Hillary to testify before Benghazi Committee after 17 months: What you need to know

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies on the Benghazi, Libya attack during a hearing held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on January 23, 2013. © Jason Reed
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is finally set to answer to the House Select Committee on Benghazi. It will be her second time testifying on the deadly consulate attack in Libya. To quote Clinton herself: “What difference does it make?”

The hearing is expected to last eight hours, with each of the seven Republicans and five Democrats on the panel receiving 10 minutes to question Clinton. That does not include any breaks or House votes. She is expected to testify on both the deadly September 11, 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya and her use of a private email server while heading the State Department.

“If we’re only going to get one opportunity [to question Clinton] we want to make sure it’s comprehensive,” Representative Mike Pompeo (R-Kansas), a member of the committee, said.

What happened in Libya

On the 11th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks in the US, terrorists struck the US consulate in Benghazi. US Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed in a fiery attack. Stevens had cabled the State Department earlier in the day warning that American lives were in danger because local militias were threatening that they ”would not continue to guarantee security in Benghazi, a critical function they asserted they were currently providing.”

Original reports suggested that the deadly attack was linked to Al-Qaeda, but by October 2012 that evidence had been discredited. Three months after the attack, an independent investigation found that “systematic security faults” had left the diplomatic mission in Benghazi vulnerable.

Even though seven congressional committees had already investigated the Benghazi attacks, in May 2014, House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) formed the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which he said was needed to consolidate the various panels’ efforts. Democrats weighed boycotting the new committee, considering its creation a grandstanding move and predicting the hearings would be heated and politically motivated. They ultimately decided to participate, with Representative Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland) serving as the ranking member to Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina).

Previous congressional investigations

After a series of fits and starts ‒ Clinton was initially set to testify in December 2012, but the hearing was postponed after she fell and sustained a concussion ‒ the then-secretary of state testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January 2013. It was during this appearance that she uttered the infamous line, “What difference – at this point, what difference does it make?” when asked whether the attack happened during a protest or was a planned assault on the consulate.

Even before Clinton testified, however, the Senate Intelligence Committee issued a report stating that the attack on the consulate could have been avoided if not for insufficient security and poor communication between diplomatic staff. It admonished the US State Department for its inaction in the months leading up to the attack, including not ramping up the consulate’s security even after the CIA had increased security in its own office within the compound.

Clinton’s actions hurt her cause

A month after the Senate report came out, Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) ‒ then ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee ‒ accused Clinton and the rest of the Obama administration of a “massive cover-up” of the circumstances surrounding the Benghazi attack, citing conflicting accounts coming from the White House, the US ambassador to the United Nations, and the American intelligence community.

Even with the creation of the Benghazi Committee in May of 2014, things quieted down on the investigative front until this last March, when reports emerged that Clinton had used a personal email account, rather than a government one, to conduct business while serving as secretary of state. As a result, the panel subpoenaed her private server, which Clinton ignored. Her lawyer told Gowdy, the committee chair, that it had been wiped clean. From that point on, the Benghazi committee’s investigation focused more on Clinton’s emails, server, and mobile devices than on its raison d'être, the attack in Libya.

Select Committee scandals

As the special panel’s investigation has dragged on, with a mere three public hearings over 17 months, a rising tide of criticism and scandals have threatened to overtake the committee’s mission. At the beginning of October, Representative Alan Grayson (D-Florida) filed an ethics complaint against Gowdy and House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, claiming the Benghazi Committee had become a “political witch hunt” focused on bringing down Clinton’s presidential hopes. Even Republicans have joined in the clamor against what Grayson called the “dog-and-pony show” since then.

Last Wednesday, Representative Richard Hanna (R-New York), who is not a committee member, told WIBX that the panel “was designed to go after” Clinton, while senior GOP officials have acknowledged that party leaders directed the committee to focus on the emails over the attack to “cause political problems” for the presidential candidate. The admissions came after McCarthy bragged on Fox News that the probe had hurt Clinton in the polls. He later apologized.

Now, Gowdy has come under fire for the same thing he’s accused Clinton of doing: failing to sufficiently protect sensitive information, such as CIA sources, in her emails. On Monday, the committee chair accidentally outed the name of ex-Libyan foreign minister Moussa Koussa, a CIA source at the center of the panel’s fresh accusations against Clinton. Gowdy quickly deleted the name, blamed the State Department for the disclosure, and argued that the presence of Koussa’s name in Clinton’s emails constituted a security breach that had put sensitive information at risk.

Benghazi draws others into its web

Clinton isn’t the only senior official who has been called to task over the Benghazi attack. General David Petraeus, former head of the CIA, suddenly resigned from that post two months after terrorists struck the consulate because of an extramarital affair. He had apparently briefed his biographer-cum-mistress, Paula Broadwell, on details concerning the Benghazi attack that had never been revealed to the American public – information she shared in a speech in late October 2012. Petraeus pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of unauthorized removal and retention of classified information in April and was sentenced to two years of probation and a $100,000 fine.

Even though current Secretary of State John Kerry was not yet the country’s top diplomat when the consulate was attacked in Libya, he has also struggled with the fallout from the investigation into Benghazi because he is in charge of turning documents over to Congress. He has been accused by Republicans on the House Oversight Committee of stonewalling the investigation by not releasing documents in a timely manner. He was subpoenaed twice last May to give an explanation for the delays, but he rejected the first summons and was released from the second