In the aftermath of the September 11 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, the Obama Administration announced efforts to investigate the facts behind the attack and the state of U.S. security at overseas diplomatic facilities.
While the reports, undertaken by the State Department’s Accountability and Review Board (ARB) and inspector general, have yet to be released, an additional investigation by Congress via a select or special committee could shed light on many unanswered questions.
In Congress, the House of Representatives and Senate have select, special, and joint committees that direct their attention to specific issues, conduct oversight, and investigate fraud, waste, and abuse of power (e.g., the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence). Joint committees are bicameral (e.g., the Joint Committee on Taxation). These committees were enacted by a congressional resolution and are permanent. However, select committees can also serve as temporary forums for investigating emerging issues that do not fall under existing standing committee jurisdictions or overlap jurisdictional boundaries.
The most notable select committees include the Senate’s Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (also known as “the Watergate Committee”) and the joint Congressional Committee Investigating the Iran–Contra Affair. In 1973, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, a resolution introduced by the late Senator Ted Kennedy (D–MA) passed unanimously in the Senate to form a select committee to investigate President Richard Nixon’s participation in the break-in at the Democratic National Committee offices. In 1987, the House and Senate formed a joint select committee to investigate President Ronald Reagan’s involvement in the sale of arms to Iran.
However, in neither case was there a loss of American life or a direct assault on U.S. security. A more relevant precedent for the establishment of a select committee is the 1946 Joint Congressional Committee on the Investigation of the Pearl Harbor Attack. Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the committee was established by a joint congressional resolution to investigate the facts and circumstances leading up to and following the attack. The committee’s final report further identifies its responsibility:
To find lessons to avoid pitfalls in the future, to evolve constructive suggestions for the protection of our national security, and to determine whether there were failures in our own military and naval establishments which in any measure may have contributed to the extent and intensity of the disaster.
This is not intended to equate the terrorist attack in Libya with the Japanese assault (considered an “act of war”) on Pearl Harbor; it is intended merely to demonstrate that there is precedent for Congress establishing a special committee to investigate a violation of U.S. territorial integrity.
In the case of the attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Congress has held briefings, hearings, and floated countless letters between Administration officials and members. Yet, as Senator Lindsey Graham (R–SC) acknowledged last month, the risk of stove-piping emerges as conflicting accounts muddle the investigatory process.
Because the Benghazi attack covers multiple congressional committee jurisdictions, the establishment of a joint select committee presents an opportunity for a proactive and coordinated approach by Congress.