Anger over the Benghazi attack is mounting in Congress as Republicans watch the story shift from the errant administration blaming of an anti-Muhammed video to a White House accused of lying to lawmakers.
Mistakes may have been made in consulate security, ineptitude may have led to poor communications in the hours after the attack, Republicans say, but telling lawmakers something other than the truth when the facts were known will not easily be forgiven as we move through the campaign season and toward the lame-duck return to Capitol Hill.
With a keen focus on the economy and time-sensitive budget-related issues awaiting lawmakers in Washington, though, is there the political will to dig as deep as necessary in this roiling scandal?
“This is a very serious cover-up and the president, I’m sure, wants this to go away, the administration — but it’s not going to go away,” Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told PJM today.
Members of the Intelligence Committee were briefed on the attack late afternoon on the Thursday after the Tuesday, Sept. 11, murders. “That essentially was about the video. Friday, another one about the video. Obviously, it wasn’t believable then and it wasn’t true,” Nunes said.
“Every day they cover this up it gets worse,” he said, adding that new information just conflicts with those initial briefings.
“It’s a fact that within 12 hours the Intelligence Committee knew this was an attack,” the congressman continued. “It’s a fact that administration went on and on that this was a video, which is a lie.”
“The only reason they covered this up is because of politics. Either that, or almost complete incompetence. My guess is that it was probably politics.”
Still, Nunes said, “nobody reasonable holds the president responsible for those four deaths” — Ambassador Chris Stevens, IT expert Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty — as the fault ultimately rests with the terrorists who killed them.
“What I fault him for is lying to Congress and lying to the American people,” he said.
“The best thing for the American people, Congress, government, is for everyone to come clean,” at the very least to the intelligence panels, Nunes stressed. “The last thing we want to do is go through some long investigation because people are lying, and that’s where we’re headed — and that’s really unfortunate.”
In the upper chamber, though, a Senate GOP aide told PJM that the outcome of legislators’ efforts is predictable — and dependent upon who wins the White House.
“If Obama wins, it’s over,” the aide said. “The House will hold hearings to ensure that as many aspersions as possible are cast on the character of the administration. But nothing will come of it.”
“If Romney wins, the House hearings will end in a report and Romney will say ‘never again.'”
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held a hearing during the campaign recess on Oct. 10. A House Judiciary Committee aide told PJM that a briefing on Benghazi has been requested of the administration, but a date for that has yet to be confirmed.
Hearings are also expected from the House Armed Services, Intelligence and Foreign Affairs committees.
The Senate Intelligence Committee announced yesterday it would hold a closed-door oversight hearing Nov. 15 on the circumstances surrounding Benghazi and intelligence in the region. Vice-Chairman Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) had lobbied Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) for open hearings.
Though the committee said “additional hearings” would follow the scheduled November one, it didn’t say whether those would be open. “To facilitate this review, the committee has already received initial briefings and is examining relevant information and documents,” said a statement.
And though Feinstein may emerge as especially critical of the administration, as was seen in the security leaks scandal, the classified nature of the hearing would work to her party’s advantage.
“I think she has been designated as the hearings point person for the Dems, because nothing that is said in her hearings can be released publicly anyway,” the Senate GOP aide said. “Clever.”
While senators welcomed the hearings, others questioned the delay.
“I’m glad the Senate Intelligence Committee will finally get a chance to investigate this matter, but the truth is this hearing should have been held weeks ago,” said committee member Marco Rubio (R-Fla.). “By the time it takes place, two full months will have passed since the September 11th terrorist attack on our consulate in Libya. That’s way too long for the Senate to ask the important questions that have been building up.”
“Four Americans were killed—including our ambassador to Libya—but their lives might have been saved had we intervened. I ask again: Where were the Marines to protect American personnel in Libya?” said Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who sits on the Homeland Security committee. “Instead of sending Marines to defend Americans in danger, the State Department was focused on ‘greening’ our Vienna Embassy and installing charging stations for its new electric cars. Someone must be held accountable for this inaction.”
Nunes said he expects a number of Democrats to steer clear of supporting the White House in the scandal, even before the election.
“Forget about what the actual issue is — no politician wants to be around other politicians who are lying and taking the heat from this,” he said — especially the House and Senate committee chairmen and ranking members. “They do not want to be anywhere near a cover-up.”
Plus, Nunes added, “The last thing any of us want to do is throw away the good [Intelligence Committee] bipartisanship we’ve built up over last two years.”
A member of the Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees said “it would be a dereliction of duty if we didn’t ask questions.”
Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), who prophetically yelled “You lie!” during President Obama’s September 2009 address to a joint session of Congress, also told PJM this afternoon he believes the administration is guilty of an “intentional misstatement of the truth.”
Wilson called the “revelation of misrepresentation” in the Benghazi mess a “distorted effort by the administration to distract the American people from the failure of administration policy to address jihadists.”
“From the beginning this has just been a spectacle of obfuscation and distortion,” he said. “I sadly believe it’s an intentional cover-up. I just can’t fathom a level of incompetence to this degree.”
“Every day I find out something more horrific than the moment before. …This is just shocking.”
While the “absurd blaming of this on an obscure video” was happening, the congressman said, “I knew within 15 seconds that it was a celebration of 9/11 by jihadists.”
Wilson noted he has four sons serving in the military and counts on the president “to make every effort for their security.”
“I’ve always felt like national security was the prime function of the national government,” he said, but is “painfully aware” that the issue is polling at minimal levels with voters even in his district who are “rightfully” concerned about jobs first and foremost.
Nunes said he believes more and more people are paying attention to Benghazi because of the growing cover-up.
“But taking the politics out of this, we’ve got a problem here — a big one,” he said. “It has nothing to do with politics.”
Democrats have been accusing the GOP of politicizing the tragedy for election-year gain.
“This isn’t about politics now for those of us on the committee,” Nunes said. “Benghazi is a much larger question. It comes down to: Do you trust this president on foreign policy?”
And that question could come up in close races a week and a half from today, he said.
“Do you really trust this president on foreign policy? Do you trust him on Iran? Do you trust him on Russia when you know what he said to Medvedev?” Nunes said, adding he sees “anecdotal evidence” that foreign policy polling numbers “are going to continue to get worse for president, and it’s his own fault.”
If not for the cover-up, the congressman stressed, voters may have not paid much attention to Benghazi.
“He made it the issue,” Nunes said. “They did it to themselves. Now you’re being to see the emperor has no clothes here because the campaign narrative doesn’t match the facts on the ground.”
What’s especially “ridiculous,” he added, is Obama had a golden chance to “look presidential” if he had come out right away and announced the U.S. had been the target of another 9/11 attack.
“I think this country would have had to rally around him, even Republicans,” Nunes said.
“From the beginning, it seems the president has been more concerned with how the unfolding story of the Benghazi attack would affect his re-election, than in providing the American public and the families of those brave Americans who lost their lives, the truth,” said Rep. Renee Ellmers (R-N.C.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “The more we learn about the details of the attack and the response to it, the less the administration’s previous statements square with the facts we now know.”
“I urge the president to stop playing politics and give the American public a full and honest accounting of the facts surrounding the Benghazi attack,” she said.
Wilson said he believes that Obama threw Secretary of State Hillary Clinton under the bus in an attempt to deflect criticism from the White House.
“I think that she was sacrificed,” he said. “I think the intelligence community, including the CIA, was slammed.”
Nunes isn’t inclined to think the secretary was just collateral damage, though.
“Did Hillary really get thrown under the bus or was she part of it?” he said. “I find it hard to believe that she didn’t know about this and wasn’t a part of it.”