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Dems: Benghazi panel Republicans meeting witnesses in secret

Democrats on the House Select Committee on Benghazi are accusing Republicans of conducting crucial interviews in secret and withholding information.

The tensions between the two parties erupted into the open on Monday after a letter from the panel's top Democrat, Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), criticizing Chairman Trey GowdyTrey GowdyOversight panel demands answers on Pentagon waste report Chatter grows that Ryan could step down Lawmakers press Lynch for briefing on Yahoo secret email scanning reports MORE's (R-S.C.) handling of the investigation went public.

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Cummings said Republicans were holding meetings with witnesses, including former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Maghreb Affairs Raymond Maxwell, who claims he was instructed to edit documents relating to the 2012 attacks. Cummings said Democrats were being excluded from these Republican-only meetings. Democrats say they have never asked Gowdy to require witnesses to meet with them, just that when witnesses are willing to sit down with both sides, they be included.

“You have had different standards for Republicans and Democrats participating in the investigation, secret meetings with witnesses, and — perhaps most importantly — withheld or downplayed information when it undermines the allegations we are investigating,” Cummings wrote in a four-page letter sent to Gowdy on Friday.

He lit into Gowdy for failing to put together rules for the committee that would allow greater participation by Democrats. Democrats are already upset Republicans reauthorized the committee earlier this month as part of the must-pass rules package for the 114th Congress, instead of through a separate measure.

Gowdy responded with a letter of his own on Monday, dismissing those charges and saying that the panel's members had given him the power to unilaterally subpoena witnesses. However, he said he would give Democrats a week’s notice before issuing such subpoenas.

"Chairman Gowdy will talk to Benghazi sources with or without the Democrats present just as they are welcome to talk to sources with or without Republicans present," said committee Communications Director Jamal D. Ware in a statement Monday. "[N]o congressional select committee has ever had a requirement that sources meet with both sides at the same time, and the Benghazi Committee is no exception.

"Further, that the Democrats have released correspondence that attempts to politically characterize sources' private discussions with the committee without proper context goes to the exact heart of why the Chairman will not require sources to talk to both sides,' " he added.

Gowdy, a former federal prosecutor, stressed that the panel’s work should be neutral and bipartisan during the first two public hearings last year.

The finger-pointing comes as the 12-member committee is slated to hold its third hearing on Tuesday morning.

Democrats have chided the GOP’s Benghazi panel as “political stunt” aimed at ginning up negative publicity for Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonJewish groups divided over Hanukkah party at Trump hotel Colo. AG: Electoral College lawsuit could cause 'chaos' Spokesman: NY Times ignored Reid's comments in pre-election story on Russia MORE, the presumed front-runner for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2016.

She was secretary of State at the time of the deadly assault in Libya that left four dead, including the ambassador.

Republicans have repeatedly attacked Clinton’s handling of the episode, with several suggesting it should prohibit her from the presidency.

In a letter dated Nov. 24, Cummings warned Gowdy that the committee’s work had "taken a sharp turn for the worse and is becoming what you strenuously insisted it would not — another partisan investigation of the Benghazi attacks that blocks Democrats from meaningful participation."

The rift between Gowdy and Cummings also appeared after the committee’s second hearing when the GOP chairman said Clinton should appear before the panel.

— This story was updated at 10:50 p.m.