WASHINGTON >> In the end, the biggest revelation unearthed by the House special committee investigating the Benghazi attack came 15 months ago: the disclosure that Hillary Clinton had used a private email address and server during her four years as secretary of state.
With the release Tuesday of the committee’s final report — a compendious document that offers a handful of new details but nothing that will alter the conventional narrative about the events of Sept. 11, 2012 — the emails now loom as the last chapter of the Benghazi saga that could still harm Clinton’s presidential ambitions.
The FBI has yet to conclude its investigation of Clinton’s use of a home server, a delay that is frustrating her aides because the uncertainty may extend beyond next month’s Democratic convention. While some legal experts doubt that the FBI will recommend indictments of Clinton or her aides, it remains a potential campaign-changing event.
Still, the lack of any significant new disclosures in the 800-page House report amounts to another hurdle Clinton has cleared in her long ordeal over the attack in Benghazi, Libya. Like her eight hours of testimony before the committee in October, the report served mainly to underscore how exhaustively the episode has been mined by Clinton’s foes.
Republicans are not likely to stop using Benghazi as a political cudgel. Since 2012, they have turned it into a referendum on Clinton’s judgment and honesty, saying she had neglected the security of her diplomats, misrepresented the attack’s cause and took part in a politically motivated campaign to play down its seriousness.
But after nearly four years and eight congressional investigations, Clinton emerged largely unscathed.
The committee did dig up one fresh detail about her role. Her aides had mulled a trip by her to Benghazi in October 2012. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, a State Department official testified, hoped to upgrade the outpost in Benghazi into a permanent consulate as a “deliverable” for her trip. But on Sept. 11, Stevens and three other Americans were killed when the outpost was attacked.
The committee repeated allegations in previous reports that Clinton should have been aware of the escalating security risks to her diplomats, and that the State Department failed to protect them. And it accused Clinton’s former chief of staff, Cheryl D. Mills, of seeking to influence the department’s purportedly independent investigation of the attack.
But much of the report scrutinized issues outside Clinton’s immediate purview, like the readiness of the Pentagon to respond to the attack on the diplomatic installation and the reliability of the intelligence about the level of threat facing the diplomats in Benghazi.
Clinton seized on the report as an opportunity to draw a line under the episode.
“I’ll leave it to others to characterize this report,” she told a reporter in Denver, after asserting that the committee had not broken any ground, despite more than two years of work and $7 million in expenses, “but I think it’s pretty clear that it’s time to move on.”
From the beginning, the committee’s Republican chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, had promised that his investigation would be more than simply a taxpayer-funded fishing expedition to damage Clinton, and he held to that position Tuesday.
“We mention Secretary Clinton’s name less times than the Democrats do,” he told MSNBC, referring to a competing report issued Monday by the committee’s Democratic minority.
Gowdy drew attention to the findings about the military’s role. Members of a rapid-response team ordered to Libya sat on a runway at an air base in Rota, Spain, for three hours and changed in and out of their uniforms four times. Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., then serving as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, skipped a White House meeting on Benghazi to play host to a dinner party for foreign dignitaries.
The report underscored failures in intelligence gathering, which made the Americans uncertain of whom their allies were in Libya. For example, the militia members who helped evacuate the Americans from the embattled diplomatic compound to a nearby CIA annex were loyal to Moammar Gadhafi, not the rebel groups that the United States had cultivated during the 2011 uprising against Gadhafi.
Neither of these failures directly implicated Clinton — and her campaign was quick to condemn the whole exercise as a political witch hunt. Hours after the report was released, the campaign posted a video with Gowdy conceding that Congress was not very good at running nonpartisan investigations, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, conceding that this effort was meant to hurt Clinton’s poll numbers.
“A political charade at your expense,” it concluded.
Republicans, however, kept up their attacks, despite the committee’s findings. Michael Cohen, an adviser to the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, posted an image on Twitter of Clinton with a headline that accused her of murdering an ambassador.
Trump has harshly criticized Clinton for her role in persuading President Barack Obama to intervene militarily in Libya, though at the time, he expressed support for the NATO intervention.
“If you want to know about Hillary Clinton’s honesty and judgment, ask the family of Ambassador Stevens,” Trump recently wrote on Twitter.
In an interview last year, Gowdy said he wanted to probe “all policies, decisions and activities” that led to the attacks. The committee devoted 135 pages to that effort. But it largely confirmed what many experts have said about the intervention — that the lack of a U.S. military presence in Libya after the fall of Gadhafi hampered the ability of the United States to avert a security vacuum in the country.
The committee said it was unable to confirm reports that in the summer of 2011, the president authorized the secret transfer of weapons to Libyan rebels — a step that Clinton supported. That was one of many questions about the U.S.-led intervention in Libya that Gowdy’s committee was unable to answer.
A much-shorter report issued last month by the State Department’s inspector general was arguably a bigger blow to Clinton’s credibility than this one. It confirmed that her email arrangement violated State Department rules, showed the lengths to which her aides went to avoid setting up a proper account for her and disclosed that her home server was hastily shut down at least once because of fears it had been hacked.
For Clinton, the long-term implications of her email practices are not yet clear.