Benghazi Oversight: What New Congressional Reports Tell Us about Committee Clients

This week, the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) issued a 31-page majority interim report on the September 11-12, 2012 attack on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya.  The HASC report follows on the heels of the Benghazi report by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) that Thomas previewed.  There is a lot of interesting source material in these reports, as well as a few reasonable observations and recommendations.

What struck me most about both reports, however, was a common congressional oversight phenomenon:  institutional committee bias in favor of the agency within their primary jurisdiction.   Put in the more uncharitable way I encountered when I worked in Congress:  “clientitis.”  These reports offer a window into the structure of power and bias in congressional oversight that extends far beyond Benghazi, revealing a subtler problem in the system.

In my previous Benghazi posts I have criticized overwrought politicized congressional oversight about the attack of the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya.  First, I predicted that it will encourage damaging bureaucratic timidity in our diplomats.  Second, I argued that continued commitment to political narratives unsupported by facts—in this case, insistence that the Benghazi attack was coordinated by Al Qaeda even after that assertion was debunked—is independently damaging to our polity.  This post shifts from the conduct of individuals to a nativism inherent in congressional committee structure.

In progressive media—ThinkProgress is a good example—the key takeaway from the HASC report is that the U.S. military was simply not in a position to alter the outcome in Benghazi.  According to a conservative conspiracy theory the White House ordered the military not to intervene (for example, see here).  Media Matters reported that Fox News invoked this “stand down” theory in 85 prime time segments by July 2013.  The HASC report, however, states flatly:  “There was no ‘stand down’ order issued to U.S. military personnel in Tripoli” (p. 2).

On the conservative media side, the HASC report’s emphasis is on criticism of the White House for numerous failures ranging from risk appraisal to security review, and from military force posture to command decisions.  (See, for example, Daily Caller  & Fox News).

The SSCI report was structured differently than the HASC report, with an opening section reflecting the bipartisan views of the committee followed by addenda of “Additional Majority Views” and “Additional Views” by several Republican Senators.  With the imprimatur of Democratic members, its criticism takes on more credibility in the public.  And SSCI’s top line criticism was a doozy:  that the attacks in Benghazi were likely preventable (Additional Majority Views, p. 1).

Congressional committees are required, by virtue of their authorizing or appropriating functions, to have a constructive ongoing relationship with the agencies and departments within their jurisdiction.  As repeat players, the committees and agencies develop a corollary commonality in political incentives that softens the bite of the oversight function.  Committees of jurisdiction at times feel quite invested in the policies, personnel, and decisions that come under intense broader congressional scrutiny.  As such, there may be a defensive reaction on the committee’s part beyond a desire to assist the Executive Branch entity under inquiry.

In fact, it was this very coziness that informed the House decision to grant interagency oversight jurisdiction and robust investigative power to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee (Oversight Committee).  While I do not back away from my earlier criticism of Chairman Darrell Issa’s tactics, the level of unpleasantness experienced by the Executive Branch during contact with the Oversight Committee is in some sense according to design.  Those who believe in robust congressional oversight are concerned that the authorizers will treat their agency charges with kid gloves.

Take, for example, this emblematic opening graph from the Washington Post article, entitled “Republicans investigating Benghazi blame White House, State Dept. for failures”:

Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee largely exonerated the U.S. military from responsibility for failures associated with the September 2012 terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya, instead blaming the White House and the State Department for ignoring heightened threats in the area.

Of course, the headline fails to note that it is not “Republicans” writ large but rather HASC Republicans making these conclusions.  Headlines like this not only irritate the White House and Foggy Bottom, but they no doubt also raised the ire of the Member and staff leadership of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

The HASC report describes its focus as an “extensive effort to evaluate the response of the Department of Defense” to the attack (p. 3).  Notwithstanding the stated Pentagon focus, the HASC report commences with a finding that “White House officials failed to comprehend or ignored the dramatically deteriorating security situation in Libya” (p. 6).  The HASC report also reminds readers that “the Department of State, which has primary responsibility for diplomatic security, favored a reduction of Department of Defense security personnel prior to the attack” (p. 10).  In contrast, the HASC Majority found that “Secretary Panetta and his senior-most assistants seem to have been especially prepared to evaluate defensive preparations in and around North Africa at the time” (p. 8).  To these HASC Members, unlike the flawed situational awareness at the White House and State Department, the “prevailing assessment within the Department of Defense after December 2011 was that the security situation in Libya was poor and growing worse” (p. 9).

SSCI, too, declared that its primary focus was a review of the Intelligence Committee:

“This review … focuses primarily on the analysis by and actions of the Intelligence Community (IC) leading up to, during, and immediately following the attacks. The report also addresses, as appropriate, other issues about the attacks as they relate to the Department of Defense (DoD) and Department of State (State or State Department)” (p. 1).

SSCI’s first finding is that “the IC provided ample strategic warning that the security situation in eastern Libya was deteriorating and that U.S. facilities and personnel were at risk in Benghazi” (p. 9).  Like HASC, SSCI finds that its jurisdictional client—here, the IC—acquitted itself appropriately with respect to regional situation analysis.

SSCI’s second finding is that the “State Department should have increased its security more significantly in Benghazi based on the deteriorating security on the ground and IC threat reporting on the prior attacks against Westerners in Benghazi” (p. 12).

For their part, the “Additional Views” offered by SSCI Republicans are rife with criticism of the State Department (See Additional Views of Vice Chairman Chambliss et al., pp. 7-8: “Disturbing Lack of Cooperation by the State Department”; pp. 8-11: “Failures in Leadership—State Department”).  They seem particularly irked at State Department resistance to SSCI oversight requests, even though it is hardly surprising that the State Department would try, from its perspective, to seek home court advantage in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and House Foreign Affairs Committee and minimize the multiplicity of investigative fora.  Likely to the consternation of HASC, they also take a few shots at the Pentagon (pp. 11-12: “Failures in Leadership—General Dempsey”).

I won’t belabor the pattern that emerges.  To be sure, HASC criticizes the Pentagon and SSCI criticizes elements of the IC.  But in the main, the reports contain an awful lot of committee cover for their jurisdictional subjects.

Once one looks through the lens of intercommittee bias, there are plenty of examples in other contexts.  For example, SSCI and its House counterpart have maintained bipartisan majorities that are much more solicitous of surveillance programs than the judiciary committees, which tend to focus, by virtue of their charge and membership, on civil liberties.  Others have commented on SSCI Chairman Feinstein’s desire to keep drone programs under CIA auspices rather than transfer to the military.  One of my previous posts discusses SASC Chairman Levin’s resistance to Sen. Gillibrand’s reform proposals on sexual assault in the military.  These are all cases in which there is a unity of position between an agency and its authorizing committee that is under significant pressure from other congressional actors.

My project is not to deconstruct all congressional oversight efforts to reveal the absence of credibility.  I am a huge believer in the importance of the congressional oversight function and I believe both the HASC and SSCI reports are within the bounds of current congressional norms.  Frankly, I hope that some of my criticism will help lead to reform that will enhance congressional credibility.  But for present purposes, I hope that this post helps elucidate committee clientism as one of the lines of tension in oversight of national security matters that is generally less readily visible (and less discussed) than partisanship, intercameralism, and interbranch conflict. 

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.