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Will politics doom the Benghazi committee's investigation?

The Republicans in the House who spearheaded the formation of a special Select Committee on Benghazi have insisted that their investigations into the Sept. 11, 2012 attack won't be politically motivated. Democrats joined the committee with the aim of keeping politics out of the effort. Still, ahead of the committee's first public hearing, neither Democrats nor Republicans have seemed capable of defusing one of the most politically-charged issues in Washington.

In a show of bipartisanship, Wednesday's hearing is slated to take a more forward-looking approach. Rather than focusing on who's to blame for the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that left four Americans dead, the committee will examine the implementation of recommendations for improved diplomatic security that were offered up by the Accountability Review Board (ARB), the independent body that investigated the attack.

Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina, the chairman of the committee, "is leading a fair, fact-based and impartial investigation," Benghazi committee spokesman Jamal Ware said in a statement.


"Chairman Gowdy sincerely hopes that all sides will not prejudge the outcome of the investigation--before even the Committee's first hearing, which is on a topic suggested by the Democrats--and instead allow a constructive and thorough investigatory process that produces a final report on Benghazi that is beyond any doubt," Ware said.

When asked Tuesday whether he is concerned the committee is inherently political, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, the committee's top Democrat, declined to answer directly.

"Mr. Gowdy has told me politics will not be involved in this, but of course we have our concerns," he said. He cited a few issues that concern Democrats, such as the rules concerning the committee's transparency. Still, Cummings said, "We want to make sure we zero in on several things -- the things we'll be talking about tomorrow, that is making sure our men and women in diplomatic posts around the world are safe."

Already, though, the focus has turned away from the ARB's recommendations.

Anticipating a politicized hearing, the House Democrats on the committee on Tuesday rolled out a web page called "Benghazi on the Record" that aims to convince people that virtually every question about the Benghazi attack has been answered. It includes an "asked and answered" database with questions that have already been addressed, as well as a 133-page collection of public documents that answer the questions in greater detail.

"Many Americans do not realize how much work has already been done investigating the Benghazi attacks," Cummings said, noting that the ARB and seven different congressional committees have already issued nine different Benghazi reports.

Ware said that Gowdy is "willing to risk answering the same question twice rather than risk it not be answered at all."

Ware pointed out that Congress has yet to receive every document it has requested related to the attack, "it is fair to say that not all questions have been asked and answered."

Lawmakers may have a whole new line of questioning from a report published this week by investigative reporter Sharyl Attkisson on the Daily Signal, a blog funded by the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation.

Attkisson interviewed former Deputy Assistant Secretary Raymond Maxwell, who was one of four State Department officials disciplined in the wake of the Benghazi attack. Maxwell returned to the State Department after being placed on administrative leave, though he retired last year.

Maxwell told Attkisson that a group of Clinton allies in the State Department sifted through Benghazi-related documents before handing them over to the ARB. He suggested they were attempting to sift out any documents that could have been damaging to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"The ARB inquiry was, at best, a shoddily executed attempt at damage control, both in Foggy Bottom and on Capitol Hill," Maxwell said.

Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman for the State Department, defended the ARB on Tuesday, insisting it had "full and unfettered access and direct access to State Department employees and documents."

The ARB co-chairs, former Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Adm. Mike Mullen, had "complete authority to reach out independently and directly to people," Harf continued. "Employees had complete authority to reach out directly to the ARB. And they've said themselves they had unfettered access."

She added, "I have no idea what prompted this somewhat interesting accounting of what someone thinks they may have seen or is now saying they saw. But the ARB has been clear. The ARB's co-chairs have been clear that they had unfettered access."

Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a member of the House Oversight Committee, suggested on Fox News on Monday that Maxwell told him the same story a year ago, when congressional investigators interviewed the former State Department employee.

However, the Benghazi report that the House Oversight Committee produced last year doesn't mention anything about Maxwell's allegations. Cummings, the top Democrat on the Oversight Committee, said Tuesday, "Mr. Maxwell did not bring that to our attention when we interviewed him extensively."

Should Wednesday's hearing become too heated, a pair of Democrat-aligned firms are readying the website BenghaziCommittee.com, described as a rapid response project to fact-check and respond to the Select Committee on Benghazi hearings.

If lawmakers are interested in keeping Wednesday's discussion nonpartisan, there's still plenty to discuss. Michael O'Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told CBS News that Congress could avoid the typical "Benghazi foodfights" by focusing on the overall dilemma of the United States' policy in Libya.

"The president himself recently acknowledged that he's been very disappointed in where the country has gone over three years," O'Hanlon said. "So there's no partisanship in observing that the broad policy has failed, and that we need improvements in everything from embassy security to rapid response forces to how we try to help the Libyans build a new state."

Libya this year has been plagued by some of the worst violence it's seen since dictator Muammar Qaddafi was ousted in 2011. American personnel evacuated the country in July, and a group allied with Islamist militias recently stood guard over the deserted U.S. embassy in Tripoli.

The committee on Wednesday will hear from Greg Starr, assistant secretary for diplomatic security for the State Department; Mark Sullivan, chairman of the Independent Panel on Best Practices and former U.S. Secret Service director; and Todd Keil a member of the Independent Panel on Best Practices and a former Department of Homeland Security assistant secretary.