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.
“The post had agreed that three was a sufficient number to have on the ground,” Lamb argued, adding that the goal was to train Libyans to assume greater security roles.
“You knew about all these other attacks that had taken place,” said Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.). “Local Libyans were told there was going to be an attack and left.”
Stevens also cabled his concerns about the deteriorating security situation on the day of his death.
In the six months leading up to the Sept. 11 assault, there were 13 documented threats or attacks on U.S. interests in Tripoli and Benghazi.
The State Department officials were grilled by committee Republicans on why it took so long for the administration to admit that the attack was terrorism.
“We were gathering information and coordinating with the intelligence community, dozens of other embassies, we were concerned about looking for all the information,” said Kennedy. “…We have a great partnership with the intelligence community and heavily depend on the information they provide us.”
Under questioning, both Kennedy and Lamb admitted they have never visited Libya.
“Your testimony seems to be conflicting,” said Rep. James Lankford (R-Okla.), noting that “seven days later the White House press secretary was still standing up and giving the same report.”
“I’m kind of amazed by this whole dialogue today,” he added.
Kennedy said the department was juggling “multiple reports” — including ones dealing with the administration’s first story. “There were reports we received that said there were protests and I will not go any further than that,” he said. “And things evolved. Period.”
“I don’t want to cross certain lines in open session,” Kennedy said when prodded by committee members.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who joined the hearing as the House Foreign Affairs Oversight and Investigation Subcommittee chairman, slammed the administration’s “bowing and scraping to try to prove its sincerity and friendship-seeking to the Islamic world since Day One.”
He also noted that none of the witnesses used “terrorism” in their prepared remarks.
“That’s not your fault, but there’s a mindset there that the word ‘terrorism’ doesn’t even come into your written testimony,” Rohrabacher said.
“I’m not making any judgments on my own,” Lamb maintained when asked by Burton about calling it a terrorist attack.
“Which terrorist group finds 9/11 significant?” asked Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.), also not an Oversight member but joining the hearing.
“I’m sure all do,” Lamb stumbled.
“We cannot end the risk to our people overseas,” Kennedy asserted, stressing they had no actual intelligence of an attack plan on Sept. 11. “The State Department must go into harm’s way.”
At today’s White House daily briefing, press secretary Jay Carney kicked it back over to Kennedy’s court, particularly when pressed on the undersecretary’s reported call with congressional staffers on Sept. 12 in which he called it a coordinated attack.
“Pat Kennedy, the undersecretary of State for management, is testifying in public today. So I would look to what he says before your cameras and the American people, rather than what congressional sources, whoever they may be, may be telling you,” Carney said under grilling from Fox News’ Ed Henry.
“I never said we don’t know if it’s terrorism. There was an issue about the definition of terrorism. This is by definition an act of terror, as the president made clear,” Carney added.
The White House announced Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism John Brennan met with senior Libyan officials, including Libyan National Congress President Mohamed Yousef el-Magariaf, today in Tripoli.
“Mr. Brennan, on behalf of President Obama, expressed support for Libya’s ongoing government formation and transition to democracy and accepted condolences for the tragic deaths of four Americans in Benghazi last month,” National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.
“The two sides discussed the continuing investigation into the Benghazi attacks, including specific additional steps Libya can take to better assist the U.S. in ensuring that the perpetrators are brought to justice. Both sides reaffirmed their strong commitment to countering terrorism and violent extremism.”
The White House didn’t mention the anti-Muhammad video.
Brennan’s visit was on the heels, however, of a weekend trip to the region by Oversight Republicans, including Chaffetz.
Democrats complained that they weren’t invited on the trip, though Chaffetz wryly noted that he received the same notice given to the Dems and that the other side of the aisle did send an attorney “to follow my every footstep.”
“At OGR Libya hearing. Issa/Chaffetz running roughshod on process, witholding [sic] Utah witness, traveling to Libya sans Dems. All politics,” Connolly tweeted at the beginning of the hearing.
“We could have and should have saved the life of Ambassador Stevens and the other Americans there,” Chaffetz said.
Issa, who promised to “follow all the clues to where they lead,” advised Nordstrom and Wood to come back to the committee if they receive any government harassment for their testimony. “We take the work of whistleblowers seriously,” he said.
The chairman asked Wood, who said the attack was “instantly recognizable” to him as terrorism, what the difference would be in a result of “everyone getting out and half getting out” of an attack such as the consulate assault.
“Superior weapons and superior tactics,” Wood said. “That was what the SST was.”