WASHINGTON — When the House select committee investigating the 2012 attacks on American government outposts in Benghazi, Libya, was created, Democrats immediately criticized it as a partisan effort to damage the political fortunes of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But Representative Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican and former federal prosecutor who is the committee’s chairman, told Fox News at the time: “I have no friends to reward and no foes to punish. We’re going to go wherever the facts take us.”
Now, 17 months later — longer than the Watergate investigation lasted — interviews with current and former committee staff members as well as internal committee documents reviewed by The New York Times show the extent to which the focus of the committee’s work has shifted from the circumstances surrounding the Benghazi attack to the politically charged issue of Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email server while she was secretary of state.
A committee with a stated initial goal of learning more about how four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed in Libya has created a political whirlwind in Washington, affecting not only Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign, but now also the race for House speaker. Mrs. Clinton is scheduled to testify in front of the committee on Oct. 22.PhotoCredit Christopher Gregory/The New York Times
The committee has conducted only one of a dozen interviews that Mr. Gowdy said in February he planned to hold with prominent intelligence, Defense Department and White House officials, and it has held none of the nine public hearings — with titles such as “Why Were We in Libya?” — that internal documents show have been proposed.
At the same time, the committee has added at least 18 current and former State Department officials to its roster of witnesses, including three speechwriters and an information technology specialist who maintained Mrs. Clinton’s private email server.
Top Republican aides on the select committee dispute any suggestion that their inquiry, which has already cost more than $4.5 million, has been partisan or ineffective or that it changed course. They say that although seven other congressional committees have already examined the attacks, the select committee has been able to unearth new information on Benghazi because, unlike the other committees, it has a mandate to look across multiple agencies and see the “entire elephant,” as Dana K. Chipman, the select committee’s chief counsel, put it.
The committee’s focus on Mrs. Clinton’s email, a Republican spokesman said, is a required part of the investigation into what happened in Libya. “Secretary Clinton’s unusual email arrangement with herself has only made it more difficult for the committee to ensure the public record with respect to Libya and Benghazi is complete,” the spokesman, Jamal Ware, said in a statement on Sunday.
Republican committee members and staff members said they had interviewed more than 40 people who were never deposed by congressional investigators for other committees — a tally disputed by Democrats.
In an interview last week, Mr. Gowdy defended the committee’s work on Benghazi and said only two of the people interviewed by the committee were related to Mrs. Clinton’s email. He said that at one point this spring he told John A. Boehner, the House speaker, that he feared the task of investigating the email issue would distract from his committee’s work. Now, as the committee prepares to question Mrs. Clinton next week, what Mr. Gowdy feared as a distraction has led to accusations of bias from a former staff member.
Bradley F. Podliska, an Air Force Reserve officer who began working for the Republican staff of the committee in September 2014 but has since been fired, said in an interview that the panel changed its focus this spring, shortly after staff members learned that Mrs. Clinton had exclusively used a private email account as secretary of state, including during the Benghazi attacks. The committee dismissed Major Podliska in June, and he has said he plans to file a complaint in federal court about his termination.
Major Podliska described an odd encounter with one of his bosses in April.
“Keep your head down,” Major Podliska said, recalling what Christopher Donesa, the committee’s deputy staff director, had told him after praising his progress. Mr. Donesa paused for a moment, according to Major Podliska, then added, “This is taking a turn.”
Major Podliska said the committee was becoming focused primarily on the State Department, and in particular on Mrs. Clinton.
Republican staff members said Major Podliska had been dismissed in part because he had demonstrated “improper partiality and animus in his investigative work” toward Mrs. Clinton and had mishandled classified material, which Major Podliska disputes.
But for months, documents and interviews show, the work of the Benghazi committee has been affected by delays and dysfunction.
The process of setting up an electronic system to manage more than 50,000 pages of documents that the committee has assembled is still not complete, meaning that staff members sometimes have to search through boxes to find critical pieces of paper — an almost comical task, staff members said.
They have spent months sparring with Obama administration agencies trying to get documents, eating up time the committee had planned to use investigating the attacks.
With the slow progress, members have engaged in social activities like a wine club nicknamed “Wine Wednesdays,” drinking from glasses imprinted with the words “Glacial Pace,” a dig at Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland and the committee’s ranking member, Major Podliska said. Mr. Cummings used the term to question the speed of the committee’s work.
At one point, several Republican staff members formed a gun-buying club and discussed in the committee’s conference room the 9-millimeter Glock handguns they intended to buy and what type of monograms they would inscribe on them, Major Podliska said.
