House Oversight Committee chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) is looking to crank up the Benghazi scandal machine again. With hearings to explore Benghazi's “unanswered questions” scheduled for September 19, the Republicans on the committee published this morning a report on the "deficiencies" in the independent inquiry conducted by the State Department's Accountability Review Board. Issa and his colleagues clearly want to create buzz among the partisan and DC media (before its public release the report was leaked to Fox News, the Washington Post, and the Daily Beast), and they know that one proven tactic for piquing reporters' interest is to take a shot at Hillary Clinton, which this report does. Feebly.
The previous House Republican report on Benghazi made a big splash with its claim that a cable bearing the former Secretary of State's signature indicated that she had personally denied requests for increased security in Benghazi -- an absurd allegation given that all such messages from the State Department to overseas diplomatic facilities bear the secretary's “signature.” The new report's attempt at snaring Clinton is less dramatic: “E-mails reviewed by the Committee,” the report states on page 65, “show it is likely that Secretary Clinton's views played some role in the decision making on the future of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi.”
The report's Clinton inclusion is already having the intended effect. Fox News noted that the report says “it is likely, based on email evidence, that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's views played a role in the decision-making.” CNN wrote that the “report is the closest congressional investigators have come to tying Clinton to aspects of planning for the Benghazi mission before the attack.”
But how close is it? The committee's Republicans aren't alleging that Clinton had a role in the decision making process; they suspect her views, as interpreted by subordinates, came into play. And not her views on the security situation in Benghazi, but on the issue of whether to keep the Benghazi outpost operational a year before the attack took place. And they're not 100-percent sure -- it is “likely” that this happened. That language is so carefully hedged that one suspects Issa wanted to avoid a repeat of the “signed cable” fiasco.
Then there's the evidence presented in the report, which largely suggests that the “likely” claim is an overstatement. The Oversight Republicans are basing that assertion on hazy recollections from State Department employees studded with question marks and “not sures.”
For example, in September 2011, when the Department was discussing what to do with the Benghazi special mission compound in the wake of the reopening of the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, several NEA officials discussed the Secretary's desire to continue operating the Benghazi mission. Lee Lohman wrote: “Do I remember correctly that the Secretary had views about keeping Benghazi going?”
Another State Department official responded: “Not sure. [A]long the lines of what Chris [Stevens] has laid out, i.e., for another six months or so? I am not sure if she had views of anything longer term than that.”
Raymond Maxwell replied:
I remember [Assistant Secretary of NEA] Jeff [Feltman] (or somebody very important) saying that S definitely wanted Benghazi to continue operations for some time to come. No specifics were mentioned though.
Elizabeth Dibble responded. She wrote:
I raised with [NEA Assistant Secretary Jeffrey Feltman]. He thinks Chris needs to stay in Benghazi until [REDACTED] has relocated more or less permanently to Tripoli. He also thinks we should not rush to shut down operation there; this is in keeping with what the Secretary has said.
That's thin, as reflected by the committee's cautious wording, but it's apparently enough for some in the media.