Benghazi Oversight: A Chairman’s Resistance to Inconvenient Facts

In a previous post, I argued that overwrought politicized congressional oversight about the attack of the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya would have a damaging effect on long-term efforts to push diplomats and foreign aid workers deeper into their countries of assignment.  My views on this topic are grounded in six years split between working in the White House Counsel’s Office and on the Democratic staff of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform (the “Oversight Committee”).  Today I turn my attention from the collateral diplomatic consequences of oversight to the irresponsibility of congressional overseers—here, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) in his capacity as Chairman of the Oversight Committee—as an independent harm to our Constitutional system.  Benghazi is an unfortunate example.

As I argued in my last post, the attack on U.S. interests in Benghazi—especially the assassination of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens—calls for a thorough after-action analysis by components of the Executive Branch as well as Congress.  News organizations are also critical to post-attack analysis.  The attack raises wholly legitimate questions of diplomatic security resourcing and deployment, intelligence threat analysis, and attack response.  Sadly, developments since my previous post have only reinforced my view that Benghazi has not been an example of responsible congressional oversight.

Over the holidays, the New York Times published David Kirkpatrick’s blockbuster article detailing the results of an extensive Benghazi investigation.  Josh Hersh wrote a reaction piece in Huffington Post in which he summarized Kirkpatrick’s conclusions about the competing political narratives about the attack in Benghazi:

In one such narrative, the attack was a spontaneous affair, fueled by an anti-Islamic video that had recently popped up on the Internet.  In another, advanced by Republicans, it was a highly orchestrated attack coordinated by al Qaeda elements that President Barack Obama refused to acknowledge still existed.  Neither, the Times argues, were fully true.

Kirkpatrick debunks the Republican charge that al Qaeda plotted the attack and that the video had no role as a catalyst for the attack.   These conclusions, in turn, undermine the allegation that the Obama Administration sent Ambassador Susan Rice out to the Sunday political shows a week after the attack in order to mislead or lie to the public.

Hersh cautions the Administration against declaring itself exonerated.  He argues that even if al Qaeda was not behind the attack, the Administration should still be faulted for: (1) Executive Branch failure to understand the nature of post-Gaddafi Libya, (2) CIA failures in protection of the Benghazi mission facility, and (3) the State Department’s failure to provide sufficient security.  I would add that, to the extent inaccurate information got released in the aftermath due to the fog of war, perhaps the Administration would have been better served by resisting congressional calls for immediate briefings and instead gotten its arms around the facts more fully.

One would think that Chairman Issa would be satisfied with what remain important and viable critiques of the Executive Branch.  Obviously, the State Department’s security footprint and resources are a central focus of congressional oversight.  The Oversight Committee even has jurisdiction over certain CIA activities (though not sources and methods, which are the exclusive province of the intelligence committees).  However, rather than accepting the state of evidence, Chairman Issa appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press and tried to rehabilitate his discredited conspiracy theory about al Qaeda by characterizing it as groups with “links to” al Qaeda.  Chairman Issa raised the legitimate issue of a failure to boost security for the Ambassador’s trip to Benghazi due to specific threats at the time.  However, he also continued to dismiss the relevance of the video as an inflammatory element that contributed to the motivation of the attack—a fact that was fairly conclusively established by Kirkpatrick’s article.

We should care a lot what Darrell Issa thinks and says.  As Chairman of the Oversight Committee, Rep. Issa has been charged by the House with rooting out fraud, waste, and abuse across the government.  House Rules grant him nearly unlimited subject matter jurisdiction along with extraordinary investigative powers.  He is the chief investigator of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Benghazi is but one example of distortion of the Oversight Committee’s investigative powers to fit a political agenda.  In one instance, the Chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission traveled to the District of Columbia to appear as a witness before the Oversight Committee (FCIC) only to be told the hearing was cancelled because Chairman Issa’s staff had “found some documents at the last minute that didn’t fit the narrative.”  It turned out the documents did not substantiate the Chairman’s allegations and they also raised ethics issues related to Republican FCIC Commissioners.  In another, Chairman Issa released a selected portion of an interview transcript by a Cincinnati-based manager of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to suggest that IRS targeting of conservative groups for scrutiny was orchestrated by Obama political appointees in Washington.  Once the Democrats released the entire transcript, over the Chairman’s objection, it became clear that the witness had repeatedly denied any Washington involvement during the interview and the phrase Chairman Issa leaked—that the witness had taken “all my direction from Washington”—did not relate to the allegations at issue.  In an episode with which I am personally familiar, Chairman Issa told a witness, from the dais and on camera, that he could review a document that was the subject of the Chairman’s questioning (after the witness’s attorneys objected to questioning without such review) only to have his staff refuse to actually hand the document to the attorneys off camera.  It turned out that the witness was being interrogated about the meaning of a document he did not author, had not received, and had no reason to know about.  There are more.

Given the din of politics, it could be easy to succumb to political cynicism: that Chairman Issa’s approach is hardly surprising in the hurly burly world of politics.  To be sure, the Oversight Committee will always be a venue for political theater.  But under the leadership of Rep. Tom Davis (R-VA) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA), partisanship may have been a fact of life but there was also comity and constructive cooperation.

The modern world seems to inexorably tilt functional power in favor of the Executive Branch, and our constitutional system requires constructive and credible congressional oversight.  We really can’t afford to have the Oversight Committee reduced to a mere partisan bludgeon.

Conspiracy theories are the offspring of political and emotional agendas, and they orphan the truth.  Due to the political agenda of the Chairman and some of his allies, Benghazi conspiracy theories that are a dead letter as a factual matter will continue to haunt us. 

About the Author(s)

Andy Wright

Professor at Savannah Law School, Former Associate Counsel to the President in the White House Counsel’s Office Follow him on Twitter (@AndyMcCanse).