After a long day on November 13, 2013, Speaker of the House John Boehner walked down the marble hallways of the Longworth House Office Building to the personal office of Representative Devin Nunes for a drink, a cigarette, and maybe a brief reprieve.
But Boehner’s visit was not a social call. He was there to see three CIA officers who had fought in Benghazi, Libya. Their identities were unknown to all but a small group of U.S. government officials with high-level security clearances, and the details of their harrowing stories were unknown to virtually everyone who was not a colleague or relative.
And the fact that the meeting was taking place at all was unknown to the man who, under different circumstances, might have been expected to host it. Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was not invited.
Rogers was sick of Benghazi. Some of his Republican colleagues had spun themselves into a frenzy of conspiracy theorizing, publicly making wild claims that had no basis in fact or hinting at dark conspiracies that had the president of the United States willfully and eagerly arming its enemies. Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, long the Republican face of Benghazi investigations, accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of giving a “stand-down” order to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Representative Louie Gohmert claimed that Senator John McCain deserved some of the blame for Benghazi because McCain, like Barack Obama, had supported opposition forces in Libya. Normally responsible Republicans pretended that Hillary Clinton’s famous “what difference at this point does it make” line was not so much a tone-deaf question about how the attacks happened, which deserved the criticism it earned, but a declaration of indifference that the attacks happened, which was absurd. Rogers complained about these excesses regularly to his staff and colleagues.
This frustration, however, wasn’t the reason Boehner and Nunes cut him out of the meeting with CIA officers. They shared his frustration, as it happened.
Their concern was deeper. Rogers had long been reluctant to commit more time and resources to investigating Benghazi. At a meeting of intelligence committee Republicans in early 2013, just four months after the attacks, Rogers laid out his priorities for the new Congress. Not only was Benghazi not on that list, according to three sources in the meeting, he declared to the members that the issue was in the past and that they wouldn’t be devoting significant time and resources to investigating it. Whatever failures there had been in Benghazi, he explained, they had little to do with the intelligence community, and his intelligence committee would therefore have little to do with investigating them.
In the months that followed, more troubling details about the Benghazi story emerged in the media. Among the most damaging: Internal emails made clear that top Obama administration officials had misled the country about the administration’s role in the flawed “Benghazi talking points” that Susan Rice had used in her Sunday television appearances following the attacks, and that former acting CIA director Michael Morell had misled Congress about the same. Other reports made clear that intelligence officials on the ground in Benghazi had reported almost immediately that the assault was a terrorist attack involving jihadists with links to al Qaeda—information that was removed from the materials used to prepare administration officials for their public discussion of the attacks. A top White House adviser wrote an email suggesting that the administration affix blame for the attacks on a YouTube video.
The revelations even roused the establishment media from their Benghazi torpor and generated extraordinarily hostile questioning of White House press secretary Jay Carney by reporters who had trusted his claims of administration noninvolvement.
None of this convinced Rogers to make Benghazi a priority—a fact that frustrated many of the committee’s members. Boehner received a steady stream of visits and phone calls from House members who complained that Rogers wasn’t doing his job. In all, seven members of the intelligence committee took their concerns directly to the speaker or his top aides. Boehner’s presence at the secret meeting in Nunes’s office demonstrated that he shared those concerns long before he decided to impanel a select committee to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the Benghazi attacks. And what happened to the CIA officers as they attempted to share their story with congressional oversight committees suggests that those concerns were well founded.