What you need to know about Hillary Clinton’s testimony before the Benghazi committee

Back in the spotlight.
Back in the spotlight.
Image: Reuters/Jason Reed
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Former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton will testify Thursday (Oct. 22) before a controversial committee of federal lawmakers ostensibly investigating the 2012 deaths of US ambassador Christopher Stevens, another diplomat, and two CIA contractors in Benghazi, Libya.

The committee is largely seen not only by Democrats but also at least two Republican lawmakers as a partisan effort to hurt Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner in the 2016 presidential race. With Clinton’s chances of securing the nomination higher than ever, perhaps the biggest threat to her electoral chances is a metastasizing scandal about her judgment as secretary of state under president Barack Obama.

Ahead of this make-or-break moment, here’s what you need to know.

There’s no real question about what happened.

This committee marks the eighth major investigation into the attacks on the US diplomatic post and CIA station in Libya by a group of Islamist militiamen, which occurred after a Western coalition including the US ousted the country’s long-time leader, Muammar Gaddafi.

Each investigation came to essentially the same conclusion: That US diplomatic facilities in Benghazi were not adequately secured in a chaotic, post-conflict environment, and that requests for additional security officers in the months ahead of the attack were ignored or denied.

The investigations attribute the failure to reinforce the post to bureaucratic confusion over which officials actually oversaw security at the mission, and to its temporary nature. The State Department’s review held four officials in the office of diplomatic security accountable for the failure, and removed them from their positions.

Numerous conspiracy theories have abounded, particularly that the Obama administration had attempted to cover up what happened, that requests for help during the attacks were denied, and that intelligence on the ground in Libya was not adequate. But the investigations found that these claims were not true.

So why another investigation?

Writing about what is left to be answered, the committee’s chairman, South Carolina representative Trey Gowdy, didn’t offer any specific questions, just a list of topics previously covered by other investigations.

What the committee’s interest seems to come down to is that, while the previous investigations concluded that mistakes were made, not enough heads have rolled, and there has not been sufficient scrutiny of Clinton’s role. In two past occasions testifying about the attacks before the House and Senate, Clinton took responsibility for the failure to secure the posts, but said she was not aware of specific requests for more security assistance.

Beyond demanding personal culpability, there is evidence that the committee is a partisan project designed to discredit Clinton, despite denials by Gowdy that this is the case. Notably, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy appeared on Fox News and said, “Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right? But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping. Why? Because she’s untrustable.”

Another Republican, representative Richard Hanna, told a New York radio station, “I think that there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people and an individual, Hillary Clinton. I think that’s the way Washington works. But you’d like to expect more from a committee that’s spent millions of dollars and tons of time.”

And a fired former staffer on the investigation, Air Force major Bradley Podliska, told reporters that the investigation was focused on Clinton, not the breadth of the attacks.

Will there be anything new?

One thing the committee has achieved, at least, was revealing the private e-mail server used by Clinton for both her work at the State Department and her personal correspondence, a move that was apparently permitted but not suggested by federal practice.

Hosting the private account allowed Clinton to evade public-records requests from the press during her time in office, but now the entire server has been recovered, and her work e-mails are being parceled out by the State Department. Little new information has been revealed so far, except a debate between the State Department and intelligence officials over what should or should not be retroactively classified and a constant stream of dubious advice from Sidney Blumenthal.

But suspicions of Clinton’s private e-mail use pre-dated the committee. Absent further revelations about these e-mails, or new information about Clinton’s direct connection to requests for more security, it’s not clear what more there is to reveal about what happened.

So let’s talk about the politics.

Will being grilled really continue to drive down Clinton’s numbers, as McCarthy suggested? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. Some Republicans are clearly concerned that a harsh approach could make Clinton look like a victim being bullied by the panel. And, if the American public is as sick as Bernie Sanders says they are of the focus on the Clinton e-mail server over more substantive issues, perhaps this will work in her favor.

On the other hand, if Clinton—a veteran of Congressional testimony—is flustered, caught in a lie, or says something outrageous, it could change the perception of her role in this episode.

One interesting boomerang effect concerns the Republican primary, where frontrunner Donald Trump has been challenging former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s argument that his brother, former president George W. Bush, bears no responsibility for the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration did receive numerous reports of terrorist activity that were, at best, lost in the bureaucracy. Trump notes that it is hard for Bush to say his brother isn’t responsible for 9/11 while Clinton is somehow responsible for the Benghazi attacks.

What the public will miss

The laser-like focus on the events in Benghazi has obscured the bigger failures of the Obama administration’s foreign policy in Libya. The use of US military force to oust Gaddafi was not followed up by any commitment to secure the transition to a new government, as Congress reined in what it saw as a stretch of the president’s executive powers and denied further funding for military purposes.

As Libya has descended into chaos, the experience has driven Obama’s reluctance to intervene directly in Syria, leaving US foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa in a state that feels sadly ad hoc.