WASHINGTON — A federal investigation into the causes of a deadly attack on a U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya began with bipartisan praise. It has since bogged down into partisan sniping.
Monday, a congressional committee released a staff report that found a State Department probe let senior officials off the hook for the September 2012 attack.
The 99-page study noted that four officials, whom it described as mid-level, were put on paid administration instead of being fired and that top State Department officials were not reprimanded for making decisions that resulted in the first assassination of a U.S. ambassador since 1988.
“It appears increasingly like that the Department’s primary objective was to create the public appearance of accountability,” the authors of the report from the Republican-controlled House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform concluded.
Also, the report criticized the administration for allowing then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, to appear on Sunday talk shows four days after the bombing claiming, erroneously, that the blast was the result of a “spontaneous not a premeditated response” from locals incensed by an anti-Islamic video that went viral.
Rep. Mike Coffman, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, criticized the Obama administration, though not by name, for lying to the public about the cause of the attack and covering up an investigation.
“This report highlights the fact that the American people were lied to and the truth remains tragically covered up at the highest levels. It’s important that we know what happens so that we can learn from our mistakes so that this never happens again,” the Aurora Republican said in statement to The Colorado Observer.
The top Democrat on the House Oversight panel defended the State Department’s punishment of the four officials and sought to undercut the authority of the committee’s report.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, a Maryland Democrat, said the employees were “stripped of all their duties involving worldwide security and the Department is permanently relieving them of their position and duties that gave rise to the [Accountability Review Board's] finding.” Cummings added that the study was a “completely partisan staff report.”
Four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens, were killed after militants affiliated with al Qaeda stormed a diplomatic mission and a CIA compound last September. “We will not waiver in our commitment to see that justice is done for this terrible act,” President Obama said at a Rose Garden ceremony on September 12.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton commissioned the Accountability Review Board, a five-member panel, to investigate the causes of the attack. The commission concluded that that “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels” allowed the attack to succeed.
Yet House Republicans have criticized the Obama administration’s response to the attack and the State Department review board’s conclusions repeatedly.
In May, the House Oversight panel featured the testimony of a State Department official present on the night of the attacks who expressed incredulity over Rice’s description of the reason for the attack and said Clinton’s top aide was present at an interview with a member of the committee.
Both the House committee’s report and the State Department study do not explain the reasons for Rice’s comments.
Also, the reports differ on the response of U.S. officials the night of the attacks.
Many congressional Republicans have said the Obama administration could have defended the Benghazi mission after the initial attack in which Stevens was killed.
Rep. Cummings, citing comments former Defense Secretary Robert Gates made in May, said U.S. officials worried that the U.S. embassy in Tripoli was the next target of militants.
The top two members of the Accountability Review Board, former U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering and former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Mullen, are scheduled to testify at the House Foreign Affairs Committee Wednesday morning.