WASHINGTON — Republicans succeeded this week in raising fresh questions about the Obama administration’s investigations into the causes of the deadly terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya and failure to apprehend the attackers a year later.
At a congressional hearing in May, House Republicans exposed as a falsehood the administration’s initial explanation for the attack last September.
“[I]t was a spontaneous and not a premeditated demonstration” of aggrieved residents enraged by an anti-Islamic video that had gone viral, as then-U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice said on a Sunday talk show days after the attack.
The deputy chief of mission in Libya, Gregory Hicks, testified that whatever effect the video had in Cairo, Egypt, a city where protesters demonstrated outside the U.S. embassy on Sept. 11, it was a “non-event” in Benghazi.
Rep. Mike Coffman described the administration’s explanation and subsequent conduct in blunter terms. “I think the cover came from the highest levels,” the Aurora Republican said in an interview Wednesday.
House Democrats dismissed the words and said they took offense to them.
“They mention whitewash, coverup, and attempts to insulate Hillary Rodham Clinton. These kinds of statements are upsetting because they’re so unfair and we’re better than that,” Rep. Eljiah Cummings, (D-Md.) the ranking member on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee said Thursday.
Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Fla.) took Cummings’ criticism a step further. Benghazi, he said, was “the scandal that never was.”
In two separate hearings the previous two days, House Republicans cast fresh doubts about the Obama administration’s handling of the attack after Rice made the statements: Why have no suspects been arrested and why were potential key witnesses and military personnel not interviewed?
“The system failed those inside the compound in Benghazi,” Rep. Darrell Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said Thursday.
Ambassador Christopher J. Stevens and three U.S. personnel died in the attack of September 11 and 12. They had arrived at the diplomatic mission to expand the presence of the United States in Benghazi, a rebel-held area that remained hostile more than a year after the U.S. and allies liberated the country from longtime dictator Moammar Gaddhafi.
Then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, fulfilling her legal duty, appointed an Accountability Review Board that examined the reasons for the lethal attack. The blue-chip panel released its findings in a 39-page public report in December. The authors concluded that security at the diplomatic outpost was “grossly inadequate for the attack” and recommended a change to federal law that would lower the bar for employees found negligent to be fired.
At a hearing of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Wednesday, Republicans were unable to portray the authors of the report as ideological partisans.
Chairman Ed Royce opened the hearing with a rhetorical question about the Accountability Review Board, “Was it really independent? The Secretary picked four of the five members.”
Patrick Kennedy, the undersecretary for management at the State Department, noted that the chairman and vice chairman of the review board, former Admiral Mike Mullen and former Ambassador Thomas Pickering, had served under both Democratic and Republican administrations.
At the House Oversight hearing, Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jason Chaffetz of Utah interrupted Mullen repeatedly. The two Republicans’ conduct drew a rebuke from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.)
“These members are treating you shabbily and badgering you,” Speier told Mullen.
Numerous Republicans at both hearings complained that no State Department employees have been fired after the attack, which resulted in the first death of a U.S. ambassador in the line of duty in three decades.
“Reassignment does not equal accountability,” Rep. Trey Radel (R-Fla.) said Wednesday, referring to the four U.S. personnel who were placed on paid administrative leave in December and removed from the list in August.
Yet Pickering and Mullen said the standards for terminating an employee in the federal government differ from those in the private sector. Mullen noted that none of the four employees had been found guilty of willful dereliction of duty, although two were found guilty of neglecting previous threats to the diplomatic outpost.
Mullen defended the Obama administration’s military response to the attack with categorical statements.
“There was nothing the military could have done to stop the attacks, or the subsequent attacks,” Mullen said. “We are not big enough in the military to be everywhere around the world when an embassy is under attack. We have to figure out the risk and without falling down on the job, we have to assess the risk.”
But Chaffetz succeeded in sowing doubt about the thoroughness of the review board’s report. Under questioning, Mullen admitted he has not read an after action report from the evening of the attack. He also said the board did not speak with Lt. Col S.E. Gibson, a commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, or any of its members.
Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission in Libya, testified in May that if the Special Operations Command from Africa had deployed it could have lobbed grenades that might have prevented the killing of two Navy SEAL’s in the early morning of September 12.
In addition, Republicans cast fresh doubts about the Obama administration’s effort to bring those who perpetrated the attack to justice.
Kennedy, the U.S. State Department Undersecretary, said there has been a “total effort” to catch the assailants.
But Rep. Ted Poe (R-Texas) noted that a CNN reporter talked with a man affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia, an al-Qaeda affiliated organization, who claimed some responsibility for the attack in Libya in August.
Republicans are not done investigating the Benghazi issue. Issa promised more hearings if necessary, and media outlets have reported that two more hearings are upcoming this year.