Column: Hearing an echo on Benghazi
WASHINGTON — House Republicans on Wednesday held Benghazi hearing number 1,372,569, give or take, and this time they were determined to find the proof that had eluded them in the previous 1,372,568: that Obama administration officials had put politics before national security.
Alas for the accusers, this hearing went the way of the others.
Lawmakers had another go at Michael Morell, a former deputy and acting CIA director and the man who revised the infamous “talking points” that said the September 2012 attack on American facilities in Libya had grown out of a protest. The talking points are key to the Republicans’ claims that President Obama tried to hide the true nature of the terrorist attack because the presidential election was just weeks away.
Morell, a now-retired career intelligence official who served under six presidents and was with George W. Bush in Florida on the day of the 2001 terrorist attacks, has the credibility to validate the conspiracy theories Republicans have been floating about Benghazi. But instead, he used the rare public session to rebut the accusations.
“I never allowed politics to influence what I said or did — never,” he testified. “None of our actions were the result of political influence in the intelligence process — none. ... The White House did not make any substantive changes to the talking points, nor did they ask me to.” He called the talking points — which turned out to be wrong — “the best available information at the time.”
Did he have a conversation with anyone at the White House about the nature of the talking points?
His thoughts on the false information Susan Rice gave on TV the Sunday after the attacks?
“What she said about the attacks evolving spontaneously from a protest was exactly what the talking points said.”
How about the claims that somebody in the administration told the military not to assist on the night of the attack?
“I am aware of several requests by CIA for military support that night, and those requests were honored and delivered.”
The former official’s denials of any skulduggery drove the Republicans on the panel into a fury and caused Rep. Lynn Westmoreland to lose command of his vocabulary. The Georgia Republican, trying to find sinister meaning in the CIA’s changing of a phrase from “attacks” to “violent demonstrations,” explained that if there had been a protest, “you would see people malingering around and doing things. ... They didn’t see anybody malingering around.”
Malingering? Perhaps the congressman expected the terrorists to be complaining about a persistent cough.
Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., let loose a string of insults on the uncooperative witness, saying Morell was either “misleading by omission” or “lying by omission” and violating “your obligation to this committee.” King went on to suggest that there was something suspicious about Morell going into business with former State Department official Philippe Reines (never mind that another partner in the venture is a former Republican staff director of the House Intelligence Committee) and about Morell becoming a commentator for CBS News, where President David Rhodes is brother of Obama adviser Ben Rhodes (never mind that CBS is the network that ran a damning but false account of the Benghazi response).
“When you see the whole totality here, this is why people have questions,” King said.
Questions — such as Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., asking Morell if he “conspired” with the White House.
Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., skipped the questions in favor of accusations. “I believe that the totality of the information was obfuscated and that there was an intentional misleading of the public,” she said, charging Morell with changing the talking points “for the White House.”
Committee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Mich., who is retiring to be a talk-radio host, had drawn grumbles from some conservatives for being insufficiently zealous about Benghazi. Wednesday’s three-hour extravaganza should help him with those critics, because it gave Republican lawmakers a chance to vent their rage.
Angriest, or at least loudest, was Rep. Frank LoBiondo of New Jersey, who shouted virtually his entire statement: “We get on talking points, and we get about who said this and whether the station chief said that. And the bottom line is that we’ve got people running around who killed Americans, who are sipping mai tais or whatever they’re sipping, and we can’t do anything about it.”
Good point. So maybe Republicans will drop their obsession with 19-month-old talking points and start asking what more can be done to get the bad guys.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.