Historical Perspective for Benghazi Hearings

Member Group : Salena Zito

A special U.S. House committee established to examine the deadly 2012 terrorist attacks in Libya is just the latest investigation to ignite partisan debate.

Democrats have dismissed the probe as a political witch hunt.

Republicans say it is an honest attempt to unravel a political cover-up in the deaths of four Americans.

History shows elements of scandal and politics in such investigations since the first one, in 1792, focused on a prominent figure in Western Pennsylvania history.

The Sept. 11, 2012, attack killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and Foreign Service Officer Sean Smith at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi; hours later, CIA contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty died while defending a nearby CIA annex. Ten other Americans were wounded.

The Obama administration initially insisted the assaults were a "spontaneous" anti-U.S. protest. Testimony before separate congressional committees refuted that claim and pointed to a "planned, coordinated" attack by terrorists affiliated with al-Qaida.

On Thursday, 225 House Republicans, joined by seven Democrats, voted to impanel a select committee on Benghazi and Washington’s reaction to it; 186 House Democrats voted against the effort.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has vowed a "serious investigation" to start in June and appointed Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., as the panel’s chairman.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other Democrats have dismissed the committee as an election-year stunt.

If the select committee is not evenly divided between the parties, its work will be farcical, said U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, a Forest Hills Democrat.

"What is the point, if not politics?" he asked, since inquiries by the State Department, the House and the Senate found no cover-up.

But U.S. Rep. Mike Kelly, a Butler County Republican, said earlier hearings "were held with redacted documents and absent any interviews of any of the survivors and witnesses to the attacks."

"The truth should not be defined by who uncovers it, but someone needs to uncover it," he said.

It won’t be a surprise if partisanship plays a role, said Raymond Smock, the House’s former official historian.

"We are talking about Congress — it’s a political animal."

Never an equal split

Until Congress established standing committees — the House in 1793, the Senate in 1816 — it largely worked through special and select committees.

The first session of Congress appointed more than 200 such panels. Since then, "tons" more have been impaneled, according to one Senate historian.

In the 20th century, select committees veered toward specific matters. Not all dealt with scandals or impeachments; subjects ranged from the seemingly mundane to the highly pressing: from a 10-year examination of the "production, transportation and marketing of wool," initiated in 1935, to investigations of unemployment in the 1960s and the impact of technology in 2000.

Each time, the party controlling the House or Senate determined a committee’s partisan makeup.

"The idea that has been floated of an equal number of Republicans and Democrats is not going to happen" in the case of Benghazi, said Smock. Only "a few entities — minor commissions, etc.," have had equal representation over two centuries, he noted.

The Senate’s select committee on Watergate in 1973 had four Democrats and three Republicans. A year later, the standing House Judiciary Committee, which voted articles of impeachment against President Richard Nixon over the Watergate scandal, had 21 Democrats and 17 Republicans.

Committees probing the Iran-Contra affair in 1987 were equally partisan: The House panel had nine Democrats and six Republicans; the Senate’s had six Democrats and five Republicans.

Pelosi has demanded that the Benghazi panel’s membership be evenly split, but she was not so evenhanded when she ran the House.

A 2007 select committee on climate change, established under her speakership, had a 9-6 advantage for Democrats.

Setting precedents

The first select committee to deal with scandal focused on Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair, as well as a military defeat and allegations of a presidential cover-up.

A native of Scotland and general in the American Revolution, St. Clair was Western Pennsylvania’s largest landowner in the 1760s and ’70s; his holdings included large swaths of Westmoreland County.

In 1787, President George Washington named him as the Northwest Territory’s governor. Four years later, St. Clair became the Army commander in the Ohio Country when Indians defeated his predecessor in battle.

He led his soldiers into what remains the army’s worst defeat by Native Americans.

"He lost virtually all of his men" — more than 600 soldiers and scores of civilians — "and Congress wanted to know why," said Smock. Washington and his War Department "covered up the fact that our army … was ill-prepared, ill-trained and ill-equipped."

The House committee voted against issuing a final report that would have cleared St. Clair, despite finding that the War Department failed to properly equip and supply his expedition.

But it did establish the precedent for congressional investigations of the executive branch — and Washington, asserting a right to withhold information he deemed harmful to the public, laid the foundation for executive privilege.

St. Clair reportedly died penniless in what now is Greensburg. A portion of his home, The Hermitage, is attached to Fort Ligonier.

Though his defeat "is a long way from Benghazi," Smock said, "human nature has not changed much, and being surprised militarily is nothing new either."

Part of the process

Questions about the White House’s withholding critical information on Benghazi resurfaced two weeks ago, when a lawsuit by the conservative group Judicial Watch forced the Obama administration to release staff emails.

One email showed a White House official pressing for then-United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice to stress "spontaneous demonstrations" as the cause of the attack.

Republicans think that suggests a cover-up to protect President Obama politically in the 2012 presidential election.

Hillary Clinton, the Democrats’ leading presidential contender for 2016, told a New York audience that "despite all of the hearings, all of the information that’s been provided, some (people) choose not to be satisfied."

Many analysts believe she has much to lose from a select committee investigation, since she headed the State Department and its Libyan operations during the 2012 attack.

Congressmen Doyle and Kelly say they hope partisanship will not influence the panel’s work.

But Smock has his doubts.

"I think it is safe to say that even when there is a legitimate reason for an investigation, partisan politics is usually the driving force," he said. But overt partisanship usually ruins an investigation, he said, "even though it may achieve its goal of attacking an opponent."

Last summer, a New York Times/CBS News poll found only 34 percent of Americans believed the Obama administration is telling the truth about Benghazi, while 53 percent believed it is hiding something — and 57 percent believed GOP criticism of the incident is mostly political.

Salena Zito
Pittsburgh Tribune-Review Political Reporter