House Republicans held a hearing Wednesday on what, exactly, happened in Benghazi on Sept. 11, when an attack took the life of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Chris Stevens and three other Americans. I say House Republicans and not the House Committee on Oversight & Government Reform because Democrats on the committee made clear from the beginning they wanted little to do with the investigation – from interviewing witnesses to a committee-sponsored trip to Benghazi — and even less to do with the hearing itself.
“This should not be about the business of drawing conclusions and then looking for the facts,” Rep. Elijah Cummings, the panel’s top Democrat, said in his opening statement, before noting the hearing was taking place 27 days before a presidential election.
By the third hour of testimony by State Department officials, most Democratic members except for Cummings had left for the weekend. The Republicans, meanwhile, were only warming up. Over the course of a grueling day, their questioning suggested that the Obama Administration had recklessly ignored warning signs of terrorist activity in Libya, repeatedly refused requests for additional security and lied in the wake of the attack, claiming the violence was part of a protest over a California-made video insulting the Prophet Mohammed.
“This was never about a video,” said Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican freshman from South Carolina. “It was never spontaneous, it was terror and I want to know why we were lied to.”
Republicans asked repeatedly why some Administration officials – especially United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, whom the committee is seeking to interview in a classified session — at first attributed the violence to the video, which sparked protests across the Middle East. Clearly, the Republicans said, this was a cover-up by an Administration unwilling to admit it had allowed security to lapse. “You just said that you were in touch with the Benghazi staff almost in real time as this was happening,” said Rep. James Lankford, A GOP freshman from Oklahoma, “but the State Department is still testifying still today that five days later they still didn’t know what happened?”
“There were reports that we received saying that there were protests,” replied Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, under secretary of state for management, a 39-year Foreign Service veteran who took enormous amounts of grief for defending Rice. “That just seems like a very difficult story for me to believe,” Lankford replied.
Kennedy said repeatedly that he had seen the same intelligence as Rice and had he been on television at the time, he would’ve said the same thing. “There were conflicting reports,” he told an incredulous Rep. Raul Labrador, a Republican freshman from Idaho.
“But you came to a different conclusion,” Labrador said, citing Kennedy’s statement a few days later that he believed it to be a terrorist attack.
“No I did not,” Kennedy said.
“Yes, you did,” replied Labrador.
Charlene Lamb, deputy assistant secretary for international programs in the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security, also took a pummeling. Republicans had help from two of Lamb’s fellow witnesses: Lt. Col. Andre Wood, a Utah National Guardsman who served as site security team commander in Libya from February until August, and the State Department’s regional security officer Eric Nordstrom. Both testified that they raised red flags about terrorist activity in Benghazi and Nordstrom said that his attempts to keep the security they had were rebuffed by the State Department. “Do you know what I was told when I asked for 12 agents? I was told, ‘You’re asking for the sun and the stars,’” Nordstrom said, adding that his biggest frustration in the job wasn’t danger or Libyans but Washington’s bureaucracy.
Lamb replied that even if they had allocated the additional security, all of those personnel would’ve been in Tripoli and wouldn’t have made a difference in Benghazi. “We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of September 11,” she said. “This was an unprecedented attack in terms of size and ferocity.”
“To say that you had the correct number of assets on the ground when an ambassador and three others are dead and three more are still in the hospital,” scoffed the committee’s chairman Darrell Issa, “somehow doesn’t ring true to the American people.”
Cummings eventually tried to rescue Lamb. “The implications that you’re incompetent, didn’t give a damn or were sometimes a scrooge,” he said, “I don’t think you’re any of those things. Do you want the opportunity to defend yourself?”
“Yes, sir. We do have limited resources,” Lamb replied. “I made the best decisions I could with the information I had, sir.”
“My goal is to put this partisanship behind us and focus on the security of our personnel,” Cummings said. “If that is our goal we have to examine the funding. The fact is since 2011 the House has cut diplomatic security by hundreds of millions of dollars. The House has done that. The Senate has restored some of it. But the House has done that.” In 2009, House Republicans voted to slash $1.2 billion from State Department operations. In 2011 they cut the Administration’s request for embassy securty by $331 million and in 2012 by another $331 million, though Senate Democrats restore $88 million of that. In 2013,they are seeking to cut another $172 million, a move that Hillary Clinton on Tuesday told House Speaker John Boehner “deeply” concerned her. But no one wants to admit any complicity, especially in the thick of an election season.