Whatever happened to that summer blockbuster, the one about terrorism and scandal that would be must-see congressional TV?
Don’t expect to be able to tune in to the Benghazi hearings anytime soon. No air date for the premiere has been announced, because the pre-production work is off to a deliberately slow start.
The reason is that the impresario, Rep. Trey Gowdy, is much more experienced as a prosecutor than as an executive producer. And district attorneys, at least as much as studio moguls, are trained to refrain from going public if they have any doubt about their work being ready for prime time.
For reasons both procedural and political, Gowdy has reached a conclusion 10 weeks after he was handed the gavel of a newly created select House committee: The moment is not nearly ripe for the panel to convene in the open to talk about any events before, during or after Sept. 11, 2012, the night when terrorists overran the U.S. consulate and CIA annex in Libya’s second biggest city and four Americans were killed, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
During his first two terms, Gowdy has gained notoriety as one of Republicans’ most tenacious inquisitors of administration officials, a skill honed during his previous 16 years busting bad guys in South Carolina. His reputation for public zealotry aside, Gowdy understands how caution behind the scenes is the prosecutorial standard.
Many more criminal cases are settled with tidy plea bargains than with of roll-of-the-dice jury trials, and dozens of depositions are taken behind closed doors for every witness cross-examined in open court. The analogue on Capitol Hill is that a whole lot more fact-finding gets done by professional committee investigators away from cameras than by lawmakers posturing in front of them.
Besides, pursuing the inquiry for a while longer before any hearings works to the Republicans’ strategic advantage in several ways.
This period of deliberative quiet helps rebut Democratic criticism that the committee’s only purposes are to spur GOP fundraising, and to give the party one more shot before Election Day at selling the public on discredited conspiracy theories.
It gives the committee’s staff (only about half of the expected 30 have been hired because of security clearance backlogs) time to search for unanswered questions or undetected smoking guns in the 25,000 pages of records generated by six previous congressional investigations.
It provides some breathing room to the GOP’s campaign message-makers, who believe they’re having some success with lines of attack on other fronts: President Barack Obama’s handling of the throngs of undocumented children at the border, his implementation of the health care law and his muscular use of executive powers.
And it preserves the option for the Republicans to take their last best shots on Benghazi after the midterms, when political talk will turn nearly exclusively on the presumed presidential candidacy of Hillary Rodham Clinton, the secretary of State when the attack happened.
The same delay, though, brings decent risks for Gowdy’s side. Not generating news for more than two months has provided room for other Benghazi-related stories to get attention, and none of that coverage has helped the GOP’s cause.
In June, military commandos and federal law enforcement agents captured the Libyan Islamist militia commander Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged mastermind of the attack. Not only did his capture allow the administration to counter charges it hasn’t done enough to pursue the culprits, but Khattala’s pending prosecution could trump efforts by the committee to learn more about the plot.
Next, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi gave reporters documents showing the GOP leadership had provided $3.3 million for the 12-member Benghazi committee to spend by the end of the year, more than the budgets of at least two House standing committees. (The special panel has no deadline for issuing its report and is almost certain to keep working in 2015, meaning it will receive more money then and be subject to a new round of criticism as a duplicative waste of taxpayer funds.)
But the most important bit of unwanted publicity came last week from, of all places, another Republican-run committee. House Armed Services gave The Associated Press transcripts of its interviews this year with nine military officers who agreed there was no “stand-down order” preventing troops and equipment from being sent to Benghazi in time to repel the attack and prevent American deaths. Allegations about such an order — and intimations it was given by Clinton, though she was not in the military chain of command — have been a central talking point from the GOP’s most ardent crusaders. Gowdy himself has given some credence to the stand-down conspiracy in the past, so the theory being undercut by another House panel hardly does him any favors.
The chairman is promising this month will be a time of intense activity at the committee, packed with interviews and briefings from several corners of the administration. He’s promising the five Democrats will be included every step of the way. But he’s also conceding that, by design, virtually all the work is supposed to remain invisible to the public for the indefinite future. (The panel’s bare-bones website doesn’t even list its phone number or Longworth Building address.)
The implicit message is a tough one to buy, because it runs counter to almost every norm at today’s hyper-combative, super-partisan Capitol: Trust us.
This summer’s delays and the absence of transparency represent the best way to produce better, meaning more meaningful, congressional theater in the end.