Leon Panetta’s endorsement of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may have washed away the last vestiges that the House Select Committee on Benghazi’s investigation into the deadly 2012 terror attacks is little more than an expensive political exercise.
"I’ve endorsed Hillary Clinton, and I've also helped provide advice on defense and foreign policy issues,” Panetta said Thursday during an interview with MSNBC’s “Andrea Mitchell Reports.”
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The fact that Panetta, who was chief of staff to former President Bill Clinton, would back Hillary after serving alongside her in President Obama’s cabinet as CIA chief and Defense Secretary isn’t a surprise.
What makes his endorsement remarkable is its timing. Panetta is slated to testify before the select committee on Friday about his role before, during and after the siege on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Libya that killed four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador. The deadly incident has created a veritable cottage industry of conspiracy theories about Clinton, who has been at the nexus of the investigation.
The panel, which on Wednesday surpassed the amount of time it took the 9/11 Commission to conduct its probe into the terror attacks, has long been a political lightning rod on Capitol Hill.
When House Republicans voted to create the select committee in 2014, they argued a new examination was needed to explore unanswered questions about the administration’s response to the assault. Democrats accused Republicans of launching a taxpayer funded smear campaign against Clinton designed to hamstring her then-expected White House bid.
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That din increased in September after House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) made comments that implied the inquiry was purely political and ratcheted up again after Clinton appeared before the panel in October in a marathon, 11-hour public hearing that revealed no “smoking gun” accusation against the nation’s former No. 1 diplomat.
Select committee chair Trey Gowdy (R-SC), who long preached about keeping partisan politics out of the investigation, further damaged the panel’s credibility last month when he endorsed Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) in the crowded GOP presidential primary. The nod led some to charge that he had been using his powers to bring down Clinton in order to boost Rubio all along.
In that context, Panetta’s announcement, besides showing a complete disregard for the select committee’s authority, only adds to the perception that the investigation has devolved into a platform for Democrats and Republicans to snipe at each.
Where things go with the $5.6 million-and-counting inquiry is anyone’s guess. After former CIA chief David Petraeus went behind closed doors with the Benghazi panel on Wednesday, Gowdy said he wanted him to return for another day of questioning.
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Then there’s the question of the select committee’s final report. Democrats contend it’s being timed for release this summer, presumably after Clinton becomes the Democratic nominee, in the hope of sinking her in November.
On Thursday, Gowdy, who in the past has hinted the final report might not be conclusive for some folks, declined to give a timeline. “Well, boy, if you could help me speed up the administration to get me documents, I'd be grateful to you, Wolf,” he said during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer.
“I want to wrap up tomorrow, but I've got a dozen more witnesses and I've got three departments that haven't given me my documents. I want to get it done as soon as possible. Maybe they'll listen to you,” the former federal prosecutor added. “They're not listening to me right now.”