The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee yanked headlines back to Benghazi today by bringing a recessed Hill alive as it exercised its authority to call a full hearing during the campaign break.
At issue: Why did the Benghazi compound not have more security, even under warning of a deteriorating situation from the late ambassador? Why was a specialized security force pulled out of Benghazi in August? What was deemed a “request” for reinforcements? And why is “terrorism” still a four-letter word in the administration?
Committee Democrats, however, accused the GOP of calling the hearing to probe the security failures that led to the deaths of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens, in order to score political points during campaign season.
“I certainly hope that today’s hearing is not going to be perceived as effort to exploit a tragedy for political purposes 27 days out from the election,” quipped Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.).
Ranking Member Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), declaring “that is simply not the case” that the congressional probe was being conducted on a “bipartisan basis,” even accused Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) of violating House rules by withholding documents from Dems. “It is a shame that they are resorting to such petty abuses in what should be a serious investigation of this attack,” he said, accusing Republicans of drawing conclusions then looking for facts.
“Do you have a rule that you believe that I violated?” Issa said.
“We will provide you with that,” Cummings answered. “I want to get on with the hearing.”
Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), while suggesting that GOP budget cuts could have undermined embassy security, conceded that it “is important to hold a hearing now when memories are fresh.”
Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary for management at the State Department, and Charlene Lamb, deputy assistant secretary for international programs at the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, faced a four-hour onslaught of questions about those recollections — and the sustained claims of the administration that the Sept. 11 assault was a terrorist attack.
“I have been a foreign service officer for nearly 40 years. I have served every president from Nixon to Obama. No one is more determined to get this right than the president, the secretary and the men and women of the State Department. And nobody will us hold us more accountable than we hold ourselves,” Kennedy testified.
He noted there are two investigations of the deadly attack currently under way, one by the FBI and the other by an Accountability Review Board appointed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (who was not called to testify today). That panel, which began its work last week, is led by former UN Ambassador Thomas Pickering and includes former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen.
“Until these investigations conclude, we are dealing with an incomplete picture. And, as a result, our answers today will also be incomplete,” Kennedy said. “No one in the administration has claimed to know all the answers. We have always made clear that we are giving the best information we have at the time. And that information has evolved.”
Lamb walked through a timeline of the events that night in Benghazi, with a large aerial view of the U.S. installation propped on an easel. Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), who opened the hearing showing slides of previous attacks in Benghazi that should have put the State Department on guard, protested that the department was now showing borderline sensitive information — that lawmakers had been asked not to use — in an open forum.
Lamb testified that after acquiring the Benghazi compound in mid-2011 her department made a number of security upgrades, including reinforcing locks and the installation of an “Imminent Danger Notification System.”
She said there were five diplomatic security agents in the compound on Sept. 11, and three Libyan security officers, along with a “well-trained U.S. quick reaction security team” at the nearby embassy annex.
“The attack began at approximately 9:40 p.m. local time. Diplomatic Security agents inside the compound heard loud voices outside the walls, followed by gunfire and an explosion. Dozens of attackers then launched a full-scale assault that was unprecedented in its size and intensity,” Lamb testified. “They forced their way through the pedestrian gate, and used diesel fuel to set fire to the Libyan 17th February Brigade members’ barracks, and then proceeded towards the main building … two local Libyan security personnel were beaten, and two were shot.”
The Imminent Danger Notification System was activated and the security agents were apparently scattered with gunfire in “multiple locations on the compound.”
“One agent secured Ambassador Stevens and Sean Smith, the information management officer, in the safe haven. The other agents retrieved their M4 submachine guns and other tactical gear from Building B. When they attempted to return to the main building, they encountered armed attackers and doubled back to Building B,” Lamb said.
The building in which Stevens and the others were taking shelter was set ablaze with diesel fuel by the attackers. The agent with Stevens and Smith became separated from them in the thick smoke as attackers began breaking into compound buildings. Agents who arrived to help the one guard later found Smith deceased. “They still could not find the ambassador,” she said.
Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty were killed by a mortar attack on the embassy annex later. After the remaining Americans were evacuated to the airport, Lamb said, State Department officials were able to confirm reports that Stevens’ body was at Benghazi General Hospital.
Eric Nordstrom, the regional security officer in Tripoli from September 2011 to July 2012, testified that he believed “having an extra foot of wall, or an extra-half dozen guards or agents would not have enabled us to respond to that kind of assault.”
“I’m concerned that this attack will signal a new security reality, just as the 1984 Beirut attack did for the Marines; the 1998 East Africa bombings did for the State Department, and 9/11 for the whole country,” he said. “It is critical that we balance the risk-mitigation with the needs of our diplomats to do their job, in dangerous and uncertain places. The answer cannot be to operate from a bunker.”
Rounding out the witness table was Utah National Guard Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, who served as Site Security Team commander in Libya from this February to less than a month before the Benghazi attack, when his team was pulled out by the State Department. After Stevens’ death, Wood tried to reach out to Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) office with “intimate knowledge of the security situation prior to the attack.” When he didn’t receive a response, he reached out in a Sept. 28 email to his congressman: Chaffetz.
“Ambassador Stevens was an avid runner and played tennis as well. The SST was heavily involved in performing his personnel security detail when he ran. I ran with him on several occasions,” Wood said, pausing briefly as he appeared choked up.
“The security in Benghazi was a struggle and remained a struggle throughout my time there. The situation remained uncertain and reports from some Libyans indicated it was getting worse,” Wood testified. “Diplomatic security remained weak. In April there was only one US diplomatic security agent stationed there. The RSO struggled to obtain additional personnel there but was never able to attain the numbers he felt comfortable with.”
Still, Lamb stood by her office’s decision to not supplement Benghazi security with more personnel, even when Issa asked her about a July 9 cable from the ambassador in which more assets were requested but the State Department didn’t brand it an official request.
“Does the word ‘request’ mean ‘request’?” Issa asked.
“We discussed that there was no justification that normally comes with a request,” Lamb said, calling it a “detailed, complex cable.” Two of the five security personnel at the compound on Sept. 11 were Stevens’ traveling detail, meaning just three armed guards were stationed there.