There was a moment, very late in the House Benghazi Committee's questioning of Hillary Clinton, when Clinton opened the door for lawmakers to discuss the specifics of her obstruction of the committee's work. Such a discussion might have put Clinton in a difficult spot and led any reasonable outside observer to conclude that Clinton withheld information from Congress for nearly three years. And yet the Benghazi Committee, lacking a central focus and winding down a long and exhausting hearing, did not effectively pursue the issue.
The moment came when Rep. Lynn Westmoreland asked Clinton how her legal team vetted 60,000-plus emails from her time as secretary of state — a job the committee has maintained should have been done by a disinterested third party, not Clinton's lawyers.
"How many attorneys does it take to go through 65,000 emails in two months?" Westmoreland asked.
That's when Clinton opened the door. "Well, first of all, the process to provide information to the Congress with respect to Benghazi started before I left the State Department," she said. "There was a concerted effort to gather up any information that might be responsive — "
Whether or not she specifically intended it, Clinton's answer referenced the first congressional request for information on Benghazi. On Sept. 20, 2012, just nine days after the attack, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, chairman of the House Subcommittee on National Security, Homeland Defense, and Foreign Operations, part of Chairman Darrell Issa's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, sent a document request to then-Secretary of State Clinton. The letter directed Clinton to provide information relating to seven aspects of the Benghazi affair.
Chaffetz's number-one request was for "All analyses, classified and unclassified, related to the security situation in Benghazi leading up to the attack." The second was for "All assessments, to include dissenting views, of potential threats to the American presence in Libya leading up to the attack." After specifying other types of information, Chaffetz's seventh and last category was "All information, which does not directly expose sources or methods, related to the attack on the consulate."
The request clearly included Clinton's emails. Just so there could be no confusion, Chaffetz included a definition of terms, outlining to Clinton that his request included "any written, recorded, or graphic matter of any nature whatsoever, regardless of how recorded, and whether original or copy, including, but not limited to, the following: memoranda, reports, expense reports, books, manuals, instructions, financial reporters, working papers, records, notes, letters, notices, confirmations, telegrams, receipts, appraisals, pamphlets, magazines, newspapers, prospectuses, inter-office and intra-office communications, electronic mail (email), contracts, cables, notations of any type of conversation, telephone call, meeting or other communication…" There was no way Clinton or any State Department official could have failed to realize that the congressional demand included her emails.
And that was the door Clinton opened when she said "the process to provide information to the Congress with respect to Benghazi started before I left the State Department. There was a concerted effort to gather up any information that might be responsive — "
To which Westmoreland quickly followed up: "Did you tell them you had a private server at that time?"
"You know, I don't — I know that — " Clinton said.
"If they were gathering emails, you had to tell them that you had a private server when you were there," Westmoreland said.
Westmoreland was zeroing in on something. Clinton not only withheld information from Congress, she handicapped the State Department's ability to respond to congressional demands. Faced with a question she could not truthfully answer without damaging herself, Clinton resorted to the talking points, now discredited, she used when the email scandal first broke.
"Well, the server is not the point," Clinton said. "It's the account. And I made it a practice to send emails that were work-related to people on their government accounts. In fact, you know, Secretary Kerry is the first secretary of state to rely primarily on a government account — "
That was the opportunity for Westmoreland to cut through the fog and pursue one indisputable, and damaging, fact: Clinton withheld information from Congress. No, that is not the first time that particular offense has ever occurred, but lawmakers of both parties have traditionally taken withholding information from Congress quite seriously, and some government officials have even been prosecuted for it. And Clinton did it.
But Westmoreland missed the opportunity, choosing instead to pursue a personal theory about the State Department's production of the Clinton emails.
"I'm not talking about the account," Westmoreland said to Clinton. "I'm talking about the server. But — one — one last point. Let me just — I'll close with this and then the chairman can give you time to answer. Let me tell you what I thought — "
And that was it. The moment to drill down into Clinton's personal obstruction was gone.
Later, in the 11-hour hearing's final exchange, Benghazi Committee chairman Trey Gowdy returned to the question of withholding, beginning with the State Department's internal ARB, or Accountability Review Board, investigation.
"The ARB, nor the previous congressional investigations, had access to your emails, did they? asked Gowdy.
"I don't know what they had access to," Clinton said. "I know that, during the time I was at the State Department, there was certainly a great effort to respond to your predecessor, Congressman Issa's inquiries. And many thousands of pages of information were conveyed to the Congress. And I know that the State Department has worked diligently and persistently to try to respond to the many requests that it has received."
It was a noble-sounding evasion. And Clinton piled it on higher. "And I think that given the pressure and stress of business they have been under, they have performed as well as they could. So, you will be getting, and in fact, the entire world will be getting, all of my emails, because they are all going to be public. And you will be able to read them along with everybody else."
"Madam Secretary, that actually was not my question," Gowdy said. "My question was, whether or not the previous congressional committees and ARB had access to your emails. That was of my question."
By that late moment, Gowdy could not have expected Clinton to actually answer his question. And indeed, Clinton went on to claim that "90 to 95 percent" of her work-related emails were preserved in the State Department system, which is not only not true but irrelevant to questions of her withholding information from Congress.
"You know what, that is maybe the tenth time you have cited that figure today," Gowdy said.
"It is," Clinton responded.
A short time later, the hearing was over.