Marc Ambinder

A Benghazi Select Committee might be a good idea

If Republicans ask the right questions...

Benghazi, as Adam Gopnik once wrote, was a tragedy in search of a scandal. Not able to find a scandal or a smoking gun — the closest being an email from the strategic communications deputy on the National Security Council advising Susan Rice on how to strategically communicate about Benghazi — Republicans have created one. They've bought the guns, fired them, noticed the smoke, and then yelled, "Smoke!" And lo, with the announcement that Speaker John Boehner plans to appoint a "select committee" to probe Benghazi, an entire arsenal of arms is being set up and ready to fire.

Select committees are Congress' equivalent of loud, attention-getting whistles. The words evoke serious investigations into the Kennedy assassination, trading arms for hostages, the September 11 terrorist attacks, and the Church Committee's probe into U.S. intelligence practices. Often, they produce solid legislation. At their best, select committee reports tell definitive stories of major policy failures, stories that guide politicians for generations to come.

If the Benghazi committee decides to focus on policy, then there's a chance that, despite its partisan origins, it could produce a meaningful critique about President Obama's foreign policy decisions, especially the series of events and assumptions that led the U.S. government to locate a large CIA outpost in Benghazi in the first place.

Here are some specific questions I'd like to see asked and answered:

A good Benghazi probe could look at the Obama/NATO strategy for Libya. Was there really a humanitarian crisis that compelled an intervention? Was the intervention complicated by factors that should have been foreseen?

Should the U.S. have sent arms to Libyan rebels? With al Qaeda remnants and insurgents so easily mixing with opposition forces, was there any way to prevent guns and instruments of war from falling into the wrong hands?

Did the CIA have enough people to complete the Benghazi mission? Should the CIA be deployed so globally without appropriate counter-intelligence resources?

When the U.S. decides to intervene in countries even without "boots on the ground," how many actual boots need to be on the ground? How wide a footprint is no footprint equivalent to?

Are the State Department and Department of Defense stretched too thin for counter-proliferation missions of this sort?

How do risk evaluations work their way through the national security interagency process? Can the CIA, the State Department, or the Defense Department push back against policy decisions that would subject their personnel to danger that is disproportionate to the threat?

Did the Obama administration think through the economics and consequences of intervention clearly? What was the decision chain?

What national security equities were at stake had the U.S. and NATO not decided to intervene? What alternates existed to large intelligence agency deployments? Is the CIA too eager to take on these missions? Are they winnable? What constitutes winning?

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