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Benghazi panel chairman says staffer fired for classified breach

WASHINGTON — Representative Trey Gowdy, the chairman of the House committee on Benghazi, struck back Sunday at a fired staffer who is accusing the panel of engaging in a partisan inquiry to tarnish Hillary Clinton.

Gowdy, Republican of South Carolina, said the claims by Bradley Podliska, a major in the Air Force Reserve, appear newly manufactured. He said it was Podliska himself who appeared obsessed with the role of the presidential candidate in the attacks on the US diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya.

Gowdy, in his first public statement on the controversy, said Podliska never mentioned any concern about Clinton or politics while fighting his dismissal from the committee staff this fall.

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In his formal complaints, the investigator had asserted only that the committee discriminated against him because he periodically had to leave his job for reserve duty, Gowdy said.

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Gowdy said Podliska was fired for mishandling classified information and showing bias in his investigatory work, among other reasons.

‘‘Until his Friday conversations with media, this staffer has never mentioned Secretary Clinton as a cause of his termination, and he did not cite Clinton’s name in a legally mandated mediation,’’ Gowdy said. ‘‘The record makes it clear he himself was focused on Clinton improperly and was instructed to stop, and that issues with his conduct were noted on the record as far back as April.’’

Podliska, an intelligence officer in the Air Force Reserve who describes himself as a conservative Republican, said Saturday that the committee trained its sights almost exclusively on Clinton and the State Department after the revelation last March that she used a private e-mail server during her tenure as secretary of state.

‘‘My nonpartisan investigative work conflicted with the interests of the Republican leadership, who focused their investigation primarily on Secretary Clinton and her aides,’’ Podliska said.

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In a CNN interview Sunday, he said Gowdy’s committee, which has spent $4.6 million on its investigation, pulled resources away from other inquiries and has pursued a ‘‘partisan investigation’’ focused almost solely on Clinton and the State Department under her four-year tenure.

According to interviews and documents reviewed by the Post, Podliska asked committee interns in June to help put together a PowerPoint presentation focused on the whereabouts and statements of Clinton and National Security Council members after the Benghazi attacks.

The assault on the US diplomatic mission and CIA annex in Benghazi on Sept. 11, 2012, killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.

‘‘What the record makes clear is he himself was focused on Clinton and was instructed to stop, and that issues with his conduct and performance were noted on the record as far back as April,’’ Gowdy said. ‘‘This individual was hired as a former intelligence staffer to focus on intelligence, not the politics of White House talking points.’’

The lawmaker said he finds the timing of the claims of committee politicization disturbing, coming just a week after controversial statements by Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who said the panel had been successful because Clinton’s poll numbers were dropping.

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‘‘On Sept. 11, in his mediation filing, this staffer specifically claimed his reserve status as a basis for his termination,’’ Gowdy said. ‘‘I would note first this staffer’s reserve duty was approved both times it was requested.’’ Firing because of military deployment is illegal.

‘Until his Friday conversations with media, this staffer has never mentioned Secretary Clinton as a cause of his termination.’

Trey Gowdy, chairman of House committee on Benghazi 

The new developments come at a difficult time for committee Republicans, who plan to question Clinton on Oct. 22 despite growing requests to shut down the inquiry and assertions that it is a political witch hunt.

The ranking Democrat on the Benghazi panel, Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, said Podliska’s allegations provide more proof of serious bias by the committee’s majority.

Gowdy rejected that characterization. ‘‘This committee always has been, and will be, focused on the four brave Americans we lost in Benghazi and providing the final, definitive accounting of the Benghazi terrorist attacks for the American people,’’ he said Sunday.

Podliska told The New York Times and CNN that he plans to file a complaint over his dismissal in federal court. He said the committee’s partisan investigation deemphasized other agencies involved in the attacks and their aftermath, according to a draft of his legal complaint.

Clinton and supporters of her Democratic campaign for president, have accused House Republicans of trying to use the Benghazi committee to hobble her campaign.

Podliska said the reasons given for his termination were: using work e-mail to send a social invitation to colleagues, assigning an ‘‘unauthorized project’’ to an intern, allegedly putting classified information on an unclassified system, and taking military leave.