As he began one of the most high-profile assignments of his 17-year career in Congress, Rep. Adam Smith confessed to feeling a little clueless about exactly what he’ll be doing.
But after getting assigned last week to a 12-member House of Representatives select committee that will investigate the deadly 2012 attack in Benghazi, Libya, the Washington state Democrat said he knew one thing: With Republicans in charge, there will be no rush.
“The Republican base believes this is an issue that should be investigated – and I think forever,” said Smith, 48, sitting on a sofa in his Capitol Hill office this week.
Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed in the attack on the U.S. mission and a CIA annex in Benghazi. A Senate intelligence committee report released earlier this year called the deaths preventable and said that the State Department, intelligence agencies, the military and even Stevens ignored deteriorating security.
But with Benghazi already the subject of eight investigations, Smith said all questions have been answered and that the GOP is on a costly witch hunt aimed at embarrassing the Obama administration.
For many Republicans, he said, the strategy has been to “throw as much mud at the wall as possible and hope something sticks.”
“There’s no effort to find the truth or to glean any sort of policy lessons from this,” Smith said. “It’s all an effort to churn this up as much as possible.”
Smith, who was appointed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, said Democrats had little choice but to join the committee after Republican House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio reversed course and decided to create it.
“It was a difficult call. . . . It’s a choice between having Republicans completely run the whole thing without anybody there to question what they’re doing, or do we at least have some Democrats there to question the direction of it?” Smith said.
Smith, the top-ranked Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee for the past three years and a former member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, criticized the makeup of the new panel, saying it’s dominated by seven Republicans with little national security experience.
“They are mostly junior members. ... It doesn’t help in terms of getting to some sort of accurate representation of what happened,” said Smith, a lawyer and former prosecutor who lives in Bellevue, Wash.
Earlier this month, Boehner chose South Carolina Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy, a fourth-term congressman and former federal prosecutor, to lead the panel, praising him “as dogged, focused and serious-minded as they come.” Boehner said he had confidence in the other six Republican members, as well, predicting they would work in “a focused, timely manner” to get answers.
At a press conference on Friday, Boehner said the select committee’s investigation is about “getting the truth.”
“That’s why we created a select committee, it’s about getting to the truth,” he said. “And we have to remember, we’ve been asking for documents now for 18 months. Why does the administration refuse to turn over the documents? Why do they refuse to tell the American people the truth about what happened?”
Gowdy promised to work in a bipartisan manner “to seek out the truth and uncover the facts.”
“Facts are not political and this should not be a partisan exercise. ... We have a big task ahead of us,” he said. “It’s time to get to work.”
Many Democrats have complained that Republican leaders are out to weaken Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner in polls for the 2016 presidential election. She was secretary of state at the time of the attack.
Smith gave Clinton high marks for her handling of the incident.
“She didn’t try to whitewash it, didn’t try to claim this wasn’t a problem, didn’t refuse to make changes, responded to it very quickly and I think very appropriately,” he said.
Smith compared the situation to the 1983 attacks in Beirut that killed nearly 300 American and French troops in two separate bombings, saying the United States didn’t properly understand the security threat then, either. But he said members of Congress quickly investigated the matter and worked with the Reagan administration to fix the situation.
“They didn’t in September of 1984 say, ‘Let’s launch an investigation on what happened in Beirut so that hopefully the public will focus on this and it will hurt Ronald Reagan’s re-election chances,“’ Smith said. “They did their job.”
With few details about the assignment forthcoming, Smith said he’s uncertain what his role will be once the committee gets rolling.
“It’s going to depend up front on what it is that they’re investigating – we’ll have to wait and see,” Smith said. “But the role I hope to play on the panel is to basically keep to the facts, make sure we don’t go off down the witch-hunt route and to try to keep the panel honest.”
Democrats on the committee say Boehner has already lost control of the process by allowing California Republican Rep. Darrell Issa, who heads the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to proceed with a separate Benghazi investigation. Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to testify before Issa’s panel next month to comply with a subpoena.
It prompted Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the select committee and also on the oversight panel, to complain last week that Boehner already had created a “circus.”
Smith said Issa’s probe is just more proof that Republican leaders want to score political points.
“If you’re going to form a special committee, logically you would have that special committee be responsible for the subject matter,” Smith said. “The fact that Issa is continuing to do his own investigation just shows that this is a partisan effort. They want to focus as much attention on this as possible.”
In the meantime, Smith said he’s still awaiting word of a hearing schedule or when the panel will first meet. He said the only development by Republicans so far has been the hiring of a committee staff director.
Besides that, Smith said, “pretty much nothing has happened since the announcement.”