Benghazi Oversight Updates: Of “Smoking Guns,” Judges & Committee Rifts

There have been a few developments over the last week in the ongoing congressional oversight activity related to the terrorist attack on U.S. personnel and facilities in Benghazi, Libya.

First, there was a release of documents that offered greater insight into the National Security Council reactions, in real time, to several crises unfolding in the Middle East and North Africa, including the Benghazi attack.  Pushing the Republican narrative, Senator Lindsay Graham (R-SC) characterized an email in these documents as a “smoking gun” indicating political manipulation of Benghazi intelligence, although Slate does a good job of debunking that charge.

In a welcome development, Theo Chuang was confirmed (53-42) as a judge for the U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland over Benghazi-related objections by Senate Republicans. I worked with Theo on both the staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (“Oversight Committee”) and in the Obama Administration, where he served as Deputy General Counsel of the Department of Homeland Security.  He will be a credit to the bench.

However, the main event this week was the Oversight Committee’s hearing on Benghazi.  That hearing, convened by Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA), featured the testimony of Brigadier General Robert Lovell, U.S. Air Force (Retired) in which he alleged that the military failed to rush to the “sound of the guns” in deference to a need for a State Department request. General Lovell’s testimony prompted House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-CA) to issue a press release attacking its credibility.

Last night, White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz tweeted: “Captivated by divergence of GOP Chairman Issa vs. McKeon on Benghazi. Any reporter know why? Is it Issa’s cherrypicking or politicization?” Undoubtedly, Eric was trying – with some success – to get more reporters to engage in Republican Conference psychoanalysis. But his question is a good one. Given all the partisan heat (but little light) generated by Republican allegations that the Obama Administration failed to rescue U.S. diplomats and intelligence personnel, why would Chairman McKeon decide to sing off a different sheet of music than Chairman Issa?

I don’t presume to know the personal dynamics between Chairmen McKeon and Issa. Based on my experiences with the Oversight Committee, I would not be surprised if the tactics Chairman Issa and his staff employed rubbed HASC leadership the wrong way. But I think it is likely that a major factor in this public discord is committee client dynamics. As I noted previously, there is an institutional coziness between congressional authorizing committees and their departmental charges that can defy partisan dynamics.

Citing a Politico article on the rift, Mieke Eoyang, tweeted that HASC Republicans are “more responsive to the Pentagon than the caucus.” Mieke is a credible observer of intercommittee dynamics, having served in senior professional capacities on the Democratic staff of HASC and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

I think she is onto an animating dynamic here.  In February, the HASC Republicans issued an interim report that largely exonerated the Pentagon on the grounds that there were insufficient military assets positioned to repel the Benghazi attack in real time.  The report also concluded that there had been no “stand down” order by senior Administration officials that precluded a rescue, a conspiracy theory championed by Chairman Issa. In my previous blog post, I compared the HASC Republicans’ findings with those of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which largely focused its ire on State Department and Pentagon conduct.

Fast forward to this week’s statement by Chairman McKeon:

The Armed Services Committee has interviewed more than a dozen witnesses in the operational chain of command that night, yielding thousands of pages of transcripts, e-mails, and other documents. We have no evidence that Department of State officials delayed the decision to deploy what few resources DoD had available to respond.

General Lovell’s testimony challenges the findings of Rep. McKeon’s interim report.  The attack on the HASC Republicans’ report, along with its prior debunking of the “stand down” theory, best explain Chairman McKeon’s response.  And, as backdrop, intercommittee and committee-client incentives best explain the underlying dynamics. 

About the Author(s)

Andy Wright

Senior Fellow and Founding Editor of Just Security, former Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyMcCanse.