Democrats accuse GOP of breaking promises on Benghazi panel

In a series of letters, Democrats on the select committee criticize Republicans for meeting secretly with witnesses and refusing to release information contrary to their narrative.

Democrats on the special House panel investigating the 2012 Benghazi attacks have accused Republicans of conducting the committee’s work without them and withholding information that would undermine the credibility of the panel itself, according to three letters obtained by Yahoo News.

The previously unreported letters, sent by Democrats to the special select committee’s chairman, Republican Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, underscore ongoing Democratic concerns that the panel is a partisan witch hunt rather than a neutral attempt to uncover the truth. At the same time, Democrats contend that the panel’s tactics reflect the heat Republicans are feeling to produce an outcome different from those of the previous seven congressional reports, which debunked the conservative conspiracy theories surrounding the attacks.

At the heart of the Democrats’ grievance is that Gowdy and his staff have been interviewing witnesses behind closed doors and without the presence of Democratic members or staff, after promising both publicly and privately that the committee’s work would be bipartisan. Democrats say they have spent “hundreds of hours” trying to address their concerns with Gowdy privately and have been rebuffed on a request to vote on establishing rules for the committee’s work, according to a letter to Gowdy dated Jan. 23.

“Chairman Gowdy will talk to Benghazi sources with or without the Democrats present, just as they are welcome to talk to sources with or without Republicans present,” said Gowdy spokesman Jamal Ware in a statement. “Further, that the Democrats have released correspondence that attempts to politically characterize sources’ private discussions with the committee without proper context goes to the exact heart of why the chairman will not require sources to talk to both sides.”

The committee is scheduled today to hold its first public hearing since being reauthorized for the new Congress. Earlier this month, Republicans quietly re-upped the committee by including its reauthorization language in a giant, must-pass House rules package, effectively blocking an up-or-down vote on whether to continue to spend up to $3 million to run the special panel.

Democrats view their participation in the investigation as especially crucial because many of the panel’s activities will not be done in open session. According to a statement released by Gowdy’s office earlier this month, “The bulk of the committee’s work will have to be done in classified settings or through investigative techniques that do not lend themselves to public hearing.”

CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: The deadly Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the consulate in Benghazi killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. (ABC News)
CLICK IMAGE for slideshow: The deadly Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the consulate in Benghazi killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. (ABC News)

In a Nov. 24, 2014, letter to Gowdy, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the committee’s top Democrat, said he discovered via media reports that Republicans had interviewed two State Department witnesses and that Gowdy subsequently told him that Republicans had conducted at least three other interviews, including two with witnesses who “provided information that helps debunk other allegations” the panel is investigating.

“As I have expressed to you previously on several occasions, one of my principal concerns based on my experience on the Oversight Committee was that Democrats would be excluded from witness meetings and interviews,” Cummings wrote. “However, both you and Speaker Boehner assured me and the American public that this investigation would be different — that it would be run in a transparent and bipartisan manner that the American people would be proud of.”

According to the letter, Cummings learned of Gowdy’s interview with former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Maghreb Affairs Raymond Maxwell and another witness identified by Maxwell from the witnesses themselves. He learned of other interviews from Gowdy’s statements to Fox News alluding to additional conversations, which prompted a direct exchange between Cummings and Gowdy.

“When I raised these concerns directly with you last week, you informed me that you have spoken with at least three additional witnesses without the participation of Democrats. You also informed me that two of those witnesses provided information that helps debunk other allegations we are investigating,” the November letter continued.

Republicans repeatedly have accused the Obama administration of deliberately mischaracterizing the attacks on the American consulate in Benghazi in order to execute a cover-up of its own intelligence and protocol failures. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, in which four Americans were killed, administration officials stated that they believed the violence was a spontaneous outgrowth of protests over an anti-Islamist movie. Though that characterization proved to be misguided, eight probes into the attacks and the administration’s response to them found no cover-up.

In his January letter, Cummings urged Gowdy to consider adopting rules similar to those of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence (HPSCI) mandating that when anyone on the panel finds “evidence that disproves allegations, we jointly share that complete truth with the public,” according to the letter. Incidentally, HPSCI is Republican-run and produced one of the seven congressional reports that discredited many of the GOP allegations against the Obama administration regarding the Beghazi terrorist attacks.

Before the 2014 midterm election, Republicans appeared to be taking a milder approach to the Benghazi issue, playing up their desire to have a bipartisan inquiry and to avoid a “media circus.” At the time, they were wary of playing into the hands of Democrats who were trying to portray GOP candidates as excessively zealous and ideologically motivated. But in the runup to 2016, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton potentially on the presidential ticket, Republicans’ political calculation could change, leading them to adopt a more openly partisan approach.

But so far that hasn’t meant a more open investigation for the public — or Democrats on the committee.

“The committee is continuing its probe into all aspects of Benghazi and is currently focused on ensuring access to all firsthand accounts from those on the ground that night. This process will be ongoing and in some respects must remain classified,” Gowdy said in a Jan. 14 statement following a closed meeting of the panel.