Republicans walk fine line when targeting Clinton in Benghazi probe

Hillary Clinton in Peru (CNN)

Hillary Clinton in Peru (CNN)

(CNN) — Republicans continued to put Hillary Clinton at the center of their inquest into last September’s attack in Benghazi, claiming Sunday the former secretary of state wasn’t assigned enough blame in an independent probe of the incident.

But in singling out the top Democratic presidential prospect for 2016, Republicans find themselves balancing their quest for answers with charges of being overly aggressive in a bid for political gain.

Speaking Sunday, the Republican lawmaker leading the charge in Congress to investigate the Benghazi attack said his goal was not to tarnish Clinton’s presidential chances.

“Hillary Clinton’s not a target. President Obama is not a target. The target is how did we fail three different ways,” Rep. Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

His remarks came after week of renewed interest in the Benghazi saga, and fresh charges of politicization from Democrats. On Wednesday, Issa’s oversight panel heard an account of the Benghazi siege from a former top diplomat in Libya, who described a harrowing night that resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to the country.

The hearing, which lasted five hours, drew loud protests from the White House and Congressional Democrats, who accused Republicans of rehashing a case that has already been investigated by an independent review board.

Witnesses in Wednesday’s hearing, including the former Deputy Chief of Mission in Libya Gregory Hicks, questioned the legitimacy of that board’s report on the Benghazi attack, suggesting it did not include accounts from key witnesses to the assault who were on the ground as it happened.

On Sunday, critics also questioned why Clinton herself wasn’t assigned more blame in the report.

“Obviously she was the decision maker at the State Department,” Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, said on CBS “Face the Nation,” adding she was “surprised” Clinton wasn’t probed further.

The co-chair of the review board, former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, defended his work on CNN’s “State of the Union,” arguing his panel was charged specifically with investigating security decisions, which he said were not made at Clinton’s level.

“She has already made clear the buck stopped with her,” former Ambassador Thomas Pickering said. “But we were interested in where the decisions were made. And she did not make the security decisions.”

Pickering’s report, released late last year, found “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” at the State Department in the lead-up to the attack in Benghazi, which left four Americans dead. As a result, four State Department officials were disciplined immediately after the report’s release. One resigned, while three others were placed on administrative leave and relieved of their duties.

Those actions were deemed insufficient by some Republicans, including Sen. Rand Paul, who told Clinton during a hearing in January he would have “relieved you of your post” had he been president.

He made similar remarks on Friday, telling a crowd of Iowa Republicans that Clinton’s actions were “inexcusable” and should “preclude her from holding higher office.” Paul is openly considering a bid for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination.

His remarks in front of potential Iowa caucus-goers only fueled Democratic accusations Sunday that the Benghazi focus is a veiled bid to discredit Clinton.

“Unfortunately, this has been caught up in the 2016 presidential campaign-this effort to go after Hillary Clinton,” Sen. Dick Durbin said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” He called Republican scrutiny of Clinton a “witch hunt.”

“When Hillary Clinton’s name is mentioned 32 times in a hearing…a point of the hearing is to discredit the secretary of state who has very high popularity and may well be a candidate for president,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein added on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

On Sunday, Sen. John McCain also linked Clinton to a bungled administration response to the Benghazi attack, which he amounted to a “cover-up” of information designed to protect the White House.

His accusations were fueled a set of internal e-mails from September that were released this week, which showed top administration officials changing a set of talking points used to describe the Benghazi attack. The talking points were meant for members of Congress, and for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice during appearances on Sunday talk shows.

McCain and other Republicans allege the changes to the talking points – which eliminated references to al Qaeda being involved in the attack, which came less than two months before the presidential election – were politically motivated, since President Barack Obama had campaigned using his administration’s handling of national security issues.

Clinton herself isn’t shown receiving or sending any of the e-mails herself. But McCain alleged it was impossible for her not to have been involved.

“I think that the secretary of state has played a role in this,” the Arizona Republican said on ABC’s “This Week.”

“She had to have been in the loop some way,” he continued. “But, we don’t know for sure.”

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