Dana Milbank: The Benghazi panel unravels

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, demands answers of witnesses from the State Department and the CIA at a Jan. 27 hearing.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the House Select Committee on Benghazi, demands answers of witnesses from the State Department and the CIA at a Jan. 27 hearing. Associated Press file

If this were one of Trey Gowdy’s murder prosecutions, it would be declared a mistrial.

For 17 months, the former prosecutor who leads the House Benghazi committee has labored to give the appearance of diligence and impartiality. But, in an inexplicable and ruinous outbreak of honesty in recent weeks, the thing is unraveling just in time for Gowdy’s moment in the spotlight: Hillary Clinton’s testimony Thursday.

First came House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s implication that the committee was empaneled for the purpose of hurting Clinton’s poll numbers. This was followed by Rep. Richard Hanna, a New York Republican, voicing his view that “there was a big part of this investigation that was designed to go after people and an individual, Hillary Clinton.”

Then there was Bradley Podliska, an Air Force Reserve intelligence officer and a self-described conservative, who was fired as a Republican staffer on the committee – in part, he said, because he resisted pressure to focus on Clinton. Podliska called it “a partisan investigation” with a “hyper-focus on Hillary Clinton.” He said the “victims’ families are not going to get the truth.”

Prosecutor Gowdy is most displeased. “I have told my own Republican colleagues and friends: Shut up talking about things that you don’t know anything about,” he said on CBS’ “Face the Nation” Sunday. “And unless you’re on the committee, you have no idea what we’ve done.”

But it appears some on the committee, more than $4.5 million into the investigation, have no idea what they’re doing, either. Gowdy this month made the sensational allegation that one of the emails on Clinton’s private server contained the name of a CIA source, “some of the most protected information in our intelligence community.” But the CIA said the name to which Gowdy referred was not classified. The State Department asked that the name be redacted, not for security reasons but for the individual’s privacy. Gowdy, completing the comedy of errors, then released the email publicly on Sunday with the person’s name, apparently unaware that the State Department had failed to redact it.

As that mess was being cleaned up, Gowdy was dealing with another, courtesy of my Washington Post colleague Mike DeBonis. Gowdy has spoken piously about keeping his investigation above politics and about refusing to raise money from it. But DeBonis reported that Gowdy’s campaign had returned three donations after the Post inquired about the money’s ties to a political action committee that ran an incendiary ad during last week’s Democratic presidential debate. Three $2,000 contributions had been made to Gowdy by groups affiliated with the treasurer of Stop Hillary PAC.

Podliska told The New York Times that committee members had started a “Wine Wednesdays” club and drank out of glasses imprinted with the words “Glacial Pace,” a reference to complaints about the leisurely investigation from Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the panel’s top Democrat. The slow pace leaves the strong impression that the panel is trying to extend its probe as far as possible into the 2016 election cycle.

The ham-handed targeting of Clinton predates the Gowdy panel. Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, who led an earlier Benghazi investigation, suggested, falsely, that Clinton had issued a “stand-down” order to block a military response the night of the Benghazi attack. Issa also alleged, falsely, that Clinton personally authorized security reductions in Libya with her “signature” on a cable.

Could such a skilled prosecutor and his experienced staff really be so hapless? Or are the mistakes more purposeful? Consider the damaging New York Times story this summer that initially reported, incorrectly, that federal inspectors general had requested a “criminal investigation” into whether Clinton “mishandled sensitive government information.”

The “senior government officials” responsible for the two false allegations were anonymous. But there are some likely suspects.

Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.