The documents do show that since the March revelations about Mrs. Clinton’s email server, the committee has continued to interview officials outside the State Department. Since then 10 intelligence officials — including C.I.A. operatives who were on the ground in Benghazi — and four from the Department of Defense have been interviewed.
But an approximate tally produced by the Democratic minority staff shows that the committee has so far followed up with only a third of the potential witnesses from the intelligence community, none of the six from the White House and fewer than half from the Defense Department. Meanwhile, more than 70 percent of the potential witnesses from the State Department have been interviewed.
Mr. Ware said the focus on the State Department made sense, regardless of Mrs. Clinton, because it was where the most relevant witnesses worked.
Mr. Gowdy said in the interview last week that he had pressed Mr. Boehner to have another House committee examine the matter of Mrs. Clinton’s emails, but that Mr. Boehner had rejected the request.Photo
“I would have liked nothing more than for the speaker to find another committee,” Mr. Gowdy said.
Senior Republican officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were discussing confidential conversations, said that Mr. Boehner had long been suspicious of the administration’s handling of the attacks and that Mrs. Clinton’s emails gave him a way to keep the issue alive and to cause political problems for her campaign. But he thought that the task was too delicate to entrust to others and that it should remain with Mr. Gowdy, the former prosecutor.
Late last month, preserving the investigation’s credibility became more difficult when Representative Kevin McCarthy, the House majority leader, inadvertently offered corroboration of Democrats’ suspicions.
“Everybody thought Hillary Clinton was unbeatable, right?” he said on Fox News. “But we put together a Benghazi special committee, a select committee. What are her numbers today? Her numbers are dropping.” Mr. McCarthy subsequently withdrew his candidacy for House speaker, citing in part the uproar over those comments.
Representative Adam B. Schiff, a California Democrat and a member of the Benghazi committee, effectively agreed with Mr. McCarthy’s assessment. He has called for the committee to disband.
“Clearly, the committee’s true interest was not in providing new answers or information about the Benghazi attacks, but in damaging Secretary Clinton,” Mr. Schiff said.
Democrats and Republicans who remember the Watergate and Whitewater investigations have said this is not the first time that a committee started off focusing on one issue and ended up looking at another.
The Select Committee on the Events Surrounding the 2012 Terrorist Attack in Benghazi, Libya — as the panel is officially known — was created in May 2014 by a bitterly divided House of Representatives, based on an almost entirely party-line vote.
Mrs. Clinton had already taken responsibility for the attacks. Previous congressional investigations into Benghazi had already concluded that State Department officials had erred in not better securing the diplomatic compound amid reports of a deteriorating security situation. The investigations also concluded that the attacks had come with little warning and that it would have been difficult to intervene once they began. The investigations generally agree that the administration’s postattack talking points — a matter of much dispute — were flawed but not deliberately misleading.
“Let’s call this what it is — it is nothing more than a political ploy,” Representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Democrat of Florida and the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, told reporters in early May 2014, while Democrats were still debating whether to even fill their five seats on the panel.
The Republicans moved to defuse these criticisms by naming Mr. Chipman as their chief counsel. He is a graduate of West Point and Stanford Law School who served as the Army’s judge advocate general, or the commanding officer of its in-house lawyers.
Mr. Chipman began the investigation with a commitment to stay focused on the front-line personnel who were in Benghazi before and during the attacks.
“These are people I served with for 10 years,” Mr. Chipman said in an interview, referring to his work in the Army overseeing military intelligence teams. “That is what brought me to this committee — finding out what happened with these guys.”
Specifically, the majority staff members said, they wanted to test claims that there was little the Defense Department could have done on the day of attacks to have saved the lives of the four Americans. They also wanted to re-examine how the administration had handled the aftermath of the attacks, including how quickly intelligence reports from Benghazi reached top administration officials.
The investigation was initially organized into three “tranches” — one for events before the attacks, one for the attacks themselves and one for events after. In December, in an early sign of bipartisanship, Democratic and Republican staff members traveled to a Marine base in Quantico, Va., where the committee received briefings on how Defense Department personnel handle security at American embassies and other overseas facilities. They also met with families of the victims of the attacks.
The staff members, including Major Podliska, began interviews with officials from the Department of Defense, the State Department and the intelligence community. Mr. Chipman said they wanted to learn: “How did the U.S. government respond to people in distress? What did they say about what had occurred? And how did they craft the subsequent narrative, perhaps for political reasons, and is that narrative accurate?”
