The Benghazi hearing: A pre-2016 swipe at Hillary Clinton?

Critics say House Republicans are playing politics by using this testimony to tear down the likely Democratic presidential frontrunner

Mark Thompson (left) Gregory Hicks (center), and Eric Nordstrom
(Image credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

The Obama administration is in the hot seat — again.

On Wednesday, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held the latest in a series of hearings on the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya. One of those testifying was Gregory Hicks, who was Stevens' second-in-command and is being called a whistleblower by some of the administration's conservative critics. Hicks says that as America's consulate in Benghazi was attacked, the U.S. military withheld resources that might have saved lives.

Democrats, however, say Republicans, led by committee chair Rep. Darrell Issa, are increasingly using the matter to attack the reputation of Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of State at the time of the attack, to weaken her as a candidate if she decides to make another run for the presidency in 2016. Are the administration's GOP critics using Benghazi to preemptively damage Clinton? And if so, will it work?

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Few people deny that accusations that Clinton mishandled security in Benghazi, as well as the administration's initially contradictory accounts of what happened, could have implications in 2016. It's "pretty clear that the Republican attacks are being leveled as a way to strike at Clinton," says Jay Bookman at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It might backfire, though.

If Republicans expect that "preemptive attacks on Clinton's character, competence, and record" will make her shy away from another run, Bookman says, they obviously haven't been paying attention to her track record. The potshots are "more likely to provoke her to set aside retirement and re-enter the political fray full-bore, intent on vindication."

Conservatives, however, scoff at Democrats who say Issa's hearing is politicizing Benghazi. "Everyone now agrees that not only was the situation mishandled but that the Obama administration didn’t come clean," says Chris Stirewalt at Fox News. And in this view, it's the duty of Issa's committee to leave no stone unturned. Stevens was the first ambassador killed in the line of duty since the Carter administration. Stirewalt continues:

In the best telling of events for Clinton, she sidestepped the incident, allowing Obama intimates to take the fall. In the worst telling, Clinton was part of decisions that left Americans vulnerable, denied them assistance under fire and then elided when the time came to go public about the attack.Neither is particularly helpful to a woman whose 2016 supporters see her service as secretary of State as the key to presenting Clinton as the next commander in chief. [Fox News]

There has been no shortage of attention paid to what Clinton and everyone else in the administration did and didn't say — about security, and about whether the armed assault in Benghazi was a terrorist attack or an escalation of an event similar to the storming of the U.S. embassy in Cairo on the same day. But today's hearing, "and the leak fest leading up to it," shifted the focus toward an effort to get "political payback" against Clinton, says Howard Fineman at The Huffington Post. Still, by the time 2016 rolls around, the fallout will be minimal, Fineman says.

Issa is happy to play point man in a wide-ranging, coordinated GOP/conservative effort to diminish the president as a terror-fighting commander-in-chief, tarnish Clinton's lofty image as the early 2016 frontrunner, and recapture for Republicans an advantage they enjoyed for decades as the "tough on defense" party.It's a long way from here to there, but that is where Issa is headed. [Huffington Post]

"In other words," Fineman says, "the 2016 campaign has begun, more than three years before Election Day — not in Iowa or New Hampshire, but in Libya."

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Harold Maass

Harold Maass is a contributing editor at He has been writing for The Week since the 2001 launch of the U.S. print edition. Harold has worked for a variety of news outlets, including The Miami Herald, Fox News, and ABC News. For several years, he wrote a daily round-up of financial news for The Week and Yahoo Finance. He lives in North Carolina with his wife and two sons.