On one hand, Washington Democrats are publicly brushing off Wednesday’s fresh hearings into Benghazi as a stunt by House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) not worthy of much note.
On the other hand, they are steadily launching preemptive strikes against the exposition of whistleblower information that could prove damning to the Obama administration.
The ranking member on the Oversight Committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), reacted angrily last month to House Republicans’ interim report on Benghazi, which noted an April 19, 2012, cable on which Hillary Clinton’s signature accompanies an acknowledgment of a request for extra security even though she then withdrew security assets.
“Speaker Boehner needs to immediately retract this erroneous report, remove it from his webpage, and apologize to Secretary Clinton for mischaracterizing a key document and making false allegations against her in the press,” Cummings said then, claiming the cable doesn’t have Clinton’s signature but her printed name. “It was incredibly reckless — or worse — if these public accusations were made knowing that the documents do not support them.”
As Oversight Democrats prepare for a slew of cameras pointed at the committee on Wednesday, Cummings today called for “bipartisan and responsible” investigations into all matters, “particularly those involving our national security.”
“Whistleblowers must have the ability to come forward to Congress and be protected from retaliation when they report waste, fraud, or abuse,” he added.
“I also believe members of Congress have an obligation to actually investigate claims before coming to conclusions and making public accusations. Unfortunately, House Republicans have taken the opposite approach. They issued a partisan report with reckless and false accusations against the former Secretary of State, they have completely concealed Mr. Thompson from Democratic Committee members, and they have failed to make even basic inquiries to the Intelligence Community, the Defense Department, or the State Department to vet specific allegations.”
Mark Thompson, Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary for Counterterrorism, is expected to say at the hearing that Clinton tried to cut the State Department’s counterterrorism unit out of the Benghazi response the night of the attack, as Issa revealed over the weekend.
Other testimony will come from Foreign Service Officer and former Deputy Chief of Mission/Chargé d’Affairs in Libya Gregory Hicks, who received the call from Ambassador Chris Stevens that night saying “we’re under attack,” and Diplomatic Security Officer and former Regional Security Officer in Libya Eric Nordstrom, who previously testified before the committee in October.
Cummings accused Issa of leaking “snippets of interview transcripts to national media outlets in a selective and distorted manner to drum up publicity for their hearing.”
“This is investigation by press release and does a disservice to our common goal of ensuring that our diplomatic corps serving overseas has the best protection possible to do its critical work,” he said.
A handful of Oversight Democrats contacted by PJM last week did not return requests for comment or said they were unavailable to speak on Benghazi. But these 17 Democrats carry the task of running first-wave interference for the administration as the whistleblower testimony unfolds before a wall-to-wall packed hearing room and overflow press section.
“We don’t have the ability to hold a hearing. The Democrats have been completely kept out of this whole process. This has been a one- sided investigation, if you want to call it that. There’s been no sharing of information in a significant way with the Democrats staff members who usually conduct this type of investigation,” Rep. Stephen Lynch (D-Mass.) complained on Fox News Sunday.
Lynch added that reports of whistleblower intimidation are “completely false.” Issa later accused him of being “an apologist for the administration.”
Today at the White House, spokesman Jay Carney repeated like a broken record President Obama’s assertion from last week’s press conference when asked about whistleblower intimidation.
“I’m not familiar with this notion that anybody has been blocked from testifying,” Obama told a reporter. “So what I’ll do is I will find out what exactly you are referring to.”
“We have said that we are not aware of anyone who has been blocked from speaking to Congress if they so choose to or want to speak to Congress,” Carney said today, shifting to another key talking point on Benghazi: the findings of the State Department’s Accountability Review Board.
Clinton handpicked four of that panel’s five members while the director of national intelligence named the final member from the intelligence community.
“The Board determined that U.S. personnel on the ground in Benghazi performed with courage and readiness to risk their lives to protect their colleagues, in a near impossible situation,” states the report. “The Board members believe every possible effort was made to rescue and recover Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith. The interagency response was timely and appropriate, but there simply was not enough time for armed U.S. military assets to have made a difference.”
Carney called the ARB team “unimpeachable” and its report “unsparing.”
“It was critical. And it — and it — it held people accountable. And it made a series of recommendations for action that could be taken to improve security to reduce the potential for these kinds of events from happening in the future,” he said.
“If that report was unsparing, why is Greg Hicks, who is the number two to Ambassador Stevens, now going to tell Congress, tell the American people that there were U.S. Special Forces in Tripoli getting ready to board a plane, come to Benghazi to help these Americans, and they were told to stand down?” a reporter asked.
“I would refer you to the Department of Defense,” Carney responded. “…And I would refer you to the content of the ARB.”
Asked about Thompson’s charge that counterterrorism was cut out of the Benghazi response, Carney was ready with a statement from the former head of the Counterterrorism Bureau, Daniel Benjamin.
“It has been alleged that the State Department’s Counterterrorism Bureau was cut out of the discussion and decision-making in the aftermath of the Benghazi attacks. I ran the bureau then. And I can say now with certainty, as the former coordinator for counterterrorism, that this charge is simply untrue,” said Benjamin, who resigned from his post in December. “At no time did I feel that the bureau was in any way being left out of deliberations that it should have been part of.”
The House report on Benghazi represented five committees — Oversight, Intelligence, Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, and Judiciary — and the ranking member on Intelligence seemed less than comfortable running interference on the issue over the weekend.
Unlike Issa and Cummings, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) and Ranking Member Dutch Ruppersberg (D-Md.) have a good relationship and often appear on talk shows together, as they did Sunday on CBS’ Face the Nation.
“It’s a very serious situation when we lose American lives. We’re in the investigative stage right now. It’s extremely important. I think that we have to wait until the facts come through. I applaud the fact that there’s an open hearing. You want to hear from both sides,” Ruppersberger said.
But the Democrat wouldn’t say that the State Department ignored calls for more help in Benghazi.
“I’m not saying that at all, that we knew. I’m saying that we’ve got to get the facts,” said Ruppersberger. “…It was a volatile situation. A lot of the same information that we received is the — initially, had to change. And the information and talking points that went to Ambassador Rice. She used talking points that we all got in the very beginning, the first couple of days.”
“But it appears those talking points were dead wrong,” host Bob Schieffer interjected.
“At the time, as it turns out, it is. And that’s what an investigation is about. Let’s get the facts. This should not be a partisan issue at all. This should be get the facts, an open issue, and to hear from everybody,” Ruppersberger said.
Before this past Sunday, Democrats’ media presence on Benghazi was scarce.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) tried to turn the issue to one of inadequate funding, thanks to Republicans, for giving overseas missions what they need.
“Whether that would have made a difference or not, I don’t know,” Leahy said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Should we look at Benghazi? Yes. But keep in mind that’s just one place. We should look at our security throughout our embassies because they will always be easy targets.”