At the end of 2014, the committee Republicans announced an ambitious agenda, including the nine proposed public hearings from January through October with tentative titles such as “What Happened?” and “What Should We Fix?”
Still, Democrats questioned how much new was being learned. They pointed out that many of these interviews were focused on conditions in Libya in 2011, before Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator, was killed and the situation there changed radically.Continue reading the main story
“None of the committee’s new interview subjects has substantiated any of the wild claims Republicans have been making,” Mr. Cummings said.
The committee first noticed something unusual in Mrs. Clinton’s emails in August 2014, when documents the State Department was handing over showed that she had been using a personal account. The staff members assumed that it was only a matter of time before they would see correspondence from her government account.
This February, the State Department gave the committee 300 of Mrs. Clinton’s emails. That month, in what one committee member described as a “very tense” meeting, State Department officials acknowledged that Mrs. Clinton had not had a government account. She had used her private email for all of her official business, leaving open the possibility that her account contained classified information. (Having classified information outside a secure government account is illegal.)
Things changed for the Benghazi committee on March 2, after The New York Times broke the story of Mrs. Clinton’s email account. There was a growing sense of opportunity within the committee that this could be a lifeline.
“The committee became relevant again,” Major Podliska said. “There was a renewed vigor in the investigation.”
Major Podliska happened to be called to active duty just at that critical moment; he was sent to Germany for two weeks in March. When he returned, he said, he discovered that the committee’s three-tranche structure had collapsed into a single “agency-centric” investigation, as it was known internally.
As a practical matter, the focus was overwhelmingly on one agency. “The reality was it was the State Department,” Major Podliska said.
In the spring and summer, the committee drew up new lists of targets for interviews that to Major Podliska and other committee staff members, particularly Democrats, seemed to have little to do with Benghazi.
Among the targets were Bryan Pagliano, a State Department aide who helped set up Mrs. Clinton’s email system, and Sidney Blumenthal, a friend and informal adviser to Mrs. Clinton who had sent emails to her about Libya before and after the attacks.
The questioning of Mr. Blumenthal and others, in sessions that took place in a closed-door conference room and frequently lasted seven or eight hours, also ranged far afield of Benghazi.
During one daylong session, Mr. Blumenthal was asked more than 160 questions about his relationship and communications with the Clinton family, according to a count by Democratic staff members based on an interview transcript. That included more than 50 questions about the Clinton Foundation and more than 45 questions related to David Brock, who runs a group that defends Mrs. Clinton against political attacks.
The count by the Democratic staff members shows that the committee also asked Mr. Blumenthal more than 270 questions related to his business activities in Libya. He was helping a private businessman pursue deals there. The committee asked him fewer than 20 questions about the Benghazi attacks.
Mr. Blumenthal declined to comment on Sunday.
Mr. Gowdy has defended these questions, saying Mr. Blumenthal’s for-profit business pursuits in Libya “show an individual who tried to heavily influence the secretary of state to intervene in Libya” militarily and suggesting that this intervention contributed to the September 2012 attacks, a claim the Democrats dismiss.
Republicans also point out that Mr. Blumenthal was being paid by the Clinton Foundation and Mr. Brock’s nonprofit group, and they say roughly half of all the emails sent to Mrs. Clinton related to Benghazi and Libya before the attacks had involved Mr. Blumenthal.
“The content of these emails are quite remarkable,” Mr. Gowdy said in a letter he sent to Democrats last week.
The committee obtained 1,500 more emails from Mrs. Clinton just last month — proof, he said, that critical materials had emerged because of the committee’s efforts.
But even as these new materials came in, the committee put aside all of its proposed public hearings focused on the attack and never followed up on most of its announced witness interviews with top Defense Department and intelligence officials.
Mr. Gowdy said the hearings had been canceled because of objections from intelligence officials about discussing the matters in a public setting.
Republican staff members and Mr. Gowdy said they were confident they had made important progress in understanding what happened in Benghazi.
Tentative findings, they said, include new details that might undercut Defense Department assertions that nothing could have been done in time to save Mr. Stevens and the others. They added that those details would be made public at the end of the inquiry.
Now, with her testimony before the committee imminent, Mrs. Clinton has turned its work to her favor. Only days after Mr. McCarthy’s assertion that the committee succeeded in driving down her poll numbers, her campaign had a TV spot attacking it.
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