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Democrats on Benghazi panel see role as defensive

Jun. 2, 2014 - 12:17PM   |  
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WASHINGTON — The five Democrats on the House Select Committee on Benghazi are being counted on to defend the Obama administration’s record as November’s elections creep closer. All five voted against the special investigation and most have described it as a political stunt and waste of time.

Each now says it’s important to participate in the GOP-led probe of how a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans were killed at a U.S. diplomatic installation in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012, and how the administration responded.

They say that without their presence, Republican accusations against President Barack Obama, his top officials and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a possible presidential front-runner in 2016, would go unchallenged.

They’ve expressed little belief they might find new evidence pointing to administration wrongdoing.

Four of the five Democrats have experience from previous congressional investigations of Benghazi, where they often staked out strong positions.

Some of their most contentious arguments:

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS

The 63-year-old congressman from Baltimore has as much experience investigating Benghazi as any Democrat, serving as party leader on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. When he was named to the new panel, Cummings said Democrats should look to establish the facts. “We need to be neutral,” he said. “I don’t think we need to be making accusations before we even get in the room.”

Through 20 months of Benghazi investigations, Cummings has staked out several strong positions as his relationship soured with the GOP chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, Rep. Darrell Issa of California.

A month after the Benghazi attack, Cummings said the Republican hearings were becoming a “witch hunt.”

“This conspiracy stuff is kind of ridiculous,” he said.

In June 2013, Cummings dismissed GOP criticism of a State Department-ordered independent review of Benghazi as “baseless” and said Republicans were engaged in a “desperate search for political scandal” instead of improving diplomatic security.

Some Republicans, in fact, were engaged at the time in efforts to improve security. A month later, a GOP congressman introduced a bill with several new security measures for embassies and consulates. It passed the House with bipartisan support in September.

Cummings has described several Republican claims as “myths,” including the assertion that Obama deliberately misled Americans about the nature of the attack or that anyone ordered the military to “stand down” during the attack.

He demanded an apology from Issa in February for suggesting Clinton instructed the military not to intervene.

On the new committee, Cummings suggested this month it was “nothing more than a reaction to internal Republican bickering rather than a responsible effort to obtain the facts.” He said he would participate because he had seen firsthand “how abusive the Republicans have been” on Benghazi and to honor a request by Stevens’ family to not let the tragedy be politicized.

REP. ADAM SMITH

Smith, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, has been critical of the investigation involving that panel and Issa’s. The probes waste money and don’t unearth new information, according to the 48-year-old congressman from Washington state.

In joining the select committee, Smith was equally dismissive. “What are Republicans trying to achieve?” he asked.

After months of interviews with senior officials, Smith is well-versed in the testimony of the military leaders most closely involved in the U.S. response to the attack. That includes retired Gen. Carter Ham, who led the Africa Command and has spoken to investigators at least six times.

Smith will take the lead among Democrats on questions of the military’s conduct. He will probably point to the conclusion in April by the House Armed Services Committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon of California, expressing satisfaction with the military’s response.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF

Schiff, 53, was among the Democrats pushing hardest for a boycott of the select committee after “umpteen” investigations, including one he participated in by the House Intelligence Committee.

The Californian criticized some Republicans a year ago for what he deemed doctored emails and selectively leaked information linked to Benghazi.

But Schiff also pushed back against a New York Times report in December suggesting no al-Qaida involvement in the attack. He said intelligence indicated al-Qaida was involved, as well as others with different affiliations or none, and that motives included murder, looting and anger over an anti-Muslim YouTube video.

Before his appointment to the select panel, Schiff called it a “colossal waste of time” and a “tremendous red herring.”

“Democrats shouldn’t give this any more credibility than this deserves, and it doesn’t deserve any credibility,” he said this month.

Schiff said he is participating to “keep our focus where it should have been all along — on the deaths of those four brave Americans, on finding those responsible and bringing them to justice and on implementing changes to our overseas security to make sure this never happens again.”

REP. LINDA SANCHEZ

Unlike the other Democrats, Sanchez hasn’t been involved in any of the House’s previous Benghazi investigations.

The 45-year-old Californian described herself as honored to be appointed yet “disheartened” that the families of the victims would be put through “this partisan exercise.”

“Leaving politics out of the room is going to be a challenge for this committee,” but members must carefully analyze the facts, Sanchez said. “I hope my Republicans colleagues will adhere to the same principles.”

REP. TAMMY DUCKWORTH

The only military veteran among the Democrats, the 46-year-old Illinois congresswoman has criticized the State Department’s risk assessment for remaining in Benghazi before the attack. She has suggested greater coordination with the U.S. military to avoid similar failures in future.

Duckworth has gone after Republicans for, in her view, politicizing Benghazi, specifically with talk of a stand-down order.

“It used to be that when our nation came under attack, we would rally together, and especially around our men and women in uniform,” she said in September.

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