GOP’s Benghazi humiliation: Capture of suspect upends deranged agenda

With alleged ringleader now in custody, the Benghazi Select Committee just lost a prized grandstanding opportunity

Topics: trey gowdy, Benghazi, House Select Committee on Benghazi, Republicans, House Republicans, Benghazi conspiracy, Benghazi coverup, Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, the daily caller, Allen West, Terrorism, Darrell Issa, Editor's Picks, GOP,

GOP's Benghazi humiliation: Capture of suspect upends deranged agendaTrey Gowdy (Credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

For the not insignificant portion of the right that operates under the theory that everything the Obama administration does is intended to distract from the Benghazi scandal, yesterday’s news that Ahmed Abu Khattala, the alleged ringleader of the Benghazi attacks, had been apprehended in Libya was something of a conundrum. The White House was making news about Benghazi – the very thing they wanted swept under the rug. What did it mean???

The consensus was the White House had switched gears, and was now diabolically using Benghazi to distract from something else. But no agreement could be found on what that other thing is. It’s either Iraq (the Limbaugh theory), Libya (the Daily Caller theory), Hillary Clinton’s gaffes (the Fox News theory), or everything (the Allen West theory).

That the good news of Khattala’s apprehension could be so easily twisted into an outlandish anti-Obama conspiracy does not speak well of the health of the conservative movement. It shows how much conservatives have invested in the Benghazi scandal narrative, and how ultimately weak that narrative is. In that vein, Khattala’s capture poses a setback for the House Select Committee on Benghazi, which was formed to keep the Benghazi scandal alive, but has had the legs kicked out from under it before it could even hold a hearing.

That committee, chaired by the flamboyantly prosecutorial Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., was formed ostensibly to answer the “unanswered questions” that supposedly remain about the Benghazi attack after multiple inquiries by congressional investigators and other parties. Gowdy, after he was tapped by John Boehner to chair the committee, did a round of media interviews to lay out some of those questions. As a number of observers pointed out, the questions Gowdy wanted answered – Why was security lacking? Where were the military support units? What of the talking points? – have already been asked and answered several times over.

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Really, there were only a few avenues of inquiry that offered some legitimate opportunities for oversight, and the lack of action in pursuing the people responsible for the attacks was one of them. Apprehending terrorism suspects does sometimes take a while — the Bush administration couldn’t nab Osama bin Laden after seven years and a suspect indicted in 2000 for the 1998 embassy bombings was arrested just last October – but Khattala was out in the open, talking to reporters and generally flaunting his freedom. It seemed reasonable to ask why, exactly, that was the case.

After the House voted to approve the committee in May, Gowdy issued a statement indicating that he would try to nail down that question. “No one has been arrested, prosecuted, or punished for the murders of our fellow Americans,” the statement read. “These outstanding questions, and others, are legitimate, and seeking the answer to these questions should be an apolitical process.”

That “outstanding question” is now moot. Gowdy can press and investigate why it was that it took so long to actually capture Khattala, but he runs the risk of looking like he’s signing on with the conspiracy crowd. Also, part of the reason it took so long for special forces to move against Khattala is that they reportedly spent over a year training and preparing for the mission. That preparation was undoubtedly worth it – Khattala was captured without incident – so it doesn’t look like there’s much for the committee to gripe about.

Losing Khattala as an opportunity to grandstand is only the latest setback Gowdy’s committee has faced. Not long after the committee was formed, it was hamstrung – intentionally or not; it’s up to debate – by Rep. Darrell Issa, who talked to reporters about a classified memo indicating that shortly after the attacks began, the White House contacted YouTube to “warn of the ‘ramifications’ of allowing the posting of an anti-Islamic video.” If you’re not well versed in the conservative Benghazi conspiracy lore, a big part of it is that the White House conspired after the fact to blame the attack on this video so they could pretend it wasn’t an act of terrorism. But Issa’s memo blew a hole in that by indicating that the White House thought the video was to blame from the very start. And as it turns out, the New York Times reported yesterday that Khattala “told other Libyans in private conversations during the night of the attack that he was moved to attack the diplomatic mission to take revenge for an insult to Islam in an American-made online video.”

Fewer avenues to investigate Benghazi mean fewer opportunities for the select committee to politicize the proceedings and generate headlines. It means fewer opportunities for Trey Gowdy to make angry or emotional statements for the cameras and then post the videos to YouTube. Khattala’s apprehension and the demise of silly conspiracies are obviously in the public interest, but they’re counter to what Republicans want politically.

Simon Maloy

Simon Maloy is Salon's political writer. Email him at smaloy@salon.com. Follow him on Twitter at @SimonMaloy.

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