Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is setting his sights on his biggest political target yet: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, is treading more carefully than he did with his investigation of Attorney General Eric Holder and the Fast and Furious gun-tracking program, which led to a House vote placing Holder in contempt.
Issa has not called on Clinton to testify at a hearing Wednesday morning meant to investigate security lapses at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
“After dealing with the Department of Justice’s stonewalling in Operation Fast and Furious, the State Department and Secretary Clinton have been a breath of fresh air,” said Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa, in an interview with The Hill. “They pledged their cooperation when we made our first two witness requests.”
But there are signs that a prolonged investigation by the pugnacious Issa and his panel, which enjoys subpoena power over the administration, will bring the two Washington heavyweights into conflict.
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While Issa has not directly criticized Clinton, one of his lieutenants — Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) — did on Tuesday, arguing the White House and Clinton had been more concerned with normalizing relations with Libya’s new government than with security.
“It seems to be a coordinated effort between the White House and the State Department, from Secretary Clinton to President Obama’s White House,” Chaffetz said on the Fox News Channel morning show.
He said State had been too concerned that “putting up barbed wire on our facility would lead to the wrong impression.”
Issa has called four witnesses for the hearing.
Two of them have alleged that the State Department refused requests for more security in Libya, prompting Issa’s probe.
Eric Nordstrom, a regional security officer who left Tripoli about two months before the attack, told the committee that Deputy Assistant Secretary for International Programs Charlene Lamb wanted to keep the number of U.S. security personnel in Benghazi “artificially low,” according to the Democratic memo.
And Lt. Col. Andy Wood, the head of a 16-member special operations team that left Libya in August, said Stevens wanted his team to stay in the country.
The State Department is sending Lamb and Patrick Kennedy, the undersecretary for management, to give its version of events.
Wednesday’s hearing should be well-attended, even with Congress not in session.
Seven Republicans and four Democrats confirmed to The Hill that they planned on going, and another six lawmakers said they had prior engagements. No one said he or she would avoid it because it would be too partisan.
The Republicans who confirmed their attendance are Reps. James Lankford (Okla.), Ann Marie Buerkle (N.Y.), Paul Gosar (Ariz.), Pat Meehan (Pa.), Scott DesJarlais (Tenn.), Trey Gowdy (S.C.) and Jim Jordan (Ohio). Democrats include Reps. Chris Murphy (Conn.), Danny Davis (Ill.) and Jim Cooper (Tenn.) and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D.C.).
A fight between Issa and Clinton would have implications not only in the 2012 election, but possibly 2016 as well, given speculation — rejected by Clinton — that she might run again for the White House.
The real target for all of Issa’s investigations is Obama, whom Clinton is under pressure to protect even as she looks to cement her own reputation as a successful secretary of State.
And Issa, in going after State, is setting himself up for a battle with one of the country’s most popular and influential political figures.
Clinton is also a Washington player with a cadre of loyal lieutenants dedicated to protecting her image — not to mention her husband, President Bill Clinton.
Clinton and Issa have tangled in the past.
In 1998, Clinton, whose brother was married to Sen. Barbara Boxer’s daughter, campaigned with the California Democrat against Issa, who ended up losing the Senate election to a primary challenger despite pouring millions of dollars into the race.
Issa and Clinton came up against each other again in 2003, when California’s Democratic governor, Gray Davis, was in the midst of being recalled.
Problems for Clinton could arise down the road as the committee looks into whether it was misled by the administration — a central theme to Issa’s investigation of Holder.
After the Benghazi attack, the administration initially held that it wasn’t premeditated, but rather caused by a protest that got out of control. Officials now acknowledge the attack was terrorism.
Similarly, the Justice Department initially denied letting guns fall into the hands of criminals when Congress began asking questions about Operation Fast and Furious.
The department later rescinded that stance, but the damage was done and Issa fervently went after senior DOJ officials, and eventually Holder, for misleading Congress.
For the time being, Issa’s office holds that Clinton’s response has been noticeably different from the DOJ’s and says it is optimistic about the course of the probe.
“In great contrast, the State Department, to this point, does not seem to have drawn any hard lines in terms of either casting blame or defending what happened,” said Hill. “They have indicated publicly that they share the committee’s desire to learn what happened here.”
A State Department official on Tuesday offered a closed-door briefing requested by the chairmen of eight panels with jurisdiction over foreign affairs, which Issa sat in on, after being given permission by Clinton to do so.
— Karissa Straughen and Grace Mahan contributed to this story.