Republicans on the House Select Committee on Benghazi are placing new restrictions on Democrats’ access to key documents out of fear they could be made public before the panel concludes its investigation.
The move arrives amid growing speculation about when Republicans will release their final report about the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks and what conclusions it will draw about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who is solidifying her position as the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Under new rules communicated Wednesday by Republicans, Democratic lawmakers and staff will no longer be given their own physical and digital copies of witness interview transcripts. Instead, they will only be able to access to hard copies of the transcripts inside GOP offices during business hours.
Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) argued the arrangement became necessary after panel Democrats led by ranking member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) threatened to unilaterally release transcripts from interviews with key witnesses, including White House National Security Adviser Susan Rice, Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and former CIA director David Petraeus.
“Democrats have threatened to leak more transcripts and therefore I have no choice but to protect past witnesses, future witnesses, confidential material and the integrity of the investigation by allowing the Democrats equitable access but not control,” Gowdy said in a statement.
“Once they stated their intention to misuse transcripts, I could not in good faith allow them to do so. Mr. Cummings likes to frequently lecture people how ‘we’re better than this,’ but his actions and the actions of his staff with regards to this investigation unfortunately prove otherwise.”
Cummings accused Republicans of breaking House rules and working to time disclosures in order to maximize harm to Clinton in the election.
“Democrats on the Select Committee will not agree to conditions that prevent us from putting out the facts that witnesses have told the Committee in order to rebut the conspiracy theories about Benghazi,” Cummings said in a statement.
“Republicans are so desperate to keep us from sharing these facts with the public, they denied Democrats any access to some of these witness transcripts for weeks. Republicans are writing a secret, partisan report that they plan to make public shortly before the election – and they are violating House Rules in order to try to silence Democrats from putting out the facts before then.”
The conflict represents yet another stalemate for the dysfunctional select committee and its leaders, Gowdy and Cummings. And the rancor is only expected to build as the investigation approaches its two-year anniversary in May.
Republicans would not provide a deadline for their final report, arguing the Obama administration would merely stonewall on further document and interview requests until that date. Instead, Gowdy has said he hopes for completion as soon as possible “before summer.”
The question remains whether that timetable includes a window for the CIA to complete a classification review of the report, which could take several months. Democrats argue that, adding time for the review, the schedule would put the release of the report just before the general election in November.
Cummings said his side must have full access to the transcripts in order to conduct its work, including efforts to counteract what Democrats see as a Republican campaign to unfairly target Clinton. Aides described the limits on their access to documents as unprecedented and another sign of the GOP’s desire to manipulate the investigation.
“By limiting Democratic access to these transcripts, you impair our ability to share the evidence supporting our fact-based analysis with the public, essentially quieting any dissent from your report from the start,” Cummings wrote to Gowdy on Tuesday.
Gowdy defended his decision.
“I have consulted with the House Parliamentarian and I am confident this arrangement complies with the letter and intent of House rules,” he wrote back on Wednesday.
The process for sharing documents in a congressional investigation is usually straightforward.
Under normal circumstances, the stenographer recording the closed-door interviews would pass along transcripts to the majority — in this case, the Republicans — who would then pass them to Democrats.
This is how the panel functioned until mid-February, when Democrats threatened in a comment to the Washington Post to release transcripts in order to rebut the GOP’s claims of “significant breakthroughs” in the investigation. After that, according to aides from both sides, Republicans withheld transcripts from interviews as they took place.
The new rules for access were not communicated until Republican and Democratic staffers spoke on Wednesday. Aides to Gowdy said he spoke to Cummings on the House floor, offering free access to transcripts if Cummings promised not to release them.
“He would not give me that assurance,” Gowdy said in a statement.