Democrats have insisted that the House Select Committee on Benghazi has done nothing but rehash already-known elements of the attack on the consulate in September 2012, and intended to do nothing more than embarrass Hillary Clinton.  The latest move by the Obama administration to block access to some State Department documentation undermines both claims. Byron York reports at the Washington Examiner that the State Department has withheld an undisclosed number of documents to protect “important executive branch institutional interests” — code for executive privilege:

The State Department has informed the House Select Committee on Benghazi that it is withholding “a small number” of documents from investigators on the basis of “important executive branch institutional interests.” The statement, made in a letter from Assistant Secretary of State Julia Frifield to committee chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, amounts to a de facto claim of executive privilege.

Frifield made the claim in a letter turning over 3,600 pages of Benghazi-related documents from three current and former administration officials: Susan Rice, Jake Sullivan, and Cheryl Mills. Rice, a former United Nations ambassador, is now national security adviser, while Sullivan and Mills are close aides to Hillary Clinton who worked at the Department when she was secretary of state. …

State has insisted on certain restrictions before turning over its documents, including those from Rice, Sullivan, and Mills. “Under the terms of this agreement, the documents are being provided without the majority of Department redactions that would normally be applied to protect national security, law enforcement, and diplomatic efforts of the United States, as well as the safety and privacy of the individuals named herein,” Frifield wrote to Gowdy. “In return, the Benghazi Committee has agreed that, in the event that it considers it integral to the satisfaction of the Benghazi Committee’s mandate to release any of these documents publicly, it will first give the State Department a reasonable opportunity of at least five days to review the documents proposed to be released and to discuss with the Benghazi Committee any sensitive information the Department believes should be redacted prior to the public release. The Benghazi Committee has agreed to consider such requests in good faith prior to making any such release.”

The letter itself notes that State has not disclosed documents related to Libya policy. The scope of the select committee’s look at the entirety of the Obama administration’s handling of Libya in the post-Arab Spring period, Frifield admits, has forced it to produce new documentation. And they don’t want to comply:

frifield-letter

This is what’s known as trying to eat your cake and have it too. Democrats, let by ranking member Elijah Cummings, have repeatedly claimed that the select committee is unnecessary and redundant on the point of the attack itself. Chair Trey Gowdy has repeatedly stated that the scope of the committee goes far beyond the attack, to review of the policies that led the consulate to be vulnerable and State and the military unprepared to deal with the consequences. This response tries an even narrower argument than Cummings uses by claiming the ARB provided a definitive answer to the attack, which is (a) absurd and (b) beside the point. Congress has the right and the duty to oversee all government-agency functions and performance, and not just in the case of an attack.

The invocation of executive privilege raises the stakes. Executive privilege only covers the President, and his immediate advisers while they are being consulted by the President in an area of executive authority. Susan Rice, Obama’s national-security adviser, would be covered by executive privilege only when in consultation with the President, but not when she’s consulting with Hillary Clinton or officials at other agencies over which Congress exercises oversight. Otherwise, the use of the privilege would get so abused as to render any sort of checks and balances on the executive moot.

A resort to executive privilege in this case either suggests that Barack Obama himself got involved in dealing with these issues as they arose and that documentation would expose the debate over policy and responses … or that the White House simply thinks it can use executive privilege at any time to block access to records to which Congress is entitled. The use of executive privilege to protect Eric Holder in the Operation Fast and Furious probe provides evidence of the latter. This looks like a blanket attempt to stifle the Select Committee in the same way that Holder managed to stall out the probe into ATF/Department of Justice actions in the gun-running scandal. At the very least, though, that allows Gowdy to keep the probe running and make the point that it’s the White House stretching it out with their refusal to cooperate and share material that even administration officials admit they’ve never provided to Congress.