Cummings Op-ed: Fool Me Once
Congressional investigations into the attacks in Benghazi have been plagued by a series of inaccurate, partisan leaks designed to attack former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Many of these attacks rely on anonymous sources to describe -- and often mischaracterize -- documents reporters have not seen.
Last week, the New York Times fell victim to this ploy, reporting that "[t]wo inspectors general have asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into whether Hillary Rodham Clinton mishandled sensitive government information."
I believe the Times' errors, like many before them, could have been avoided. I learned the truth on Thursday -- before the Times' story ran. Here is how events unfolded behind the scenes.
On Thursday morning at 10:27 am, my staff received a copy of a letter sent from Select Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy to FBI Director James Comey. To the best of my knowledge, that letter has never been made public.
Chairman Gowdy's letter warned the FBI Director that the Chairman was aware of a "formal referral" that was made to the FBI "by impartial officials within the Executive Branch" related to "classified information."
I had no idea then -- and still have no idea today -- how Chairman Gowdy knew about this referral before everyone else, and his office has refused to respond to my staff's inquiry.
At 12:03 p.m., the office of the State Department Inspector General (IG) sent an email to staff on several committees with a copy of a memorandum describing its joint work with the Intelligence Community IG reviewing the FOIA process for Secretary Clinton's emails. This memo did not mention any sort of referral to the Department of Justice.
At 2:30 p.m., my staff and I had a previously scheduled meeting with the State Department IG, so we asked him about Chairman Gowdy's letter and whether he was aware of any referral.
He told me he never asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton's email usage. Instead, he said officials from the Intelligence Community IG -- not the State Department IG -- notified the FBI and Congress that they had identified information they believed was classified in several mails that were part of the FOIA review.
Importantly, the State Department IG made clear that none of those emails had been marked as classified when Secretary Clinton received them.
At 5:44 p.m. that evening, the Intelligence Community IG's office sent a notification to the Intelligence Committees describing -- for the first time -- its referral to the FBI. This notification detailed a counter-intelligence referral, not a request for a criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton.
When I woke up on Friday morning and read the news, I was stunned. I immediately issued a public statement and released the congressional notification from the Intelligence Community IG.
I then got on the phone with both IGs from the State Department and the Intelligence Community. They confirmed that they never asked the Justice Department to launch a criminal investigation of Secretary Clinton's email usage. Instead, they said this was a "routine" referral, and they said they had no idea why the Times story was so flawed. I then issued a second public statement, recounting my phone call with the IGs.
The Times' Executive Editor has suggested that its reporters could not have done anything differently because they relied on anonymous senior government officials, which the paper's Public Editor later explained included tips from "Capitol Hill."
I disagree. The Times could have insisted on seeing the documents they were describing. Or, if the Times spoke with Republicans in Congress, even off the record, they could have checked their facts with me or other Committee Democrats.
Unfortunately, this rush to print anonymous, unverified claims against Secretary Clinton is not unique.
Just last month, Politico was forced to correct a front-page story that relied on an anonymous source who apparently provided doctored information about an email that was produced to the Select Committee, rather than seeing the documents or contacting my office. Chairman Gowdy refused to investigate or condemn this leak.
Similarly, in May 2013, an anonymous source provided a description of an email from NSC staffer Ben Rhodes that misrepresented statements he made about the Benghazi talking points. CNN ultimately reviewed the email and reported that the information had been "seemingly invented" by the source.
Reporters have an obligation to ask why these sources demand to remain anonymous while refusing to provide copies of the documents they are peddling. No scoop should be too good to verify.
But the core problem is that these anonymous sources have an agenda, which is to manufacture facts to attack Secretary Clinton.
Rep. Elijah Cummings represents Maryland's 7th congressional district and is the top ranking Democrat on the House Select Committee on Benghazi and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.