As House Benghazi committee reconvenes, Democrats renew complaints

Benghazi committee set to hold first public hearing of 2015

Democrats are renewing a public battle over the intent of a special House committee's probe of the Sept. 11, 2012, Benghazi consulate attack, saying Republicans have intentionally excluded them from witness interviews and other key aspects of the investigation.

In a letter sent Friday to the Benghazi committee's chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), top Democrat Elijah Cummings of Maryland also cited two instances in which the committee dismissed testimony from witnesses interviewed only by Republicans that contradicted allegations made by Republican members in public over the State Department's cooperation with an independent review of the attack.

Cummings asked Gowdy to resolve the dispute before the planned public hearing on Tuesday, settling on a formal set of rules to govern the investigation that would include guaranteeing that any witness interviews are conducted jointly by both parties and that any decisions to subpoena further witnesses and documents can be debated publicly.

Cummings said the panel should mirror the example of the House Intelligence Committee instead of the House Oversight Committee, previously led by Rep. Darrel Issa (R-Vista), which he accused of manipulating testimony "to promote false political narratives."

"In order for this committee to ‘transcend politics,' as you put it, we must break significantly from [that] model," Cummings wrote. "We should work together to go where the facts take us, and we should hold joint meetings, interviews and discussions with potential witnesses."

Republicans are dismissing the Democrats' complaints as simply picking a fight over process where they lack a substantive case to end the investigation.

In a statement, Gowdy spokesman Jamal Ware said there was no precedent in similar investigatory committees for a requirement that both parties interview witnesses at the same time, and that Republicans "will talk to Benghazi sources with or without the Democrats present just as they are welcome to talk to sources with or without Republicans present."

“Chairman Gowdy has operated the Benghazi Committee in a more-than-fair and fact-based manner,” Ware said, adding that Gowdy has offered to establish rules that are “much more generous” than those that govern other congressional committees. “He will continue to work to address any legitimate minority concerns. He will not, however, allow the committee’s investigation to be hamstrung by politics.”

House Speaker John A. Boehner called for a special select committee to be formed on the Benghazi attacks last May, accusing the White House of withholding documents from other congressional panels in what he called a "flagrant violation of trust." He later dismissed an Intelligence Committee report that found no wrongdoing by administration officials, saying that it was the Select Committee that would produce the "definitive" report. The House voted to continue the investigation in the new Congress as part of a larger package of rules approved on the first day of the 2015 session.

Democrats had debated whether to participate in the panel at all, initially seeking commitment on ground rules before doing so but ultimately agreeing to appoint members to act as a watchdog. Subsequent attempts to reach an agreement over rules, which included a meeting with Boehner in December, have failed.

The panel held just two public hearings that year, both somewhat mundane discussions of embassy security and the State Department-initiated review of the 2012 attack that claimed the lives of four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

Tuesday's hearing was expected to address additional requests for documents from the Central Intelligence Agency and the State Department.

But Cummings' letter addresses the work of the committee behind closed doors, specifically his contention that Democrats were excluded from at least five witness interviews – first raised in another letter to Gowdy last November – and more recently that the panel's Republican members dismissed testimony that would corroborate a previous House Intelligence Committee's finding that there was "no support" for allegations that the CIA was collecting and shipping weapons from Libya to Syria. 

"It is time to implement committee rules and practices that ensure transparency, fairness and bipartisanship," Cummings wrote.

Boehner also said at the time he expected the committee "to work quickly to get answers for the American people." But as the committee begins its work in the new year, Democrats are concerned that Republicans are intentionally slow-walking the process and will use it as a staging ground for attacks against former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a likely 2016 presidential candidate. Gowdy said in December that Clinton "is a witness that we would like to talk to."

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