The Benghazi Select Committee shed the bipartisan cloak it had worn in public, as Republican members used Tuesday’s hearing to bully Joel Rubin, deputy undersecretary of state for legislative affairs. For more than two hours they badgered their witness, apparently haven taken cues from Eric Cartman (a petulant child portrayed in the cartoon South Park) demanding the State Department respect their “authoritah.”
The Central Intelligence Agency’s Neil Higgins, director of the agency’s Office of Legislative Affairs, for the most part sat silently at the witness table, happy to allow his State Department counterpart take the brunt of the public flogging as successive Republican lawmakers berated Rubin.
The exchanges between Rubin and the Republican members of the committee were a sideshow to the real fight in the room. For months tensions have been brewing between the majority and minority staff.
Ranking Member Elijah Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, made this clear in a series of letters he wrote to Gowdy, two of which were made public on Tuesday morning. At the heart of the dispute are interviews the majority staff conducted without the knowledge or presence of Democratic staff.
Investigating the accusations reported by Sharyl Attkisson at The Daily Signal, a website owned and published by the Heritage Foundation, that Deputy Assistant Secretary Raymond Maxwell witnessed members of the department’s staff removing documents “that might put [State Department officials at the Bureau of Near East Affairs] in a bad light,” the committee interviewed a second witness whom Maxwell claimed would confirm these allegations.
Instead that witness contradicted the story, saying that they had never been a part of such an effort, according to the letter penned by Cummings to Gowdy on November 24. This came as a surprise to the committee’s minority staff, who, according to Cummings, had been told by the Republicans via e-mail that they "learned nothing else of note in our discussion, so we don't plan to conduct any additional follow-up." Far from nothing of note, debunking a major conservative allegation is a seemingly important detail.
From the perspective of Representative Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican who chairs the select committee, the source of tension was the the State Department’s inability to fully respond to the committee’s request for documents and the availability of witnesses, despite the 40,000 documents that State had already forked over. The wide-ranging request delivered on November 18 was for “two full years worth of emails from 11 State Department principals.”
Democrats were quick to point out that this first request for documents came a full six months after House Speaker John Boehner created the committee. They repeatedly noted at the hearing that the committee created to investigate the federal government’s failure to respond to Hurricane Katrina had started and completed its work in this time span.
In the eight months since the committee’s formation was first announced, Gowdy has yet to present a single question about the attacks that has not already been answered. For six months, the committee had not requested a single document. Now it was suddenly claiming that State’s failure to comply with the entire document request in two months was unacceptable. Republicans tried to smooth over this uncomfortable fact by citing subpoenas from other committees.
Yet as recently as mid-December, Gowdy seemed to indicate he was pleased with the performance of the State Department, in response to his committees request telling Fox News Host Greta Van Susteren:
“They are making an effort to be cooperative. The timing issue we may work on a little bit. But you know as lawyers look at documents it may lead them to make another requests for production. So if the State Department were here they’d tell you: ‘Look quit asking us for more documents. We’ve given you what you wanted so far.’ But for us to be able to do the kind of job you expect and the people who watch your show expect we’re going to have to have access to the witnesses and the documents. But sometimes that means lawyers decide late in the game that I need this batch. So the State Department hasn’t been difficult to work with and I don’t expect that will change.”
Clearly Gowdy’s comments on Tuesday signaled a change in tune.
Conservatives have begun to turn on the chairman, calling him "ineffective." Retired U.S. Navy Admiral James “Ace” Lyons spoke to the right-wing website WorldNetDaily, claiming that “the idea that government-agency stonewalling—continuing now for over two years—is the reason Gowdy’s committee can’t make progress is pure nonsense.”
Gowdy now seems intent on pleasing the right by taking his investigation down the same path that led Representative Darrell Issa of California, chairman of the Government Oversight Committee, and other Republicans astray. (Issa’s Benghazi investigations became something of a national joke.) To show his toughness in front of the conservative media, Gowdy took to abusing a deputy undersecretary of state. Then, at the end of the hearing, he acknowledged that Rubin was not responsible for his purported anger.
Just the kind of BDSM display that seems to titillate the Republican base.