- - Friday, May 9, 2014

Now that the House of Representatives has established a select committee to examine the 2012 terrorist attack in Benghazi, the real challenge begins. Before calling its first witness, the select committee must adopt a statement of principles to build public confidence in its proceedings and to ensure it accomplishes the objectives for which it was created.

In any other period in our history, a coordinated mortar and small-arms assault on a U.S. diplomatic outpost resulting in the murder of the American ambassador and other citizens would have produced a unified national response. Yet, in the early hours of Sept. 12, 2012, partisan battle lines were already hardening. The select committee won’t bridge these differences, it will reinforce them. For this reason, it is vital for the committee chairman, Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, to establish a set of bipartisan standards and objectives to which all members agree to adhere.

In its organizing document, the committee should expressly provide that its proceedings will be informed by objective inquiry, not political ideology. The facts must shape the narrative, not vice versa. As in federal court, evidentiary proceedings should be fact-based rather than argumentative. While a fresh investigative perspective is necessary, evidence adduced should not be unnecessarily repetitive or duplicative.

In addition, while potential discovery of new information precludes an exhaustive list, specific areas of inquiry should be delineated. Specifically, the committee should commit itself to ascertaining the nature of intelligence and communications concerning regional threats preceding the assault; whether U.S. support for armed Libyan factions had any bearing on the safety of U.S. personnel; the level of security preparedness before the attack; the quality of command, control, communications and intelligence before, during and after the attack; the degree of coordination among diplomatic, military, intelligence and other personnel before, during and after the assault; and the sufficiency of the response.

All committee members should also affirm the necessity of determining the manner in which information relating to the attack was relayed to policymakers at the departments of State and Defense, the intelligence community, executive office of the president, and other government bodies; how those on the ground were interviewed and monitored following the assault; the manner in which information relating to the attack was processed before it was presented to the public; how administration representatives were selected to discuss the attacks with media outlets and the public; and the bases upon which the administration relies when according different treatment to congressional subpoenas and other compulsory demands.

The committee’s statement of principles must also pledge to examine the degree to which those who planned and conducted the attacks have been held accountable for their actions, the extent to which U.S. government personnel have been disciplined for any shortcomings, whether adequate safeguards have been established to prevent future attacks against U.S. interests, and all executive communications relating to Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, maker of the video blamed for the attack, including whether others have been incarcerated for similar offenses.

Of crucial importance, the scope of the committee’s subpoena power should be carefully defined. Subpoenas should be issued promptly only after refusal to disclose information and exhaustion of efforts at accommodation. The committee’s statement of principles should also recognize that duplicative appearances before any congressional committee present time and logistical burdens on witnesses few in Congress fully appreciate.

Citing national security concerns, the administration has refused to provide key documents in past investigations. In order to proactively satisfy these concerns and to facilitate disclosure of relevant information, the committee should offer to work with the administration to establish additional, robust safeguards to ensure against public dissemination of classified material. While every witness shares an obligation to fully and promptly respond to committee inquiries, their respect for the committee must be reciprocated by its members.

Establishing shared objectives will not eliminate the contention the committee’s investigation will inevitably occasion, but it will help contain it. Members swear the same oath to the Constitution and pledge allegiance to the same flag. Requiring that they adhere to common standards and principles does not ask too much — it is the least we should expect.

Finally, the committee must not conduct its work at the expense of other pressing matters. Americans expect Congress to continue to focus on jobs, expanding opportunity, veterans health, Obamacare, immigration reform and other issues.

Our consulate in Benghazi was targeted on Sept. 11, 2012 because it was a symbol of the United States. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was killed not because he was liberal or conservative, but because he was an American. The patriots who rushed into the firefight knowing they were likely to never again see their homes and families were neither Democrats nor Republicans, but heroes who gave their lives to protect those of their countrymen.

On their behalf, America has an obligation to find out what happened in Benghazi, and to ensure it does not happen again. This must be the organizing principle of the select committee — and the express commitment of all members who serve on it.

Robert N. Tracci served as chief legislative counsel and parliamentarian to the House Judiciary Committee, deputy assistant attorney general, and special assistant U.S. attorney.

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