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Trey Gowdy defends Benghazi committee after top Defense official calls panel wasteful, unproductive

Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi.  (AP Photo/Cliff Owen, 2015 File)

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, hit back Friday against a top Defense Department official who criticized the committee as wasteful, inefficient and unproductive.

In a letter to Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter, Gowdy defended the work of the committee, which was formed in 2014 to investigate the 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Gowdy’s letter comes about a week after Assistant Secretary of Defense for Legislative Affairs Stephen Hedger sent a letter to the committee criticizing its tactics, including the panel’s  “crescendo” of new requests since February to interview Pentagon service members and threats to subpoena those witnesses if the Pentagon did not comply quickly enough. Hedger said the requests came with an “unrealistic timeline.”

‘Unproductive,’ ‘unfair,’ ‘unfortunate’: Pentagon official scolds House Benghazi committee

“Subpoenaing our service members, when the Department is working diligently to accommodate your requests and when no service member has refused to appear voluntarily, is unfair to our uniformed men and women and an unproductive way forward,” Hedger wrote. “We have never denied a request for a transcribed interview or briefing and have accommodated requests even when we believed them to be duplicative or unnecessary.”

Gowdy shot back Friday, saying that Hedger mischaracterized the nature of the committee’s investigation and its interaction with the Defense Department and that the letter was overtly partisan.

“Given the importance of the issue and the absolute necessity that the inquiry be full and fair, it is disappointing your staff has found it necessary to challenge the Committee’s requests for interviews,” Gowdy wrote to Carter. Gowdy also took issue with what he said were factual inaccuracies in Hedger’s letter. The committee has interviewed 16 Defense Department witnesses — not the seven witnesses that Hedger’s letter cited, Gowdy wrote.

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Both Hedger and Gowdy accused the other of wasting taxpayer dollars.

“Your staff is welcome to waste taxpayer dollars writing partisan, factually deficient letters to our Committee,” Gowdy wrote. “It will not prevent this Committee from interviewing all witnesses who can help us write the final, definitive accounting of what happened.”

Hedger, in his letter, wrote that “Congress has as much of an obligation as the Executive Branch to use federal resources and taxpayer dollars effectively and efficiently. The Department has spent millions of dollars on Benghazi-specific Congressional compliance.”

The spat highlights the ongoing tension between the Defense Department and the House committee, which has been criticized by Democrats who say the probe is a political stunt to damage presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. In October, the former secretary of state testified before the committee for 11 hours, but Gowdy acknowledged afterward that he did not learn any new information from the testimony.

Gowdy has said the committee will release its full report on the Benghazi attack before summer.

“It seems crystal clear from the Department of Defense’s letter that they are tired of getting jerked around by Select Committee Republicans while trying to fulfill their primary mission of protecting our nation,” a spokesperson for Democrats on the committee said Friday. “Select Committee Republicans should stop blaming everyone else for their own failings and put an end to this wasteful charade of an investigation.”