As Benghazi panel prepares to question Clinton, drama lies not in the answers (Washington Post)

From the start, investigations of the September 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including the U.S. ambassador, have focused on three questions: Why was security insufficient at the Benghazi diplomatic compound? Why was there no timely U.S. military response? And why did the administration initially describe the attacks as a spontaneous protest, rather than a planned terrorist assault?

As the House Select Committee on Benghazi prepares to question former secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Thursday, those questions seem almost beside the point.

The answers, however unsatisfactory to some, have been provided repeatedly by Clinton and many other senior administration and intelligence officials over the past two years, as well as in a series of independent and bipartisan congressional reports, and are unlikely to change.


Instead, attention will be focused on how well Clinton, now the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and her Republican critics behave during what is expected to be at least eight grueling hours of testimony.


Scheduled to begin at 10 a.m., the hearing is to consist of four rounds of questions lasting 10 minutes from each of its seven Republicans and five Democrats.


On the Republican side, members have been cautioned by their chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (S.C.), a former prosecutor, to stick to the facts and avoid providing ammunition to Democrats who accuse them of having a political vendetta against Clinton.


Expecting Republicans to use a rapid-fire prosecutorial technique that allows little time for long answers, Democrats are prepared to restate the majority’s questions and try to elicit more thoughtful responses, while also seeking to focus attention on what the administration has done to avoid future such attacks.


Clinton has doubtless carefully studied her previous answers to the same questions at House and Senate hearings in January 2013, just one week before she left office, most of which passed the buck for security lapses to her subordinates.


Now the longest-running select committee investigation in U.S. history, the panel has become a partisan food fight, with each side questioning the other’s motives and facts.


In the buildup to the hearing, the first time Clinton has testified on the matter since January 2013, accusations have flown back and forth like dinner rolls across a table. In the past week alone, Republicans have accused committee Democrats and the administration of continuing to withhold crucial information about the attacks.


Democrats have countered that Gowdy and his team are lying about what documents they’ve seen and what they prove. “It’s a bunch of hooey,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) told MSNBC on Tuesday.


Gowdy told CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday that the hearing “is about the three tranches of Benghazi, what happened before, during and after.” But he acknowledged that Clinton would “have a lot more information about the before than . . . the during and after.”


He indicated that questions would focus on what he said were new e-mails “we just received” from then-U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, one of the four Americans killed in the attacks, to the State Department requesting more security during the months before the attacks. Another area of interest, Gowdy said, was a series of e-mails sent to Clinton’s private server by former aide Sidney Blumenthal.


The Blumenthal messages are long expositions on Libya’s internal politics, some sent before, but most after the Sept. 11, 2012, attacks. The messages — many of them released by the State Department this year — were later revealed to have been written by a former CIA officer who, along with Blumenthal, was seeking business opportunities in Libya.


Although the question of why Clinton was receptive to Blumenthal’s voluminous communications — some of which she forwarded to other State Department officials with his name removed — may elicit some interesting and perhaps discomfiting testimony from the former secretary of state, it seems unlikely to reveal new information about security at the Benghazi installation.


Although virtually all of the committee’s attention, and that of previous congressional investigations, has focused on the lack of security at the Benghazi diplomatic compound, only Stevens and State Department communications specialist Sean Smith were killed there. Both died of smoke inhalation, while seeking refuge in a supposed “safe room” from militants who set the buildings on fire.


The two other Americans who were killed, security contractors Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, died from mortar fire in an attack about seven hours later at a nearby CIA “annex” where U.S. intelligence agents, on a separate mission, were based. The CIA contingent had far more protection, including heavily armed private American security guards. Woods was assigned to the intelligence annex and Doherty was one of a contingent of CIA guards who were flown to Benghazi from Tripoli, the Libyan capital, after the initial attack.


A federal indictment issued in the District last year charged Ahmed Abu Khattala, captured in 2013 in Libya, with the murder of all four Americans. It said he organized the attack against the diplomatic compound because he thought it was a front for a secret CIA facility in Benghazi.


The diplomatic compound itself had always been a poor stepchild of the State Department. Chosen specifically by Stevens, a Middle East expert who had spent significant time in Benghazi and at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli, it had no permanent staff. Instead, a handful of security and diplomatic personnel from Tripoli rotated in and out in 2012, while the State Department tried to decide what to do with it.


Stevens had argued that the United States needed to maintain a presence in Benghazi, where the revolution that toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Gaddafi began, even as he pressed for more permanent staffing, including security.


Although the committee majority has said it has new e-mails from Stevens asking for additional security — requests that often were denied or delayed by Washington — it is uncertain whether they differ much in tone or content from those that have surfaced.


In one key cable often cited by conservative critics, Stevens asked on July 9, 2012, for temporary security support that was about to be withdrawn from the Tripoli embassy to be extended through mid-September, noting that “conditions in Libya have not met prior benchmarks” established by the embassy for their withdrawal.


“Overall security conditions continue to be unpredictable, with large numbers of armed groups and individuals not under control of the central government, and frequent clashes in Tripoli and other population centers,” he wrote.


On Aug. 16, 2012, the State Department received another cable from Tripoli warning that the Benghazi mission could not withstand a coordinated attack, and an assessment by the security chief there that it could not be protected.


The cable, like all those sent from diplomatic posts abroad, was addressed to Clinton.


“That cable,” Clinton said at the 2013 House hearing, “did not come to my attention. I have made it very clear that the security cables did not come to my attention or above the assistant secretary level.”


“I’m not aware of anyone within my office, within the secretary’s office, having seen the cable.” The State Department, she said, received 1.43 million diplomatic messages a year. “They’re all addressed to me,” she said. “They do not all come to me.”