WASHINGTON (AP) — A special House committee investigating the deadly 2012 attacks in Benghazi, Libya, began last year with promises of bipartisanship and cooperation.
Eight months later, the panel has devolved into finger pointing and accusations of political grandstanding and power plays.
As the panel holds its third public hearing Tuesday, Democrats complain that the panel’s Republican chairman has excluded them from crucial steps in the investigation, while Republicans say Democrats are playing politics.
In a strongly worded letter, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat, said the panel’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., has used different standards for Republicans and Democrats and has held secret meetings with witnesses from the State Department and other agencies.
“Perhaps most importantly,” Cummings wrote in a letter last week, Gowdy has “withheld or downplayed information when it undermines the allegations we are investigating.” The Associated Press obtained a copy of the letter and two others sent by Democrats to Gowdy.
Gowdy said in response late Monday that he has the authority to unilaterally subpoena witnesses, but he promised to give Democrats a week’s notice before issuing such a subpoena.
“Bipartisanship is a two-way street,” Gowdy said in a letter to Cummings. “I have known you to be a fair partner and expect for that cooperation to continue.”
Committee spokesman Jamal Ware was less diplomatic.
He said Gowdy was disappointed that Democrats had released “correspondence that attempts to politically characterize sources’ private discussions with the committee.”
As chairman, Gowdy “has operated the Benghazi Committee in a more-than-fair and fact-based manner,” Ware said, adding that Gowdy will continue to address any legitimate Democratic concerns.
“He will not, however, allow the committee’s investigation to be hamstrung by politics.”
Such an outcome appeared increasingly likely, as a bipartisan tone set last May when the 12-member committee was created appeared to dissipate.
Gowdy and Cummings continued the bipartisan tone at a hearing in September and again in December, but behind the scenes have disagreed sharply.
Gowdy has said he will pursue the facts of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. post in eastern Libya that killed Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador, and three other Americans.
“Facts are neither Republican nor Democrat,” Gowdy said when the panel was created last May.
Gowdy’s approach has drawn criticism from some conservatives, who accuse him of failing to stand up to what they see as resistance from the Obama administration to produce documents and witnesses related to the events in Benghazi, a topic that has been the subject of numerous congressional investigations.
A report by the House Intelligence Committee report last fall found that the CIA and the military acted properly in responding to the 2012 attacks. Debunking a series of persistent allegations hinting at dark conspiracies, the panel determined there was no intelligence failure, no delay in sending a CIA rescue team, no missed opportunity for a military rescue and no evidence the CIA was covertly shipping arms from Libya to Syria.
Cummings, who has clashed with Republicans such as Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., over Benghazi and other issues, has previously praised Gowdy for a bipartisan approach to the Benghazi inquiry.
But he said in a letter sent Friday that he and his colleagues have grown increasingly concerned that they are being shut out by the GOP majority. Cummings cited a GOP-approved rule that allows Gowdy to meet privately with committee witnesses and unilaterally issue subpoenas for witnesses or documents “without any public discussion or debate, even if there is significant disagreement from other members of the committee.”
He and other Democrats “simply ask for a public debate and a vote by committee members on these actions when there is significant disagreement,” Cummings wrote.
The Jan. 23 letter is the third Democrats have sent to Gowdy since November. None of the letters had previously been made public.
In one letter, dated Nov. 24, Cummings told Gowdy the committee inquiry has “taken a sharp turn for the worse and is becoming what you strenuously insisted it would not - another partisan investigation of the Benghazi attacks that blocks Democrats from meaningful participation.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said he was “deeply skeptical” that the Benghazi committee would operate fairly, but nonetheless agreed to serve on the panel as one of the Democratic members.
“Now, after learning that we have been excluded from parts of the investigation, and that the majority has held secret interviews with key witnesses and withheld information . I fear this skepticism may have been all too justified,” Schiff said.
He called on Gowdy to lay out the scope of his investigation immediately and adopt a set of rules “that will give Congress and the country the assurance that this will not be yet another politicized and partisan exercise at taxpayer expense.”