For all the tumult over the decision of the House of Representatives to empanel a select committee to revisit the September 11, 2012 destruction of the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, public attention has not fixed upon what may well be the most significant issue: whether or not there was a cover-up.
Taking their cue from Democratic allegations of a politically motivated “witch hunt,” mainstream media types are spinning the work of the new committee in terms of the attack itself and our apparent lack of preparedness. These issues were indeed the subjects of earlier congressional hearings. Yet the committee’s mandate is more narrowly focused as it seeks to learn why a key document that should have been turned over pursuant to a subpoena issued in August 2013 by an earlier congressional investigating committee has only now been produced by the Obama administration as the result of a freedom of information lawsuit.
This is a very big deal and calls to mind claims leveled against Richard Nixon and his cohorts that they undermined the oversight function of Congress by conspiring to withhold relevant documents.
The document that has now surfaced is a September 12, 2012 e-mail from White House adviser Ben Rhodes to various administration officials providing direction as to how to prepare then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice to respond to questions about Benghazi during her appearances on talk shows. Despite having clear evidence to the contrary (as reflected in an earlier CIA memo), Mr. Rhodes listed, in a section labeled “Goals,” what Ms. Rice should seek to accomplish:
- To convey that the United States is doing everything that we can to protect our people and facilities abroad;
- To underscore that these protests are rooted in an Internet video, and not a broader failure of policy;
- To show that we will be resolute in bringing people who harm Americans to justice, and standing steadfast through these protests;
- To reinforce the President and Administration’s strength and steadiness in dealing with difficult challenges.
These talking points represented significant changes from the document prepared by the CIA – especially with regard to the reference to the Internet video – and were relied upon by Ambassador Rice. In its August 2013 subpoena, the congressional investigating committee requested all documents relating to the development of the administration’s talking points – a request that clearly covered the Rhodes e-mail. But it was not forthcoming until earlier this month.
The Rhodes e-mail was not released until a federal judge granted a Freedom of Information Act request by the watchdog group Judicial Watch for all relevant documents. Significantly, a court order does not have the legal wiggle room of a congressional subpoena. The White House could not, therefore, risk the consequences of a federal court contempt citation.
Congressional subpoena power is obviously key to that body’s constitutional oversight responsibilities; non-compliance with such subpoenas does great damage to the heart of the American system of government.
The Nixon administration was brought low not so much by the Watergate burglary itself as by the subsequent cover-up and contemptuous treatment of Congress. There is something very troubling in the way the Obama administration has reacted to Benghazi from day one. If not for a compliant press corps, the president would have a lot more explaining to do. Depending on what emerges from the new committee’s work, he still might.