House Speaker John Boehner has finally had enough.
For months, Boehner resisted calls from his caucus and the grassroots base of the Republican Party to consolidate multiple probes of the September 2012 attack on the American Consulate in Benghazi into a single select committee investigation. The late disclosures of previously demanded communications — particularly an email from Ben Rhodes laying out the political case to be made in then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's television appearances five days after the attack — left Boehner no choice but to form a specially convened panel with plenary power to consolidate congressional oversight over the matter.
For this, the White House has no one but itself to blame. As the Rhodes email shows, the administration played politics with a deadly attack that left four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, dead. By hiding documents related to the attack despite a number of demands from congressional committees to review them, the administration has perpetuated the perception that there is an effort to cover up something.
The Washington Post's Dana Milbank remains skeptical that anything else will come of a unified investigation, but finds it hard to blame Republicans for seizing on the select committee option. "The White House unwittingly gave the matter new life by disobeying the first rule of crisis management: Get all information out there, quickly," Milbank writes. "A State Department email, made public last week in response to a conservative group's Freedom of Information Act request, made it look as if the White House had something to hide."
Bear in mind that this email only surfaced because of that FOIA lawsuit, more than 19 months after the attack. It didn't help that Jay Carney denied that the memo related to the Benghazi attack. That spin ended up being news in itself, with the White House press corps' disbelief ratcheting up the pressure on Boehner to act. ABC's Jon Karl engaged in a heated exchange that made headlines, and followed up on Twitter showing the memo had a section specifically titled "Benghazi." The White House clearly had not complied fully with previous demands for records.
One nagging question about the American response to the attack has been what President Barack Obama did during the crisis. Even his location has been questioned, and the White House — which immediately sent out images of Obama during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden — has never answered those questions. When Fox News' Bret Baier asked ex-National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor about the president's whereabouts, Vietor danced around the issue.
"Was the president in the Situation Room?" Baier asked. "No," Vietor replied, and attempted to shift the conversation to inaccuracies in Fox News reporting. Instead, Baier spent the next few minutes forcing Vietor to admit that he didn't know where the president spent that evening after the initial briefing on the attack.
In this environment, Boehner had little choice but to react. But what do Boehner and Republicans hope to accomplish with a unified probe? Undoubtedly, there is a good argument to be made that streamlining the probe into one committee will make an investigation more efficient. Newly appointed Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) emphasized the need to end the stovepiping created by multiple congressional investigations, in part to rebut Democrats' complaints that a select committee would be redundant. Gowdy wants to start over from scratch, starting with the witnesses, especially with the work done by the State Department's Accountability Review Board, which refused to depose the leadership within State and focused instead on career employees with limited authority on policy.
The dispute over the honesty and integrity of the Obama administration in presenting a transparent accounting for the spin after the attack will perhaps give Republicans a few more arrows in their political quiver, and the bumbling response to the revelations this week suggest that they may already be aiming close to the mark. But if Republicans expect to find a Watergate moment, they will probably be disappointed.
The bigger question about Benghazi is not about the cover-up, but the incompetence that led to the attack on the anniversary of 9/11 and the lack of response during it. That starts with the decision to decapitate the dictatorship of Moammar Gadhafi without planning for the predictable power vacuum that resulted, in a region already known for its Islamist terror activities.
Last week, retired Air Force Gen. Robert Lovell testified before Congress that the U.S. military should have responded immediately to the attack. As the commander of intelligence services for the U.S. Africa Command at the time of the attack, Lovell testified that no one seriously thought that it was anything other than a deliberate, planned offensive on the diplomatic post left vulnerable despite ever-increasing warnings about terrorist activity in and around Benghazi, especially with al Qaeda affiliates. The testimony raises the question — again — as to why the U.S. military was not prepared to respond to a terrorist attack in the AFRICOM area of responsibility on the anniversary of 9/11, especially in an area known to have rapidly escalating enemy activity.
That question becomes more acute as the situation in Libya continues to deteriorate. Daily Beast national security correspondent Eli Lake reports that the region has now been flooded with radical Islamist terrorists from around the world, eager to operate within the failed state of Libya that the NATO intervention created. One counterterrorism contractor calls it "Scumbag Woodstock," while another intelligence official calls eastern Libya "a jihadist melting pot." The situation presents a threat to the region and to the U.S. far beyond what existed three years ago, before Obama intervened on behalf of the rebels.
The select committee should focus on that larger context of Benghazi, the editorial board of The Washington Post urged this week, asking Republicans to eschew the cover-up for the "actual failings in Libya" from Obama and his administration.
"The Obama administration and its NATO allies bear responsibility for this mess because, having intervened to help rebels overthrow Gadhafi, they then swiftly exited without making a serious effort to help Libyans establish security and build a new political order," they wrote. "Congress might usefully probe why the administration allowed a country in which it initiated military operations to slide into chaos."
Indeed. While the White House continues its ridiculous spin and accusations, Gowdy and Boehner have an opportunity to present accountability on a much broader and deeper level — the very accountability the Obama administration tried to avoid with its initial talking points.