Iran-Contra Reporters: Benghazi Hearings “More Partisan” And An “Attack” On Hillary Clinton

Journalists who covered the 1987 Iran-Contra hearings say the congressional investigations into Benghazi are much more partisan and more focused on damaging Hillary Clinton than finding the truth. 

Last year, following extensive pressure from partisan Republicans and right-wing media outlets like Fox News, House Speaker John Boehner announced the formation of the Benghazi Select Committee. In recent weeks, the committee has faced widespread criticism after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy boasted to Sean Hannity that the committee had helped damage Clinton politically. A second Republican congressman and a conservative former committee staffer have since also come out to say that the committee is focused on hurting Clinton, rather than seeking “answers” to questions that supposedly still remain about the 2012 terrorist attacks.

Clinton is scheduled to testify before the committee again Thursday, nearly three years since she first publicly testified about the attacks.

“Benghazi initially was about a limited problem of not properly organizing security for the American ambassador and his staff, [but] it's evolved into something completely different. It's turned into an attempt to sort of nail Hillary,” said Fox Butterfield, a former New York Times reporter. “A general attack on Hillary. If you are trying to find out what happened, you'd be doing something different.”

Butterfield, who worked at the Times from 1969 to 2007, was part of the team that won the 1972 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for Pentagon Papers coverage.

He is also among those who covered the 1987 Iran-Contra congressional hearings, which investigated the illegal selling of arms to Iran, with the profits from those sales used to arm Nicaraguan rebels.  

Butterfield and others said the contrast between Benghazi and Iran-Contra is stark, both in the seriousness of the incidents and the fairness of the hearings. 

“Those hearings didn't last nearly as long and they were a much larger issue than Benghazi is ostensibly about,” Butterfield said, later saying of Iran-Contra, “the White House and its operatives set out to break the law, arming the Contras with weapons that we weren't supposed to have and we were dealing with the Iranians, the Republican White House was doing a backdoor deal with Iran.”

Walter Pincus, who covered the Iran-Contra hearings for The Washington Post, agreed.

“I don't think there is a comparison,” he said. “Iran-Contra was a misuse directed by the White House, the NSC [National Security Council], to engage in a policy of selling arms to get the release of hostages, totally opposite of American foreign policy.”

Asked about Benghazi, he added, “to have seven investigations about something that apparently wasn't a violation of any law, wasn't a misuse of government property, and clearly had nothing to do with her [Clinton], somebody wants to make it into something bigger than it was and to keep it going as long as it has.” He added,  “the misuse of [a congressional committee] for political purposes really just corrupts the system.”

John Walcott covered the Iran-Contra hearings for The Wall Street Journal and said today's Benghazi hearings are “more about scoring points and unfortunately too many in the media have gone along with that.”

He also said the issues of Iran-Contra were more serious: “Selling arms for hostages and arming the Contras were more serious policy issues than the murder of an ambassador and other Americans in an unstable country ... Even if there are legitimate issues to be explored in the case of Benghazi, like everything else in the public space, this is much more partisan than Iran-Contra and it is a trend that has been going on for a long time.”

Robert Parry, who reported on the Iran-Contra hearings for Newsweek, and previously covered the issue for the Associated Press, called comparisons with Benghazi “rather silly.”

“It is a very limited, much smaller issue than Iran-Contra, which covered years of deceit and violations of U.S. law compared to one discreet incident,” Parry said, saying that Benghazi “has been beaten into the ground by multiple investigations that have gone on endlessly ... Clearly, the Republicans have hammered [Benghazi] as far as they can for political reasons, there was a certain legitimate element, answer a few questions and be done with it. This has gone on far longer than the circumstances would warrant, there aren't that many layers to peel back in this one. In Iran-Contra, it was like an onion, the more layers you peeled back the more you found.”

Stephen Engelberg, editor-in-chief of ProPublica.org, reported on the Iran-Contra hearings for The New York Times. He agreed the partisan element is much stronger with Benghazi.

“There was a sense of bipartisanship [during Iran-Contra] that is not present, at least according to what Kevin McCarthy said, in this thing,” Engelberg said. “There are legitimate questions about whether or not the United States government did all it could to protect the safety of overseas diplomats. But there are clearly much narrower gauged questions than Iran-Contra -- it doesn't have the same heft.”

Doyle McManus, a Tribune Media columnist and former Washington, D.C., bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, covered the Iran-Contra story for that paperHe also pointed to the overwhelmingly partisan approach with the Benghazi committee.

“The most glaring contrast between this investigation and Iran-Contra is that the Iran-Contra committees were bipartisan,” he said, later adding, “This is clearly, as Kevin McCarthy said, a case of one party seeing the leading presidential candidate of another party in a vulnerable situation.”

Clark Hoyt, the former Knight Ridder Washington, D.C., bureau chief during Iran-Contra, agreed: “I don't remember an investigation where the partisan divide was as great as this one.”