The House Select Committee on Benghazi has faced plenty of criticism from the left. Now it’s taking some heat from the right.
Judicial Watch, a conservative government-transparency group, argues the committee has “bungled” its investigation of the 2012 attacks in Libya by refusing to hold more public hearings and release documents it has collected over the past two years.
Tom Fitton, the group’s president, said the panel is conducting its business mostly in secret, causing it to miss opportunities to hold former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration accountable for mistakes in their Libya policy. Fitton argued that the committee’s approach has also lent ammunition to Democratic critics who see it as a political tool for Republicans.
“They have this almost petty approach to transparency that is at odds with the public interest,” Fitton said of the committee in an interview. “It’s not supposed to be a grand-jury-style investigation that the public can’t be privy to. There’s got to be at least some public forum for gathering testimony and evidence, and that hasn’t happened here to any significant degree. … Many folks who have been watching it are just aghast at the approach the committee has taken toward educating the public about what it is doing.”
The group’s criticism highlights a little-known disagreement on the right over how best to conduct a probe related to Clinton, the Democratic presidential front-runner. Judicial Watch’s comments also point to a source of tension for the Benghazi committee, which is facing pressure to conclude its work before the height of election season.
Judicial Watch is conducting its own investigation into Clinton’s use of a private email server while at the State Department and has also probed the department’s response to the 2012 Benghazi attacks that left four Americans dead, including U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
A spokesman for the panel’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), said the investigation has been lengthy because the Obama administration has stonewalled the panel on document requests.
He dismissed Judicial Watch as a political organization seeking to raise money with its attacks.
“Armchair quarterbacks and partisan Democrats seeking to undermine Chairman Gowdy’s thorough, fact-centered investigation are nothing new,” the spokesman wrote in an email. “From the beginning, many on the right criticized the committee for not forcing the facts to fit their preferred narrative, and Democrats did everything they could to protect their preferred candidate for president.”
The spokesman also promised a “virtually unprecedented level of transparency” once the final report and witness transcripts are released. The panel has combed through thousands of documents and interviewed more than 80 witnesses in private since May 2014. It has released one 15-page report on its progress and held four public hearings.
Judicial Watch’s criticism is perhaps not surprising given its history. Though the group is mostly aligned with conservative causes, its push for less government secrecy has made it an uneasy ally for Republicans since its founding in 1994.
In 2002, the group sued then-Vice President Richard B. Cheney and Halliburton for alleged fraud, saying the company overstated its revenue under Cheney’s leadership. Around the same time, it teamed up with the Sierra Club to sue for records related to an energy task force run by Cheney. The group has included Republicans on its annual list of “Ten Most Wanted Corrupt Politicians” and cheered their legal defeats.
Recently, Judicial Watch has seen success in its effort to use Freedom of Information Act requests and litigation to publish documents related to Clinton’s tenure at the State Department. A federal judge ruled Feb. 23 that it can move forward with depositions and discovery about Clinton’s email practices as secretary of state.
Fitton said both political parties have been “terribly cynical” in their handling of the Benghazi investigation, but he singled out Republicans for “timidity” in their approach.
“It’s been a secretive, bungled investigation,” he said. “The obstruction of the administration has to be taken into account, but it hasn’t been handled as it should have been.”
Defenders of the committee said Gowdy has not manipulated the process to harm Clinton and that Fitton’s comments support that.
“This investigation is about a terrorist attack and the four Americans we lost and getting their families and all Americans the truth,” Gowdy’s spokesman said.
“When its complete, everyone will be able to read the report for themselves, plus the transcripts of more than 80 witness interviews,” he said. “The committee won’t apologize for being unhelpful to any outside organization’s fundraising efforts in the meantime.”
Gowdy’s closed-door approach may come from his background as a federal prosecutor.
Eleanor Hill, the staff director for the joint congressional inquiry into the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and also a former federal prosecutor, said it’s not unusual to keep transcripts private in a criminal investigation.
“It is true that with law enforcement prosecutors and the FBI or any other federal investigative agencies, they generally do not release interviews or any discussions, reports or memos while the investigation is still pending,” said Hill, now a partner with King & Spalding in Washington.
At the same time, she said, public hearings and regular staff reports were key components of her work on the 9/11 investigation.
“The point of having public hearings is to let the public know what is going on and to give the witnesses a chance to air their side of the story,” Hill said. “I think it is a good idea to have them.”
The criticism from Judicial Watch comes against the backdrop of persistent, partisan squabbling within the committee over when certain documents from the investigation should be released.
Republicans have said they will release witness interview transcripts with their final report but not before, arguing that to do so would allow future witnesses to prepare answers to the committee’s questions in advance.
Democrats, meanwhile, have promised to release key transcripts in their possession, claiming that Republicans are making false statements about “breakthroughs” in their investigation that would be disproved by witnesses’ testimony. In response to this, Republicans placed new limits on Democrats’ access to transcripts.
In countering the criticism from Judicial Watch, the GOP argued that Democrats’ desire for the documents to be released backfired, since a transcript they published in late October is now referenced in a lawsuit from Judicial Watch against the State Department.
“The lawsuit targeting Hillary Clinton draws heavily from an interview transcript selectively leaked by committee Democrats,” the Gowdy spokesman said, adding, “That’s certainly ironic.”
Paul Bell, a spokesman for committee’s Democrats, said the GOP is missing the point.
“Democrats released the full transcript to correct the record from Republicans’ inaccurate descriptions about what the witness had said,” the spokesman said in a statement. “The release of the full transcript did what we intended it to do — correct the record. It’s as simple as that.”