughs” in the investigation of the 2012 attacks.
Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) is waiting for relevant federal agencies to review transcripts from interviews with White House national security adviser Susan Rice, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former CIA director David Petraeus before releasing them to the public, an aide said on Thursday.
Cummings’s staff made this announcement after Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) earlier in the day touted progress the panel has made in the three months since a public hearing with Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, which critics charged failed to provide any new or relevant information about the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks on diplomatic and CIA compounds in Benghazi, Libya that killed four Americans. Democratic aides noted that the investigation is approaching the two-year mark and has spent more than $6 million.
“Republicans are desperate to rehabilitate their image, and yet they continue to drag out the committee’s tenure well into the 2016 election year with no end in sight,” a spokesman for committee Democrats said in a statement. “The simple truth is that the facts haven’t changed, and the core findings of the many previous investigations have stood up to the repeated and wasteful scrutiny.”
A Republican committee aide blasted the announcement.
“It’s very sad that the do-nothing Democrats on the committee would actually brag about how long they’ve obstructed this thorough, fact-centered investigation,” the aide said in an emailed statement. “Their deceptive announcement today is further proof they are focused solely on playing politics, undermining the committee’s work, and helping their endorsed candidate for president. It’s also bizarre for Democrats to claim they will release transcripts that Chairman Gowdy has always said he plans to release with the final report.”
Gowdy earlier Thursday said the committee has conducted a total of 75 witness interviews since its creation in May 2014, including recent sit-downs with Rice and Rhodes. He promised to release a report “as soon as possible” on the findings of the investigation.
“While there are still witnesses to talk to and documents to review, these significant breakthroughs are big wins that will help the committee complete the most comprehensive investigation into what happened before, during and after the Benghazi terrorist attacks,” Gowdy said in a statement.
Gowdy did not release further details about the interviews, saying only that they took place and that the panel last week “gained access to crucial national security records we sought for nearly a year — records no other investigation has seen.”
The statement provided a partial look at the progress of the Benghazi committee, which has kept a low profile on Capitol Hill since the Clinton hearing in November. The marathon event was widely seen as testing the credibility of the GOP-led investigation, which was then mired in accusations of political bias.
Thursday’s memo from the panel seemed aimed at bolstering the validity of the investigation.
“So far, 59 of the 75 witnesses interviewed by the committee had never before been interviewed by Congress,” it stated. “The Select Committee is also the first and only Benghazi investigation to include roughly 70,000 new pages of documents – including the Secretary of State’s emails.”
A Democratic aide said comments from Rice, Rhodes, Panetta and Petraeus were consistent with their previous statements about the Benghazi attacks. The interviews affirmed that no one intentionally provided false information about the violence to the public, the aide said.
Rice came under scrutiny in fall 2012 for calling the attacks a “spontaneous” response to an anti-Muslim video on the Sunday political shows. Republicans remain suspicious of the comments, believing they were made to cover up the attack because it could have damaged President Obama’s reelection hopes.
The Democratic aide said Rice repeated to the committee that she relied on the intelligence community’s best assessment at the time. A Republican staffer challenged this, pointing to a book in which former deputy CIA director Michael Morell wrote that his analysts “never said the video was a factor” in the attacks.
The back-and-forth was reminiscent of the months leading up to Clinton’s testimony, as Democrats regularly attacked Republicans for how they were running the investigation.
Democratic allegations of political bias against Clinton gained momentum in September after a gaffe by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggested the panel was created to hurt her political prospects.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable,” McCarthy, who later walked back his comments, said on Fox News.
The next month, a former Republican committee staffer announced plans to sue the panel, claiming he was fired in part because he would not focus his investigative work on Clinton. That staffer, Bradley Podliska, is now engaged in a legal battle with Gowdy and the committee.
After Clinton testified, Gowdy and his team seemed to shift focus away from her inner circle at the State Department.
Before the hearing, the committee interviewed Huma Abedin and Cheryl Mills, among other current and former Clinton aides. After, investigators interviewed Rice, Rhodes, Petraeus and Panetta, along with former deputy assistant secretary of state Charlene Lamb and former Defense Department chief of staff Jeremy Bash.