A high-minded Republican effort to unearth the truth about a lethal terrorist attack on a US embassy – or a calculated attempt to undermine the woman whom Republicans, almost certainly, must beat to regain the White House next year? The grilling of Hillary Clinton by the House Benghazi Committee may have sounded like the former. But above all it was the latter.
Proceedings in the packed hearing room on Capitol Hill got under way bang on time at 10am and were set to last eight hours. Quickly the battle lines were set, between an aggressive Republican majority on the panel, led by Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, a former prosecutor, and Ms Clinton, former Secretary of State and a no less accomplished lawyer herself.
As Mr Gowdy set out the charges in his opening statement, Ms Clinton listened impassively, even looking bored – as well she might after half a dozen previous investigations of the subject. Few expect any significant new information to emerge from the marathon about the tragic events of 11 September, 2012, in which four Americans, including the then US ambassador Christopher Stevens died.
From the outset, three main questions have lingered: the lack of security at the mission despite repeated requests for added protection; why there was no immediate US military assistance; and the changing explanations from the Obama administration in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.
But Elijah Cummings, the senior Democrat on the Committee, was having none of it. Republicans “are wasting millions of taxpayers’ dollars in an attempt to derail Mrs Clinton’s presidential campaign,” he declared in his opening statement.
The Committee had been in existence for 17 months, but “had shown no nefarious activities, just the opposite. It’s time for the Republicans to end this fishing expedition now”. Adam Smith, another Democrat, made a similar point to Ms Clinton: “This Committee is focused on you.”
Normally such hearings are unequal contests between hectoring and self-righteous Congressmen and a witness constantly on the defensive. The underlying dynamic of this one was rather different.
Ms Clinton entered the room in a position of renewed political strength, boosted by a commanding performance in the first Democratic debate, and the decision by vice-president Joe Biden, potentially her most dangerous challenger, not to enter the 2016 race.
Mr Gowdy, on the other hand, has been beset by Republican blunders. First Kevin McCarthy, the party’s House majority leader, bragged about how the committee, whose most notable achievement has been to uncover the private email server used by Ms Clinton while Secretary of State, had “dragged down her poll numbers”. Then a conservative staffer left the committee, saying that until the email system came to light, it had done no serious investigative work.
Opening the hearing, Mr Gowdy was at pains to present his work as an impartial search for truth, in the broader national interest. “Not a single member of this committee’s signed up to investigate you,” he insisted. “Your emails are no more or no less important than anyone else’s…. understanding Benghazi goes to the heart of what we are as a country.”
It sounded less like an indictment of Ms Clinton than a defence of the committee’s existence.
Ms Clinton did have some awkward moments, not least when Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican, suggested that she paid more attention to the emails from her friend and Libyan “expert” Sidney Blumenthal than to the pleas of Mr Stevens for more security.
Mostly though, Ms Clinton played the stateswoman rather than the lawyer, all the while displaying her usual mastery of the facts, keeping the arguments above the party political fray. The US had to lead, she said, and “we can’t do diplomacy from bunkers”. Whatever the precautions taken, perfect security at US missions was impossible.
Specifically, she brought up the Teheran embassy hostage crisis, the 1998 attacks on two US embassies in East Africa, and the two attacks in Beirut in 1983 that killed over 250 US personnel.
An implicit question hung in the air: so many more died in those attacks, so why focus so intently on one in which just four US personnel died? Or, to put it another way, would this hearing be taking place had the Secretary of State not been called Hillary Clinton?
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