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April 16, 2014

5 Top Moments of the Benghazi Hearing

House Republicans on Wednesday attempted to dig deeper into the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others dead, during a nearly day-long Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing.

The political implications of the testimony of three State Department whistle-blowers remain unclear. But the hearing did have some riveting moments and interesting subplots.

Chairman Darrell Issa of California, joined by his fellow Republicans, asked pointed questions intent on laying responsibility for the Sept. 11, 2012, terrorist attack in Benghazi on former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and President Barack Obama. Democrats led by ranking member Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, meanwhile, moved to undercut the whistle-blowers and shield Clinton and Obama from blame.

Here are the top five moments from Wednesday’s hearing, which is almost assuredly not the last of its kind on this matter:

1. Opening testimony from Greg Hicks. The former deputy chief of mission in Libya began with a breathtaking account of the terrorist attack on the consulate in Benghazi, including his final conversation with Stevens. Hicks’ virtually minute-by-minute, detailed retelling of the night covered facts about the assault that many heard for the first time, and the committee sat in stunned silence as he spoke. Hicks discussed the number of armed assailants that entered the compound (20); what he described as the pin-point accuracy of the mortar fire targeting the consulate and his failed attempts to secure military action for the purposes of additional protection and rescue.

2. Again, we return to Hicks. Much has been made of the Obama administration’s initial reaction, which was to say the Benghazi attack appeared to be a spontaneous reaction to a YouTube video that was perceived as disrespectful of Islam. Hicks testified that the video was a “non-event” in Libya, and said that he personally informed Clinton on the night of the attack that Benghazi was under a coordinated terrorist attack. For Republicans, this amounted to one of the smoking guns they were looking for, even though Democrats downplayed that portion of Hicks’ testimony. After U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice went on five Sunday public affairs shows and tagged the Benghazi attack to that video, Hicks said: “I was stunned; my jaw dropped and I was embarrassed.”

3. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney. The New York Democrat opened her question time with a full throttled defense of Clinton, despite the fact that the former secretary of state’s name had yet to arise in any meaningful way at that early point in the hearing. None of the witnesses had yet made comments that were particularly problematic for the possible 2016 presidential candidate. But Maloney’s very deliberate remarks signaled that Democrats are sensitive to how the House GOP investigation into Benghazi might affect Clinton, regardless of its partisan overtones.

“I find it truly disturbing and very unfortunate that when Americans come under attack the first thing some did in this country was attack Americans, attack the military, attack the president, attack the State Department, attack the former senator from the great state of New York and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton,” Maloney said, before going on to question the witnesses on the fact that the secretary of state’s signature is included on all sorts of documents he or she never actually sees.

4. House Republican strategy. Those three words rarely go together these days. But Issa and the Republicans on Oversight and Government Reform surprised at least me, as they kept the typical committee grandstanding to a bare minimum, used their question time to actually ask questions, and allowed the witnesses to testify at length. As such, new details emerged from this hearing. Wednesday’s discoveries might or might not prove damming for the president and his administration, but House Republicans probably did the best job they could to make the hearing look like a fact-finding mission, as opposed to solely a political exercise, although that aspect shouldn’t be discounted.

5. House Democratic strategy. This hearing put the Democrats in a difficult position. Politically, they have no doubt that the Republicans’ only interest was tearing down Obama and possibly their party’s strongest 2016 presidential candidate, and they understandably wanted to protect both from implication of responsibility. But Democrats have a long history of protecting government whistle-blowers. In fact, they often lionize them. So, they settled on a strategy that attempted to gently poke holes in the witnesses’ testimony while honoring their service and their motives. Democrats also sought to blame House Republicans for failing to support the spending of enough government funding to provide adequate protection for U.S. embassies across the globe. Finally, they attempted to tar the House GOP investigation as purely partisan, contending repeatedly that they did not have access to the witnesses. Issa rebutted that charge as false.

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