A State Department official said the right level of security had been in place knowing what was known beforehand. GOP committee members responded to that with heated comments that the deaths of four Americans was proof the right level was not present. Indeed, heated comments were on tap several times Wednesday.
Republicans have been sharply critical of the Obama administration's behavior both before and after the attack. They have claimed, among other things, that it should have seen this coming and done a better job of securing the consulate. They also have accused the administration knew early on that the killings did not occur because of spontaneous violence erupting from protesters' rage over an anti-Muslim video. Officials in both Libya and the U.S. now say the real source of the attack was terrorists with al Qaeda ties organizing a well-coordinated, premeditated assault. The Romney campaign released a statement by policy director Lanhee Chen which repeated claims that the administration had misled Americans after the attacks.
Seeing the possibility of embarrassing the president over the Benghazi attack, Republican Rep. Darrell Issa—who was a partisan thorn in the side of the Obama administration even before he took over the chairmanship of the House Oversight Committee when the GOP won a majority in the 2010 elections—called for the hearing in the midst of the congressional recess. This partisanship was noted on the eve of that hearing:
(Continue reading below the fold.)
On Tuesday, an internal staff memo from congressional Democrats accused [Issa] of stonewalling House Democrats from the investigation into the attacks. House Democrats also complained of being excluded from an Oct. 5 congressional delegation visit to Libya after Republicans allegedly concealed the trip until less than 24 hours before it was scheduled to leave. “It’s a shame they’re resorting to such petty abuses,” says the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Elijah Cummings. (Republicans countered that they found out about the trip just when Democrats did.) Democrats also complained of being left out of a classified briefing about the investigation organized by Speaker John Boehner.The Democrats' lead witness was Patrick F. Kennedy, Undersecretary of State for Management. Facing heated questioning, he defended Susan Rice, the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. whose accounts focused on protests against the video. “The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point,” Kennedy said. “As time went on, additional information became available.”
However, in later testimony, Charlene Lamb, a deputy assistant secretary of state working in the diplomatic security bureau, seemed to contradict that perspective when she said:
”When the attack began, a Diplomatic Security agent working in the tactical operations center immediately … alerted the annex U.S. quick reaction security team stationed nearby … and the Diplomatic Security Command Center in Washington. From that point on, I could follow what was happening in almost real-time.”A key complaint of Republicans was the administration's original account of what had happened the day of the attack. Ambassador Rice said it was a protest against the "Innocence of Muslims"—a crude, 14-minute video that insults Islam—that spun out of control when guns were introduced into the mix. But, from the beginning, Libyan officials disagreed with that assessment, saying it was not a spontaneous uprising but the premeditated work of terrorists who had entered the country from Algeria or Mali. Although he defended Rice, Undersecretary Kennedy also said he had begun calling the attack a terrorist act the first week after it happened.
That view is now how the administration sees matters, too. On the eve of the hearings, the State Department held a media conference call with a time-line of what had occurred. There was no mention of a protest. Instead, consulate staff became aware of a problem when they heard gunfire and explosions at the front gate, an unidentified State Department spokesperson told the conferees.
The Republicans' star witness, Eric Nordstrom, who had been the top U.S. diplomatic security official in Libya until June, complained that he had asked the State Department for extra security but failed to receive it. Lamb said she had indeed turned down Nordstrom's request for additional security. “Personally I would not support it. We had been training local Libyans for a year. [...] With due respect, [the U.S. team was] in Tripoli they were not in Benghazi, it would not have made any difference in Benghazi.” The U.S. embassy is in Tripoli, Libya's capital.
Lamb's remarks saying the consulate had been provided with the right level of security brought what amounted to a rebuke from Republicans on the committee who said the four deaths were proof the right level had not been in place.
On Tuesday, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, a Utah Republican, had admitted in an interview with Soledad O'Brien, that he had voted to cut overall funding for diplomatic security. He blamed the deaths in Libya on the failure of the Obama administration to "prioritize" where the reduced funding should be spent.
Let me say a word about the evening of September 11th. The ferocity and intensity of the attack was nothing that we had seen in Libya, or that I had seen in my time in the Diplomatic Security Service. 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. 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.Issa and other Republicans, including Chaffetz, have previously alleged that the administration has downplayed the dangers for U.S. diplomatic personnel in Libya as part of what these critics claim is an effort to make it appear that the situation there is normalizing.
Benghazi hearings provide forum for GOP to bash Obama administration, expose classified information
The aftermath of the civil war and toppling of the 42-year-old regime has brought widespread lawlessness, actions by an al Qaeda affiliate and clashes among heavily armed rival militias and individual Libyans.
In a nation where 18 months ago there were almost no privately owned firearms and the dictatorship of Muammar Qaddafi kept the lid on confronting even mild dissent with imprisonment and torture, there is now considerable chaos and a sense of anything goes. Militias are typically the only law enforcers and they are far from even-handed in their actions, according to firsthand Libyan accounts recounted to me.
During the hearings, which were broadcast live, Chaffetz interrupted to say that easels set up by Lamb contained classified material and should be taken down. After some discussion about whether the material actually was classified, Issa ultimately ordered the easels removed.
The issue, as Dana Milbank recounted it:
Through their outbursts, cryptic language and boneheaded questioning of State Department officials, the committee members left little doubt that one of the two compounds at which the Americans were killed, described by the administration as a “consulate” and a nearby “annex,” was a CIA base. They did this, helpfully, in a televised public hearing.But since embarrassment and recriminations and blame were Issa's and the other Republicans' chief motivation behind the hearings, they had to be televised. National security? Well, that's secondary when partisan damage can be inflicted. What pieces of work these guys are.
Republicans were aiming to embarrass the Obama administration over State Department security lapses. But they inadvertently caused a different picture to emerge than the one that has been publicly known: that the victims may have been let down not by the State Department but by the CIA. If the CIA was playing such a major role in these events, which was the unmistakable impression left by Wednesday’s hearing, having a televised probe of the matter was absurd.