At 10 a.m. Eastern time Thursday, politics and diplomacy, the present and the past, collide when Hillary Clinton takes her seat before the bipartisan House Select Committee on Benghazi.
To say that the Republican-dominated panel – formed last year to investigate the deadly 2012 attack on United States diplomatic and intelligence facilities in Benghazi, Libya – has been consumed by politics is an understatement.
The stakes were always going to be high for former Secretary of State Clinton, the Democratic front-runner for president. Now they’re just as high for the Republicans, especially the committee’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R) of South Carolina, who is under scrutiny after recent partisan statements by fellow Republicans. Most prominently, House majority leader Kevin McCarthy linked the committee to a decline in Clinton’s polls, damaging his bid for the speakership.
Here’s a rundown on the key points of the investigation:
Was Al Qaeda involved?
On the night of Sept. 11, 2012, a group of at least 20 men attacked the US Consulate and a nearby Central Intelligence Agency annex in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city. Four Americans died, including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens. At first, the attack was blamed on spontaneous protests over an American film lampooning the Prophet Muhammad. Later, blame centered on an organized terrorist attack.
In June 2014, Libyan extremist Ahmed Abu Khattala was captured near Benghazi and transported to the US. He faces trial on murder charges in criminal court. Mr. Abu Khattala is believed to be a leader in the attack, and was reportedly joined by fighters from the Islamist militia Ansar al-Shariah.
In November 2014, a United Nations Security Council document linked Ansar al-Shariah to an Al Qaeda affiliate in North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. However, the document does not link Al Qaeda or its affiliates to the Benghazi attack.
Al Qaeda’s possible role in the attack has been hotly debated in Washington, especially in the weeks leading up to the 2012 presidential election.
What have other investigations found?
In all, there have been eight investigations, including those by the ongoing House Select Committee and a State Department panel.
In January 2014, the bipartisan Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a report calling the attack “preventable,” and blaming the State Department for failing to heed intelligence warnings and requests for additional security.
The Senate report also refuted some oft-repeated claims about the incident: There was no delay in sending a rescue team. And National Security Adviser Susan Rice did not deliberately mislead the public when she appeared on television and asserted that the attack had sprung from a protest. Her information came from intelligence analysts who were ill-informed.
The House Intelligence Committee conducted its own investigation, and echoed the conclusions of the Senate committee, finding that there was “no intelligence failure” before the attacks. But it also concluded that the State Department facility where two of the victims, Ambassador Stevens and US Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith, were killed was inadequately protected.
Other reports concluded that, before the attack, requests to Washington for additional security were not heeded.
What was Clinton’s role in the incident?
As secretary of State at the time, Clinton bore final responsibility for security at the diplomatic facilities in Benghazi, Republicans on the Senate committee asserted. Clinton herself accepted responsibility a month after the attack.
Clinton has said that the government investigations into the attack concluded that “nobody did anything wrong.” But that’s not entirely true. A bipartisan independent Accountability Review Board found “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” at the State Department. Four State Department officials were suspended over the incident and later reinstated, though in new jobs.
What about Clinton’s e-mails?
When the uproar began in March over the revelation that Clinton had exclusively used a private e-mail server as secretary of State, the committee gained a new avenue of inquiry. The overarching question is whether she mishandled classified information, potentially putting national security at risk. For the committee, the question is whether any of her as-yet unreleased e-mails contain information relevant to the Benghazi attack.
The Benghazi committee defends its attention to the e-mail question, refuting charges that that has become the new focus of the panel.
“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,” committee spokesman Jamal Ware said in a statement on Oct. 11.
Chairman Gowdy has claimed that Clinton had revealed the name of a Central Intelligence Agency source in Libya. But on Sunday, the committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, said that information about the source was not classified. And on Sunday, the name of the source was accidentally revealed on the committee’s website.