The House Select Committee on Benghazi has been unable to corroborate Sharyl Attkisson's latest "bombshell" Benghazi exclusive, which claimed that "Hillary Clinton confidants were part of an operation to 'separate' damaging documents" about the 2012 attacks before they were turned over to investigators. According to the committee's ranking Democrat, a "second witness" allegedly undermined the report.
In September, Attkisson reported for the Heritage Foundation's Daily Signal that former State Department Deputy Assistant Secretary Raymond Maxwell alleged he had witnessed an "after hours session" at State Department headquarters at which he was told that employees had been ordered to "pull out anything that might put anybody" in the department's leadership "in a bad light" before documents were handed over to the Accountability Review Board, which was investigating the attacks. Maxwell claimed the actions were "unethical." Fox News quickly trumpeted the story as "a smoking gun of a potential cover-up," claiming that it showed State had been "scrubbing the documents" which were "destroyed" on Clinton's behalf.
The implication that documents were withheld as Maxwell claimed -- which the State Department told Attkisson was "totally without merit" -- never really added up. Maxwell, one of four State employees to be disciplined for their role in the Benghazi attacks, had testified before two House committees and given multiple interviews in the 18 months before the Attkisson piece. But he reportedly never mentioned the alleged "after hours session" in those previous statements, instead focusing on how he was supposedly scapegoated to protect higher-ups at State from accountability. Slate's David Weigel called the discrepancy "baffling," writing of the account, "Holy ... what the ... why not mention that sooner? Previously, this was a story of a guy who was railroaded in order to protect the Clintons. It could have been a story about a guy who witnessed Clinton allies hiding evidence. ... Why hold off on the 'scrubbing' until now?"
Now, new evidence calls the story further into question. In a November 2014 letter just published by Mother Jones on the eve of the Benghazi Select Committee's third hearing, Ranking Member Elijah Cummings writes to committee chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC), stating that Maxwell had identified to the committee's Republican staff a "second witness that he claimed was present during this document review" who could "corroborate his allegations," but that the "second witness" denied Maxwell's claims when interviewed by Republican staff. Cummings further alleges that Republican staff deliberately hid this information from Democratic staff.
In the letter, after highlighting an October 17 Fox News interview in which Gowdy said he planned to investigate Maxwell's claims, Cummings writes:
In fact, several weeks before you made those public statements, your staff had already interviewed Mr. Maxwell, but they did not include, invite, or even notify Democratic Members or staff. Mr. Maxwell apparently identified for your staff a second witness that he claimed was present during this document review at the State Department. Mr. Maxwell identified this person as someone who could corroborate his allegations and someone he believes is credible.
Then, on October 16 -- one day before you appeared on Fox News -- your staff interviewed this second witness, again without including Democrats. However, this second witness did not substantiate Mr. Maxwell's claims. To the contrary, he did not recall having been in the document review session Mr. Maxwell described, and he said he was never instructed to flag information in documents that might be unfavorable to the Department. He further reported that he never engaged or was aware of any destruction of documents.
I did not discover any of this information from you or your staff but from the witnesses themselves. When my staff inquired with your staff about what they learned from the witness identified by Mr. Maxwell, your staff stated that he had worked at the State Department during the relevant time period. Beyond that, however, they reported: "we learned nothing else of note in our discussion, so we don't plan to conduct any additional follow-up."
I am sure you understand -- as a former prosecutor -- that evaluating the credibility of witnesses and their allegations depends on whether the information they provide can be corroborated. Although your staff stated that they learned nothing "of note," in fact they learned that this claim was not substantiated by a key witness. If our goal is the truth and not a preconceived political narrative, these interviews should have been conducted jointly, with both Democrats and Republicans present.
Gowdy has not directly addressed Cummings' claims about Maxwell's story, either in a staff statement or in a letter to the committee's Democrats released after Cummings' letter was published by Mother Jones. He instead warned that Cummings' "characterization of witness testimony... not only risks an adverse effect on the investigation but could also negatively impact the witness' careers."
Research provided by Sophia Tesfaye and Cal Colgan.