Don't Let the Russia Probe Become the New Benghazi

The investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election is too important to be treated like just another political opportunity.

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In January 2016, I was interviewed by the House Select Committee on Benghazi. It was the eighth investigation into the tragic events of September 11, 2012 when a diplomatic facility in Benghazi was overrun and four brave Americans were killed. The inquiry lasted over two years, reviewed 100,000 pages of documents, and interviewed over 100 witnesses, many of whom were recalled from assignments all over the world. Despite being one of longest and most expensive congressional investigations in American history, the final 800-page report was a dud.

Benghazi was a scandal that pales in comparison to Russia’s interference in last year’s election, especially if evidence emerges that Trump associates colluded with Russia. Nevertheless, the lessons of the Benghazi committees must inform the investigation into Russia’s involvement in the election so that it focuses on real issues, and minimizes partisan distractions. If the hyper-partisanship of the congressional inquiries into Benghazi extends to this new inquiry, it will prevent a serious investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, even though the Intelligence Community has already concluded that the Kremlin directed the cyber attacks to weaken America’s democratic system and aid one candidate.

I am the last person to downplay the significance of Benghazi. I lost a close friend and colleague in Ambassador Chris Stevens, who devoted his career to advancing American ties and interests in the Middle East. The State Department lost a stellar information officer, Sean Smith, a young father of two. And our nation lost two of our finest Special Forces veterans whose heroism saved additional lives.

Instead of using the lessons of the Benghazi attack to reinforce the U.S. commitment to diplomacy, some Republicans sought to turn the tragedy into a political blame game, as House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy eventually acknowledged.  At the time of the attack, Obama’s reelection campaign was entering its final months and his presumptive Democratic successor, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was accused of personally ignoring security requests that might have saved the State Department facility.

Ultimately, the Select Committee concluded that there was no conspiracy orchestrated from the White House to minimize the impact of Benghazi on Obama’s counterterrorism record. The military did its job with the resources and forces available at the time. There was no “stand down” order directed from Washington despite Hollywood’s portrayal of the fog of war in the Michael Bay directed film 13 Hours. The lack of security at a temporary State Department facility had already been examined thoroughly by an Accountability Review Board and procedures were underway to prevent such deficiencies from recurring. And months before the Select Committee issued its the report, the Obama administration ordered the deployment of specially trained forces who could respond more quickly to embassies under duress.

Nevertheless, the Benghazi Select Committee had far-reaching consequences. For four years, the American public heard relentless attacks against the State Department and criticism of its competence and purpose. While many inside the beltway saw the mission in Libya as an example of the bravery demonstrated by American diplomats who serve in the most dangerous of circumstances, much of the country took the constant barrage against the State Department’s function and personnel as cause for questioning America’s role in the world.

If bipartisan support for the military and the use of force started to fray during the bloody insurgency against American forces in Iraq’s Anbar Province in 2004, the country’s skepticism about the State Department and America’s diplomatic role in the world endured a similar body blow after Benghazi. No wonder President Trump has proposed a 28 percent budget cut to the State Department and his secretary of state has so far demonstrated little interest in promoting the institution or managing one of the most talented workforces in the federal government.

Monday’s House Intelligence Committee hearing featuring FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers reinforced how a bipartisan congressional investigation will be impossible in the hyper-politicized environment of 2017. Even when presented with the extraordinary fact that the FBI is investigating Trump campaign associates, Republican members chose to parrot the White House’s condemnation of leaks rather than to explore the nature of the hacking and how to prevent it in the future. Leading this line of questioning was none other than Representative Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, the former Chairman of the Select Committee on Benghazi.

At the end of the hearing, Gowdy and Chairman Devin Nunes urged Comey to conclude the FBI’s investigation as soon as possible because the president and his associates now have a cloud hanging over them. Gowdy took two-and-a-half years to complete the Benghazi inquiry. Similarly, Nunes demonstrated he is incapable of leading a true investigation when he ran to the White House on Wednesday to share "information" he had acquired regarding apparent surveillance of Trump campaign officials rather than discussing it within his committee, his Senate counterparts, or congressional leadership.

One key lesson from the Benghazi episode is that there should be as few investigations as possible to maximize resources and keep the inquiry focused on essential facts to remain timeliness and relevance. Now that Comey confirmed the existence of an FBI probe, it must be allowed to continue as long as needed to uncover Russian activities and the details of the contacts of Trump campaign officials.

Democrats, too, can learn from Benghazi. The Select Committee demonstrated the political expediency of advancing conspiracy theories with thin evidence. If Democrats mirror that strategy, any hope of a bipartisan solution to the Russia election crisis will quickly dissipate. Instead, they should follow the tone set by Representative Adam Schiff, the ranking member on the Intelligence Committee, who carefully laid out the facts of greatest concern without rushing to judgment. That will lend the greatest possibility of establishing a bipartisan 9/11 type commission to investigate Russia’s active measures campaign rather than recreating the hyper-political inquiry into the events of September 11, 2012 in Benghazi.

The prospects of establishing such a commission are admittedly challenging. But there should be enough influential Republican Russia Hawks, including Senators Lindsay Graham, John McCain, and Marco Rubio, who may break with the White House to support an independent commission under the leadership of respected bipartisan officials. For Republicans concerned about the 2018 elections, supporting a commission would be an opportunity to assert independence from a White House under investigation.

The 9/11 Commission provided serious non-partisan analysis necessary to compel an overhaul to the intelligence community. A similar type of commission is necessary to enact the policy and bureaucratic changes in response to Russian active measures against the U.S. and our allies and to protect our nation’s cyber vulnerabilities.