I have a new hobby. It has nothing to do with balsa wood or fly-fishing, stamps or even books. Instead, I fashion myself as a modern-day Diogenes — he was the guy with the lantern who went around ancient Athens seeking an honest man — and so I go around asking people if they know what the Benghazi committee is looking for. Yesterday, I posed that question to a former White House aide, a lawyer, a fellow journalist, an artist, a retired chief executive and the head of a nonprofit. None of them knew.
My hobby is not entirely whimsical. When a congressional committee has been in existence for more than a year, when it has subpoenaed witnesses and put them under oath, when it has compelled them to account for their e-mails and, in one case, invoke the Fifth Amendment, then maybe we ought to know what it is up to. A terrorist attack in Libya is no laughing matter. Neither is a congressional committee run amok.
The committee was impaneled in May of last year and is supposed “to conduct a full and complete investigation” into the terrorist attack on the American installation in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. Four Americans died in that attack, including the ambassador, J. Christopher Stevens. Congress retaliated. It has launched at least eight investigations, making life miserable if not for the terrorists, then for Hillary Clinton. She was secretary of state at the time.
What is this committee after? It’s not clear. Clinton was no more in charge of State Department security than she was of building maintenance. She was not chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and so could not have given the order not to attempt a rescue. (No rescue was practical anyway.) It was Susan Rice, not Clinton, who made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows giving a mangled account of what happened. Does the committee (in its wisdom) have the two women mixed up?
The committee has Clinton’s e-mails — some of them, anyway — and it has in the finest Washington tradition leaked them. Thus we know she has been e-mailed by Sidney Blumenthal, a former White House aide and, in the required journalistic redundancy, a close confidant. So what? Blumenthal is not a felon or a foreign agent, and since he was and remains a private citizen, the contents of his e-mails were not in the least way classified. Why is it our business?
I understand that Clinton has botched this entire e-mail controversy. (I ask people about that, too.) She should never have used a private server in the first place, but it was apparently legal to do so. Nonetheless, her explanations have been all over the place, beginning with her reasons for doing so — not wanting to carry two devices. (What are aides for, anyway?) After insisting she was doing the legal thing, she finally apologized — although for what is not clear. It is clear, however, that each step of the way the media — especially Fox News — have gone to town with it. In the Internet age, everything is a front-page headline; nothing is in context.
If Clinton were more forthright, she might — my guess here — admit that she used a private server because she didn’t want her every thought to wind up in the hands of her political enemies. As if to prove the truth of the cliche that even paranoids have enemies, that’s precisely what’s happened. The Benghazi committee has the e-mails. But e-mails to her daughter, her husband, her staff about personal matters, biting comments, maybe even an insult or two ought to remain private. Even public officials are entitled to private thoughts.
Benghazi has become a Republican fixation. It is mentioned with utmost solemnity, virtual code for treason or something close to it. It is no longer an event, a debacle and a tragedy, but a totem: Something went wrong. Someone’s at fault. Why not Clinton? In the latest Republican debate, Carly Fiorina, she of the hallucinatory abortion procedure, accused Clinton of having a “track record of lying about Benghazi.” Yeah, sure. But give us an example, please.
The true Benghazi scandal is not what happened on the Libyan coast, but the use of a congressional committee for political purposes — to damage the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, by rummaging through her e-mails. She’s handled this all wrong, but she shouldn’t have had to handle it at all.
Read more from Richard Cohen’s archive.