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Benghazi was a sideshow. Republicans are looking at Clinton's role in launching Libya war.

House Select Committee on Benghazi Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) arrives for a closed door meeting in the House Visitors Center at the US Capitol June 16, 2015, in Washington, DC.
House Select Committee on Benghazi Chairman Trey Gowdy (R-SC) arrives for a closed door meeting in the House Visitors Center at the US Capitol June 16, 2015, in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The House Select Committee on Benghazi is moving quickly away from Benghazi and toward a more potent 2016 campaign issue: Hillary Clinton's judgment in pushing for war in Libya in 2011.

Republicans would like to undermine Clinton's foreign policy record, which is perceived as a strength because Clinton served as secretary of state. Their release Monday of a new batch of her emails with longtime confidant Sidney Blumenthal suggests that the wisdom of the Libya mission is increasingly an area of focus.

That's unlikely to cause Clinton any legal problems, but it could become a real battleground in the presidential campaign, as Libya has descended into chaos.

What is the controversy?

Ostensibly, there are two main issues: One is whether Clinton really turned over all of her work-related email to the State Department, as she has said she did. The second is whether Blumenthal, who worked for the Clinton Foundation and Clinton-backing outside groups, influenced her decision-making as secretary of state.

Republicans hope the latest batch of emails, obtained from a request to Blumenthal and not handed over by State, will show Clinton withheld essential documents and that Blumenthal was much more influential than she has let on.

"Questions about what influence, if any, Mr. Blumenthal had on our US policy toward Libya can only be answered by Secretary Clinton and her State Department senior staff," Rep. Trey Gowdy said in a statement accompanying the emails. "It is clear from these e-mails Secretary Clinton encouraged Mr. Blumenthal to send them in some instances calling into question her previous characterization of them as 'unsolicited.'"

But Gowdy's making a broader play that is evident in Monday's release: He'd like to extend the scope of his investigation beyond the Benghazi attack and the State Department's security decisions before it. In large part, that's because Clinton isn't responsible for the terrorist attack that killed four Americans in September 2012, which makes it poor political fodder. If Gowdy can make the investigation more about the controversial decision to bombard Libya and invest in its future, he may have a political winner.

What is the evidence?

Clinton's longtime friend Blumenthal gave Gowdy new emails that show he urged Clinton to meet with a Libyan rebel leader. And eight days later, Clinton and her aides did. The emails also include a slew of information about the status on the ground in Libya, the danger Muammar Qaddafi posed to his own people, and profiles of major players. Clinton would go on to be a powerful voice inside the administration for intervention in Libya.

In one email dated March 6, 2011, Blumenthal sent a report to Clinton about Mahmoud Jibril, a leader in the Transitional National Council, which sought an international intervention to oust Qaddafi and secure recognition as the transitional governing authority in the event of his removal.

On March 14, 2011, on the sidelines of a meeting held in Paris to determine whether the West would confront Qaddafi, Clinton met privately with Jibril. By that time, according to a State Department official who spoke to me and my co-author for our book, HRC, she was looking for evidence that would persuade President Barack Obama to join in a coalition to take out Qaddafi.

Jibril told Clinton that Qaddafi would decimate his own people if no one came to their rescue, and Clinton, without promising to take any specific action, was moved toward planning actively for the use of military force, according to the official.

"I remember her being impressed afterward that this was a group of opposition leaders who were beginning to pull themselves together," the official said. "And then she used that not only in Washington but with other coalition partners to try and generate support from them, that the [opposition leaders] were pointed in the right direction, even though they needed a lot of support."

Over the next few days, Clinton played a lead role in creating the coalition that began bombarding Qaddafi's forces on March 19, 2011. Qaddafi's government was overthrown, and he was later killed by Libyan rebels. Since then, the country has descended into factional fighting, and an arm of the Islamic State has taken root there.

What are the doubts?

It doesn't necessarily follow that Clinton met with Jibril because Blumenthal urged her to do so, and she made an independent assessment of Jibril's abilities by talking with him face to face. There's also no evidence to date that she took any action based on emails Blumenthal sent her — other than to forward or reply to them.

Clinton spokesman Nick Merrill did not respond to a request for comment on whether Blumenthal was influential in her decision-making regarding the Libya campaign.

In several of the emails contained in the 179-page cache, Clinton encourages Blumenthal to continue sending her intelligence reports from a third party who asserts knowledge of the debates going on inside Qaddafi's inner circle, of the thinking at high levels of various governments, and of the status of fighting in Libya.

But what does this have to do with Benghazi?

The emails released Monday were obtained by the committee through a request to Blumenthal, and were not included in a set of Clinton emails turned over by the State Department, Gowdy said. Clinton had kept her government email on a private server when she was secretary and only turned over some of her correspondence after she left — holding back what she deemed to be personal communications.

Gowdy wants to know whether State ever got the Blumenthal emails from Clinton or whether she withheld some of them.

"These emails should have been part of the public record when Secretary Clinton left office and at a bare minimum included when the State Department released Clinton’s self-selected records on Libya," he said. "For that reason, the committee has made the decision to release the latest set of Clinton’s public records unearthed by the committee."

The Democrats on the Benghazi committee say that the emails are taken out of context and that Gowdy should give the public the full transcript of Blumenthal's deposition last week. And, they say, he's on a partisan witch hunt.

"By the chairman's own admission, these emails have absolutely nothing to do with the attacks in Benghazi, and their selective release demonstrates the Select Committee's singular focus on attacking Hillary Clinton in her bid for president," Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the top Democrat on the panel, said in a statement.