Four months after a White House email uncovered by Judicial Watch forced the appointment of a special House committee on Benghazi, the curtain went up Tuesday on the next stage of the investigation. Committee chairman Trey Gowdy led hearings into the State Department’s implementation of recommendations to prevent future attacks on U.S. facilities abroad. The witnesses were members of an Independent Panel on Best Practices convened after the Benghazi attacks — three middle-aged white guys from the State Department. Could anything be more boring?
Across the land — or at least across Washington — the disappointment among star-spangled partisans on both sides of the aisle was palpable. No Crazytown thunderbolts from wild-eyed conservatives? No discussion of Hillary Clinton, stand down, or arms supplies to Syria? Privately, the right grumbled that Gowdy was in over his head. The left snickered at the committee’s partisanship. “All that was missing” from the hearings, snarked Dana Milbank of the Washington Post, “was a group hug.”
It could be true. It could be true that the South Carolina Republican for reasons unknown is planning one giant kumbaya with the Democrats. It could be true that Trey Gowdy is a sheep among wolves, a country cousin, a bumpkin, a backbencher with a drawl and a bad haircut suddenly thrust into the limelight by a conniving House leadership that in fact wants him to fail, thus ending once and for all a full investigation of a spectacular CIA debacle — oh, sorry, are we still calling this a State Department operation? — and re-affirming the wisdom of the congressional committee overlords who have already declared, case closed.
True? Maybe. But not a smart bet. Consider the evidence. For months, the spin machine from the Democratic side — led, incredibly, by some of the sleaziest operators from Clintonland; David Brock, Lanny Davis and James Carville — has declared that there is “nothing new” to be learned about Benghazi, that earlier inquiries were exhaustive, that it’s a witch hunt. “Case closed,” declared the Brock-led “rapid response” Benghazi Research Center in June.
And yet, at Tuesday’s hearing, during questioning by Rep. Jim Jordan, we were reminded that the co-chair of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) that investigated the State Dept. and issued recommendations — Admiral Michael Mullen — had been reporting back to senior staff at the department; in other words, Admiral Mullen was discussing the investigation with the very people he was supposed to be investigating.
And yet, days before the committee hearings opened, former CBS reporter Sharyl Attkisson issued a detailed story in the Daily Signal, an on-the-record interview with a former high-ranking State Dept. official, Raymond Maxwell, who claimed that top Clinton aides had culled damaging documents from department files before turning them over to the ARB.
And yet, weeks before the committee hearings opened, four CIA contractors who were at the U.S. compounds in Benghazi went on the record in a new book stating that in fact there was a “stand down” order given in the chaotic hours of the firefight.
Now, it may turn out that Mr. Maxwell has problems — many witnesses do. And it may turn out that there are many different ways to “stand down” an operation. But that is not the point.
The point is, yes, there is new information out there on Benghazi — and much more is likely much more to emerge. (Not least from Judicial Watch, which last week announced it launched three new lawsuits to gain Benghazi information from the State Department and Defense Department.)
And, of course, that’s what has the Clinton team worried and elevates Benghazi into a potential Death Star battle heading into the 2016 presidential election season. The Clintons, long experienced at this sort of thing, have lined up a murderers’ row of political operatives to “respond” to the committee. Inside the committee, the leading Democrat, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, will come under intense pressure from party loyalists to protect Mrs. Clinton. And this being the Clintons, expect dirty tricks if Gowdy gets too close to doing real damage to Mrs. Clinton.
What’s a country cousin to do? The signals from the Gowdy camp suggest that his game plan is not to act like a congressman at all. Instead, he’ll run the inquiry like the prosecutor he was for 16 years in South Carolina — a job by all accounts he loved.
“For 16 years, I had to stand in front of 12 people that I did not know,” he told the American Spectator. “How do you persuade? Do you have the facts on your side? If you have the facts on your side, how do present them in a way that makes people want to believe?”
And so there was Trey Gowdy on Tuesday in effect making his opening statement to the jury. It is the biggest trial of his life. He is lining up his facts. He is presenting them in a way that makes people want to believe. He is building his case and laying a few traps. Maybe Mike Mullen discussing the investigation with people he was supposed to be investigating will turn out not to be incidental at all.
According to press accounts, Gowdy never lost a case. That’s quite a record and suggests that the “country lawyer” demeanor is something of a shtick. But not an unfamiliar shtick in Washington. Sam Ervin, who led the Senate Select Committee investigation in Watergate, perfected the routine and emerged from that ordeal victorious.
Kenneth Starr — no “country lawyer” but a dignified Washington jurist who believed courtly manners would carry the day in the Whitewater investigation — had a different experience. He was mugged repeatedly by the same gang now lining up against Trey Gowdy.
Micah Morrison is the Chief Investigative Reporter of Judicial Watch