- - Wednesday, June 4, 2014

For all the tumult over the decision by the House of Representatives to empanel a select committee to revisit the Sept. 11, 2012, killing of Americans at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, public attention has not fixed upon what may well be the most significant issue: whether there was a cover-up by the Obama administration.

Taking their cue from Democratic allegations of a politically motivated “witch hunt,” mainstream-media types are spinning the work of the new committee in terms of the attack itself and our apparent lack of preparedness. These issues were indeed the subjects of earlier congressional hearings. Yet the committee’s mandate is more narrowly focused as it seeks to learn why a key document that should have been turned over pursuant to a subpoena issued in August 2013 has only now been produced by the Obama administration as the result of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit.

This is a very big deal and calls to mind claims leveled against President Nixon and his cohorts; namely, that they undermined the oversight function of Congress by conspiring to withhold relevant documents. The document that has now surfaced is a Sept. 12, 2012, email from White House adviser Ben Rhodes to various administration officials, providing direction on how to prepare then-U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice to respond to questions about Benghazi during her appearances on talk shows.

The Rhodes email was not released until a federal judge granted a FOIA request by the watchdog group Judicial Watch for all relevant documents. Significantly, a court order does not have the legal wiggle room of a congressional subpoena. The White House could not therefore risk the consequences of a federal court contempt citation. Congressional subpoena power is obviously key to that body’s constitutional oversight responsibilities. Noncompliance with such subpoenas does great damage to the heart of the American system of government.

The Nixon administration was brought low not so much by the Watergate burglary itself, as by the subsequent cover-up and contemptuous treatment of Congress. There is something very troubling in the way the Obama administration has reacted to Benghazi from Day One. If not for a compliant press corps, the president would have a lot more explaining to do. Depending on what emerges from the new committee’s work, he still might.

BRIAN J. GOLDENFELD

Woodland Hills, Calif.