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Congress Sorts Through Charges and Counter-Charges in Benghazi Attack Accounts

May 9, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
Amid a steady flow of partisan arguing by members of Congress, three State Department officials testified that senior government officials withheld embarrassing facts and didn't take responsibility for security at the Benghazi facilities. Judy Woodruff sorts out the facts with Adam Entous of The Wall Street Journal.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We return to last September’s attack on U.S. installations in Benghazi, Libya.

House Speaker John Boehner demanded today that the White House order the State Department to release e-mails related to whom the agency thought was behind the attack. Yesterday, amid a steady flow of partisan arguing by members of Congress, three State Department officials testified that senior government officials withheld embarrassing facts and didn’t take responsibility for security at the Benghazi facilities.

One of the witnesses, former U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission in Libya Gregory Hicks, said he was effectively demoted after he questioned and criticized the State Department’s handling of the attack.

To help us sort out some of the facts in the story, I’m joined by Adam Entous of The Wall Street Journal.

Welcome back to the NewsHour.

ADAM ENTOUS, The Wall Street Journal: Thank you very much.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, first of all, Adam, do we know what e-mails Speaker Boehner is looking for?

ADAM ENTOUS: Right.

At this point, we don’t know really specifically what e-mails he’s seeking. Thousands of e-mails have already been turned over to the State Department. Some of those e-mails have been provided only to certain committees, particularly the Intelligence Committees, and those may be the ones that he’s referring to.

And those e-mails focus on the 94-word talking points that were given to Susan Rice to deliver on the talk shows after the attack.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So that’s still unclear at this point.

Well, let’s talk about some of the disputes that clearly are still out there after yesterday’s testimony. What do we know in terms of what security was requested for the installation in Benghazi before everything happened on Sept. 11th?

ADAM ENTOUS: Right.

So there were a series of security incidents in Benghazi in the months leading up to the attack, including an IED attack on the consulate itself. And there was a lot of calls from within the mission, so within Tripoli, from the security officers there to beef up security. The issue was the Libyans have restrictions on the number of security officers, armed security officers that they will allow in.

And, plus, the Americans wanted to keep a low profile at the consulate in Benghazi. And so that put some strain on the ability of the U.S. to really increase those numbers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, there were requests made and the response was what?

ADAM ENTOUS: The response was, as far as we can tell, that they’re going to look into it, but no commitments were made about increasing security.

And, you know, there was a brief plus-up in the number of guards at the consulate for a one-week period after this IED attack on the consulate. This was months before Sept. 11th.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But then that went away?

ADAM ENTOUS: And then it went back to — back to the low number.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just very quickly, not to get into ancient history, but there had been requests for additional funding for security at this installation, other diplomatic installations? That — those requests were voted down by Congress, including both parties, including Republicans, right?

ADAM ENTOUS: Correct.

And you also had a larger — a larger special forces contingent that was at the Tripoli Embassy, which was reduced in the months before the attack. And the Pentagon explains that that was done because their mission had been completed, and so it went back down to a lower number.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So on the night of the attack, Sept. the 11th, 2012, there’s a dispute about whether or not there could have been a military rescue. What are the facts of that?

ADAM ENTOUS: Right.

Well, Mr. Hicks during his testimony yesterday provided us with a lot more detail than we had previously had about his role and about what they were doing in the embassy in Tripoli. He describes a conversation he had with the defense attaché in which the defense attaché explained that he had — was on the phone with Africa Command and the joint staff. So these would be the military commanders that are responsible for security in Libya.

And they explained to the defense attaché that there were fighter planes. The closest were in Aviano, Italy. It would be a two- to three-hour flight to get there, but that there were no air tanker refuelers that were capable of servicing them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, either too far away or — and not the ability to make the trip?

ADAM ENTOUS: Correct.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And what about — but we were also told that there was a question about special operations …

ADAM ENTOUS: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: … a small contingent of special operations forces who were in Tripoli.

ADAM ENTOUS: The Marines have what’s referred to as FAST teams which are positioned in the region, around the region in Europe and in the Middle East.

But the Pentagon says that they can be deployed quickly, but it takes hours for them to deploy. And I think the — what we have learned is that the Pentagon initially after reports came into Washington that the consulate had been attacked, the — they thought it was over. They thought it was an attack that occurred, and then there was no reason to suspect that there would be a second wave, which occurred hours later, at the annex, which is the CIA facility.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, finally, Adam, what about this — the allegation that Mr. Hicks made that — what really emerged from that hearing yesterday, which is that the Obama administration, Secretary Clinton have not been as forthcoming as they should have been, that information — investigators didn’t have access to the people and the information they needed to get to the bottom of this?

ADAM ENTOUS: Right.

Well, I mean, that is an accusation we have also heard from many Republicans and some Democrats in Congress who were concerned that information wasn’t being shared quickly enough. In the immediate run-up to the U.S. elections last year, it was a very sensitive issue. The State Department provided a lot of documentation to congressional investigators.

There was dissatisfaction on both sides. In particular, there was a lot of concern about the thing that nobody could talk about, which was the CIA’s role in Benghazi. Of the 30 Americans who were evacuated after the attack, approximately only seven of them worked for the State Department. The rest of them were working for the CIA.

And that’s something nobody was able to talk about in open session, and that really did make it much harder for everybody to explain what actually transpired

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, after yesterday’s hearing, where does this come go from here? Clearly, there’s still two or more versions of many aspects of this.

ADAM ENTOUS: Right.

I mean, I think it’s pretty clear that the Republicans intend on making — maintaining this and continuing this as an issue, and there will be more hearings for sure. And I think that yesterday’s dramatic testimony, which humanized in a way that we hadn’t seen before what occurred on Sept. 11th, is going to add some additional steam to this.

But I’m not entirely clear what additional information is going to be gleaned. Maybe these additional e-mails when are they passed over will provide some additional information, and we will have to wait and see.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Adam Entous at The Wall Street Journal, thank you.

ADAM ENTOUS: Thank you.