WASHINGTON -- From the Department of Predictable Outcomes: The House select committee investigating the 2012 attacks on the U.S diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, appears to be falling apart.
At issue are two complaints from committee Democrats. The first is that they have been systematically excluded from at least five witness interviews, and only discovered that Republicans had conducted those interviews after the fact through press reports. The second complaint is the committee chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), is downplaying or disregarding interview testimony that contradicts assumptions about the night of the attacks.
The complaints, laid out in a letter from the ranking Democrat on the committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), come as the committee is to hold a public hearing Tuesday on the status of records requests related to the attacks. One of the Democrats on the committee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), told CQ Roll Call in an interview that it might be time for Democrats to consider leaving the committee altogether. A top Democratic aide said members still planned to attend the meeting on Tuesday, but would use the occasion to amplify the concerns expressed in Cummings’ letter, below.
It’s rare for lawmakers to take private complaints like this public. Though the Democratic aide said the impetus was to pressure Gowdy to be more collaborative with members of the minority party, Republicans will view it as a gambit to damage the committee’s legitimacy.
“[T]hat the Democrats have released correspondence that attempts to politically characterize sources’ private discussions with the committee without proper context goes to the exact heart of why the Chairman will not require sources to talk to both sides,” Jamal D. Ware, the committee communications director, said in a statement.
Looming over the acrimony is the pace being taken by Gowdy to investigate the attacks -- a pace that critics have described as glacial. The committee was formed eight months ago. It has only held two public hearings since (the third will be Tuesday). There have been private hearings. And in conversations several months ago, Gowdy allies and aides were quick to note that they have been doing work behind the scenes to access documents, line up interviews, and review information.
Through it all, however, both sides have been unable to agree to a basic set of rules governing how the committee will operate, from interviews it conducts to how it can exercise subpoena power. Gowdy’s office contends it has offered a generous package of rules. Democrats argue that what the chairman offered wouldn’t permit them to sit in on witness interviews. Either way, the committee has been unable to avoid discord without a map for its mission.
How much Gowdy acquiesces to Cummings in the days ahead may end up determining whether other Democrats join Smith in determining that the committee is a waste of time for the five minority members.
Ware, in his statement, insisted that the committee wouldn’t be “hamstrung by politics.” But he also said Gowdy would “work to address any legitimate minority concerns.”
Gowdy has so far adroitly served as chairman, earning early kudos for an unexpectedly leveled approach. But the compliments have turned to criticisms recently, both from those who say that the Benghazi attacks have been already exhaustively investigated (by congressional Republicans no less), and from Democrats, who now say they feel blindsided.
“There are rules on the Committee of Oversight and Government Reform,” the Democratic aide said of the other major investigative committee that was led, in the last Congress, by Rep Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). “There are no rules here. ... At least we had rules with Issa.”