In the hot seat.

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Clinton Can Thank Obama for Her Benghazi Headache

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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If Hillary Clinton wants to blame someone for the House Select Committee on Benghazi -- which has made the existence of her private e-mail server a major campaign issue -- she should start with President Barack Obama.

This seems counterintuitive. When House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy boasted last week on Fox News that the investigation into the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. compound at Benghazi, Libya, has hurt Clinton's poll numbers, Democrats saw it as an admission that the special committee was a political witch-hunt from the start. 

QuickTake Benghazi

But that's not entirely correct. Until May 2014, Republican leadership resisted forming the special committee for nearly a year and a half. All of that changed when House Speaker John Boehner discovered that the White House had not shared with the House Committee on Government Oversight and Reform important e-mails and talking points on what administration officials were encouraged to say in the aftermath of the attack. 

That committee was one of five House bodies that had been investigating the attack since late 2012. Boehner was happy to let those five committees do their work and be done with the issue. For months, he opposed a campaign by Representative Frank Wolf (a Virginia Republican who is now retired) to establish a special committee. Wolf even got a majority of Republicans in the House to support his plan, but Boehner still said no

Boehner's position changed, though, in May 2014. Two things had happened the month before. First, House Armed Services Committee chairman Buck McKeon openly questioned a star witness called by the House Oversight Committee, suggesting that the five different investigations might yield starkly different conclusions.

Also in April, the conservative group Judicial Watch obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request a new batch of e-mails and talking points that showed the White House, not the CIA, had urged Susan Rice, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, to emphasize that the attacks stemmed from protests of an Internet video and were not planned by individuals with links to al-Qaeda.

Kevin Smith, Boehner's communications director, told me Monday that the Judicial Watch release of e-mails that had not been shared in a timely manner with the House Oversight Committee persuaded Boehner to rethink his opposition. "The tipping point was when the speaker realized outside groups were getting more information through FOIA than Congress was getting through congressional subpoenas," he said.

The White House at the time said the talking points were not Benghazi-specific and dealt primarily with the broader communications response to widespread protests in the Muslim world against the Internet video, "Innocence of Muslims," an amateurish film depicting the life and times of the Prophet Muhammad.

But for Republicans, these e-mails were a smoking gun. They undermined the administration's long-held explanation that the Benghazi talking points were drafted by the CIA and were consistent with the assessments of the wider intelligence community. As Michael Morell, the deputy CIA director at the time of the attack and who himself was later blamed by Republicans for politicizing the administration's Benghazi message strategy, wrote in his memoir this year: "My reading of the White House talking points is that they were blaming the Benghazi attack on the video -- which is not something CIA did in its talking points or in its classified analysis."

After the e-mails and talking points became public, Boehner sprung into action. In a May 2, 2014, press release, he said that in taking nearly a year and a half to release that material to Congress, the White House was willing to "defy subpoenas issued by standing committees of the People's House." He changed his position and called for a vote to create the special committee.

"He got tired of us going to him and saying they won't respond to this," Representative Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican who in 2014 was one of the leading Republicans investigating Benghazi, told me Monday. Chaffetz said he was worried at the time about the select committee because it meant that legislators like himself on other committees might be overshadowed. Today, however, he concedes, "the speaker made the right decision." He added: "At the time I selfishly wanted to be involved. I was frustrated and disappointed I was not on the committee." Chaffetz today is chairman of the oversight committee.

Now that the presidential primary season is here and Boehner has announced he will step down as speaker, the Benghazi committee itself has become a political football. Committee Democrats have charged that since the special committee discovered that Clinton had been using the private server, it has focused almost exclusively on that issue, and not the initial mandate to focus on the attack itself. Democrats on Monday announced that they will begin releasing transcripts of witness testimony in response to what they call "selective leaks" of material by Republicans.

Meanwhile, Chaffetz has announced his own longshot bid to become speaker, running against McCarthy. Chaffetz told me his decision had nothing to do with McCarthy's comments about the Benghazi committee, which Chaffetz was one of the first Republican lawmakers to criticize. "He shouldn't have said it," Chaffetz told me. "But he has apologized for it and it's time to move on from that. It was an unforced error, for those of us who know Kevin, we know it's not the norm." 

McCarthy, not Chaffetz, will probably end up as Boehner's successor. Either way, it's clear though that Clinton will have to deal with the fallout from the Benghazi committee for the rest of her campaign. The FBI is conducting its own investigation into the private e-mail server the select committee first discovered.

In all of this, there is a lesson for Democrats. The committee today combing through the former secretary of state's e-mails was empaneled in part because the White House didn't fully comply with the initial Benghazi investigation. For Clinton at least, Obama's alleged cover-up is truly worse than her alleged crime.

(Corrects spelling of Michael Morell's name in ninth paragraph.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net