Benghazi Panel Succeeds In Avoiding Partisan Spectacle (So Far)

The House Select Committee on Benghazi held its first hearing on Wednesday, and lawmakers mostly managed to steer clear of grandstanding.

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Members of the House Select Committee on Benghazi have pledged to keep its polarizing investigation from devolving into the same kind of partisan spectacle that plagued many of the half dozen previous congressional inquiries into the 2012 terrorist attacks.

Well, so far, so good.

The panel held its long-awaited first public hearing on Tuesday, and lawmakers focused focused so deeply on substantive details related to the State Department bureaucracy that they probably put some of the spectators to sleep.

For Chairman Trey Gowdy (S.C.) and House Republican leaders, that qualifies as a win.

Democrats loudly decried Speaker John Boehner's decision to create the panel earlier this year, as he bowed to conservative pressure despite exhaustive hearings and reports by existing House committees that had investigated the attacks that killed four Americans on Sept. 11, 2012.

The Democrats worried that the new select committee would be used either to attack President Obama ahead of the 2014 midterm elections or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the run-up to her likely presidential bid in 2016.

Gowdy, a conservative former federal prosecutor, insisted repeatedly that he would keep his probe sober and serious, to the point that he'd only hold public hearings infrequently because they so often lead to political grandstanding rather than effective fact-finding.

He reiterated that commitment at the outset on Wednesday morning.

I remain hopeful there are still things left in our country that can rise above politics. I remain convinced our fellow citizens deserve all of the facts of what happened before, during, and after the attacks in Benghazi and they deserve an investigative process worthy of the memory of those who died and worthy of the trust of our fellow citizens."

Gowdy did acknowledge critics who argued the committee was unnecessary, but he said he would "rather risk asking a question twice than risk not answering it once."

The committee's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), struck a similar tone.

Too often over the past two years, the congressional investigation into what happened in Benghazi has devolved into unseemly partisanship.  Today, we have an opportunity to focus on reform.  How can we learn from the past to make things better in the future?  This kind of oversight can be productive, it can be critical, and it can sometimes even be tedious, but it can also save people's lives.

I sincerely hope the select committee will stay on the course of constructive reform and keep this goal as our North Star.  It would be a disservice to everyone involved to be lured off this path by partisan politics."

The hearing focused on to what extent the State Department implemented recommendations from its own Accountability Review Board and the Independent Panel on Best Practices to improve embassy security after Benghazi.

The State Department's assistant secretary for diplomatic security, Gregory Starr, reported that the department had fully implemented 22 of the ARB's 29 recommendations and was in the process of implementing the rest.

Of the 40 recommendations from the independent best practices panel, the State Department has implemented or is implementing 38 of them. But Starr did face criticism for the department's decision not to accept the independent panel's top suggestion: creating a higher-level under secretary to oversee diplomatic security.

A member of the independent best practices panel, Todd Keil, testified that "little has been accomplished" by the State Department to improve risk management.

"Now is the time. Clear the smoke. Remove the mirrors," Keil said.

Rep. Jim Jordan/AP

He drew praise from conservative Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who faulted the State Department for ignoring both that recommendation and the pleas of agents on the ground for more security in the weeks and months before the Benghazi attack.

"Talk about the arrogance of the State Department," Jordan said.

His 10 minutes of questioning led to the closest thing to a partisan confrontation of the hearing, as Cummings asked why he asked questions only of the State Department's critic but did not ask them directly of Starr, the department's representative on the witness panel.

But the hearing quickly returned to sober questioning.

Gowdy engaged in some of the most aggressive questioning toward the end, hammering Starr on why the State Department had not implemented recommendations that were made in repeated reports by its review board. But his focus was as much on the department's bureaucracy over the last two decades as it was on the failures of the current administration.

Perhaps the clearest indication that the lawmakers succeeded in steering clear of grandstanding? The names "Obama" and "Clinton" were barely uttered during the first two hours of questioning and testimony.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.