Whether the House investigation into the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, is a political witch hunt aimed at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her possible run for president in 2016, as Democrats allege, or a principled effort to uncover a shocking scandal on par with Watergate, as Republicans seem to believe, further review of what happened that night in Libya appears to be a worthwhile pursuit.
That's not to suggest the American people should buy the narrative presented by Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, that there's been some grand, conspiratorial cover-up before, during or after that fateful night. Many of the events seem shrouded in the fog of chaos and violence, differing recollections and perspectives, simple misinformation and, yes, some political spin from the Obama administration.
Indeed, when witnesses are allowed to speak freely of what they know of events and House Republicans aren't frothing at the mouth to try to spin matters in a preferred direction, the testimony can be compelling. That was certainly the case Wednesday when veteran Foreign Service officer Gregory Hicks described details of Sept. 11, 2012, from his perspective in Tripoli — including his frustrations with how it was handled.
But Mr. Issa and others were so anxious to tar and feather Mrs. Clinton or President Barack Obama that they focused much of their effort on delivering prefabricated talking points and not on what should be the essence of their quest — determining what mistakes were made and how to secure U.S. consulates, embassies and missions from similar attacks in the future.
After all, the administration's initial idea that the attack might have been connected to concurrent protests in Cairo over a film that negatively depicted the prophet Muhammad was not exactly a leap. Such demonstrations were happening elsewhere, and other State Department facilities believed themselves at risk as a result. Only later was it firmly established that the terrorist attack at Benghazi had no connection whatsoever to those uprisings.
Admittedly, it's clear some people recognized the true nature of the incident much sooner than others — and they look a lot smarter today, thanks to the benefit of hindsight. Was there a deliberate cover-up for the purposes of downplaying terrorism and thereby assisting President Obama's reelection? That case has not been made convincingly anywhere other than in Mr. Issa's mind. To quote a well-worn cliché, there is no smoking gun.
What was worth noting in Mr. Hicks' testimony, however, was the possibility that he was punished for cooperating with House investigators without a State Department lawyer present as well as his suggestion that the talk of the Benghazi attack being related to a protest had hurt U.S. interests — either by delaying an investigation or embarrassing the president of Libya. But neither possibility is exactly earth-shaking. Frankly, the most compelling explanation of the differing accounts so far is that some people not directly involved made some dumb mistakes and might have been influenced by some wishful thinking.
But that's not to suggest that the public should simply accept whatever the Obama administration has to say on the subject, or even the State Department's rather exhaustive follow-up report. Four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed by terrorists who have not been brought to justice. A congressional investigation is warranted — if Republicans can bring themselves to make it fact-based and objective.
We won't hold our breath. When House Speaker John Boehner waded into the subject today, it was to urge the White House to publicly release an email (describing the attack as having been perpetrated by Islamist militants) that the committee had already seen. That's not advancing a legitimate investigation, it's a public relations-minded effort to lend support to the Republican view of a cover-up.
House Republicans need to understand that most Americans see the Benghazi attack and get angry chiefly at its perpetrators, not at Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Obama or anyone else in the chain of command. If Mr. Issa can help bring those terrorists to justice, he will have the public's gratitude. If his goal is simply to take advantage of this tragedy to score political points, he is unlikely to stir much interest beyond the usual amen-corner of Fox News and its hyper-partisan ilk.