Two years, $7 million and three partisan takes on Benghazi

By Dana Milbank

The House Select Committee on Benghazi released its long-awaited findings Tuesday and concluded that … well, it looks as though they’re going to have to empanel another select committee to iron out the dueling conclusions reached by various members of the committee.

The panel members spent two years and $7 million to come up with the last word on what happened in Libya in September 2012, when four Americans were killed. They had vowed to best the seven prior congressional investigations and the Obama administration’s own probe.

Instead, they ended their investigation this week with three more competing reports: one by committee Democrats, one by Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, and the committee’s Republican majority, and one by a rump group of conservatives on the panel. There’s still no smoking gun from Benghazi — just a lot more smoke.

Had Gowdy found evidence that the military could have saved the lives of the four Americans? “I don’t know,” Gowdy said.

Had he proved that then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton acted on political motives? “I don’t have a background in the ‘why,’” Gowdy demurred.

Do his findings support the allegation on bumper stickers and T-shirts across the land claiming “Clinton lied, people died”? “You don’t see that T-shirt on me, and you’ve never seen that bumper sticker on any of my vehicles,” Gowdy replied.

Gowdy went out of his way not to mention Clinton in his opening statement at a news conference Tuesday. He said he would be “shocked” if people concluded the report is about her.

Unfortunately, at least two of the six committee Republicans sharing the stage with Gowdy had a dissenting view. Rep. Mike Pompeo of Kansas, who wrote a separate report with Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, proclaimed Clinton’s actions during the Benghazi attacks “morally reprehensible” and said relatives of the slain “have every right to be disgusted” with the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

NBC’s Luke Russert asked Gowdy about that “morally reprehensible” allegation.

“You read the report, you will not see any of those quotes,” the chairman replied.

But Pompeo stepped to the microphone and said he “absolutely” believes Clinton’s behavior was morally reprehensible — something he believes “in my heart.”

If having a legitimate probe was the goal, Gowdy was probably doomed from the start. He launched with a show of fairness. But Republicans, including Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California, eventually confessed the panel’s political aims. Democrats grew more antagonistic, and Gowdy, after promising his report was “not going to come out in the middle of 2016,” released his report just before the political conventions.

Gowdy apparently lost hard-liners on his own panel. Pompeo and Jordan, in their rival report, alleged that Clinton’s State Department was “seemingly more concerned with politics and Secretary Clinton’s legacy than with protecting its people in Benghazi,” and they said the Obama administration was “so focused on the next election that it lost sight of its duty to tell the American people the truth.”

They faulted Clinton for a “lapse in judgment that may well haunt our nation for years to come.” And they thought it “plausible” to conclude that she forced Americans to stay in dangerous conditions because “to leave Benghazi would have been viewed as her failure.”

If Republicans leveled wild accusations, Democrats went the other way, issuing their own report categorically asserting that the Pentagon “could not have done anything differently” to save those killed, that “Secretary Clinton never personally denied any requests for additional security in Benghazi,” that intelligence assessments “were not influenced by political considerations” and that officials “did not make intentionally misleading statements.”

Between the reckless accusations and the nothing-to-see-here defenses, there was one obvious truth: “There does not appear to be a smoking gun,” CNN’s Dana Bash informed her viewers before Gowdy entered the room.

Nor even a warm slingshot. The few revelations the panel advertised as “new” — that no military assets had been deployed to Benghazi, that embassy security staff had been ordered to change uniforms, that Clinton had been planning a visit to Libya — had mostly been uncovered in previous investigations.

Gowdy, with slicked gray hair, lavender tie and fitted suit, offered what sounded like an excuse for the absence of a bombshell. “It is always better to be the first committee to investigate, and it is always better to investigate as contemporaneously to an incident or to an event as can be done,” he said. “Our committee did not have the luxury of either one of those.”

Too bad they didn’t think of this two years and $7 million ago.

Dana Milbank is a Washington Post columnist.

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