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At Politically Charged Hearing, Congress Probes Security Failures in Libya

October 10, 2012 at 12:00 AM EST
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And we turn to a contentious hearing on Capitol Hill today, as lawmakers took a closer look at what happened at an American diplomatic post in Libya.

Jeffrey Brown reports.

REP. DARRELL ISSA, R-Calif.: The committee will come to order. Would you please take your seats?

JEFFREY BROWN: The House Oversight Committee got down to examining the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that left four Americans dead, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. The episode has itself become politically charged with Election Day less than a month off.

Republican Committee Chair Darrell Issa opened with this salvo:

DARRELL ISSA: But, today, it is 30 days since the September 11 attack, more or less. It is a long time to wait if you’re sitting in Cairo, in Algeria, in Beirut, in Damascus, and you don’t trust that security measures you need have occurred.

Today, we begin the process of saying they must be able to trust because you must be able to assure them that you’re doing your work differently than just a short time ago.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last week, Issa and Utah Congressman Jason Chaffetz wrote to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, alleging the department had denied requests for beefed-up security at Benghazi.

Chaffetz expanded on the charge today.

REP. JASON CHAFFETZ, R-Utah: I believe, personally, with more assets, more resources, just meeting the minimum standards, we could have and should have saved the life of Ambassador Stevens and the other people that were there.

Any reasonable person looking at the security situation in Libya had to come to the conclusion that it was tumultuous at best.

JEFFREY BROWN: That claim rests in part on Lieutenant Colonel Andrew Wood of the Utah National Guard. He served as the site security team commander in Libya from February to August of this year. Wood testified today that security was never adequate.

LT. COL. ANDREW WOOD, Utah National Guard: 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. Diplomatic security remained weak. In April, there was only one U.S. diplomatic security agent stationed there.

JEFFREY BROWN: But State Department officials insisted today it was an unprecedented attack. Deputy Secretary Charlene Lamb coordinates security at U.S. embassies worldwide.

CHARLENE LAMB,U.S. assistant secretary of state: We had the correct number of assets in Benghazi at the time of 9/11 for what had been agreed upon.

DARRELL ISSA: My time is expired.

To start off by saying you had the correct number and our ambassador and three other individuals are dead and people are in the hospital recovering because it only took moments to breach that facility, somehow doesn’t seem to ring true to the American people.

JEFFREY BROWN: The former regional security officer for Libya, Eric Nordstrom, said he too requested more security and was refused, but he declined to criticize the State Department.

ERIC NORDSTROM, State Department regional security officer: I’m confident that the committee will include that officers and employees of the Department of State, Diplomatic Security Service, and Mission Libya conducted themselves professionally and with careful attention to managing the people and budgets in a way that reflected the gravity of the task.

JEFFREY BROWN: Issa and other Republicans have also criticized the Obama administration for initially saying the attack was a spontaneous outburst of anger over an anti-Muslim video, like others that occurred across the globe.

 

The president has since said it was a terrorist attack. Yesterday, State Department officials said they never believed the video was the cause. And, today, Ambassador Patrick Kennedy, State’s undersecretary of management, said the confusion was understandable.

PATRICK KENNEDY, U.S. undersecretary of state: No one in the administration has claimed to know for certain 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.

JEFFREY BROWN: Committee Democrats echoed that explanation, and they accused Republicans of politicizing a national tragedy.

Elijah Cummings is the committee’s ranking Democrat.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS, D-Md.: Although the chairman claims we are pursuing this investigation on a — quote — “bipartisan basis,” that has simply not been the case.

The chairman has withheld documents that were provided to the committee, which is in violation of the House rules. It’s a shame that they are resorting to such petty abuses in what should be a serious and responsible investigation of this fatal attack.

JEFFREY BROWN: Democrats also argued that House Republicans had supported cuts to overall funding for embassy security. And the partisan divide sparked tense exchanges, as when Democrat Stephen Lynch of Massachusetts was questioning Deputy Secretary Lamb, and Chaffetz intervened.

JASON CHAFFETZ: Again, I would renew my deep concern that we’re getting into an area that is classified and should be classified.

REP. STEPHEN LYNCH, D-Mass.: May I speak on the point of order?

DARRELL ISSA: You speak on the point of order, of course.

STEPHEN LYNCH: OK.

This whole hearing is responding to allegations that there were not enough people on the ground at the Benghazi facility, those accusations that you made publicly, so that now I’m trying to get an answer to how many people were there and all of a sudden that’s off the record? That’s classified information? You have got to be kidding me. You have got to be kidding me.

JEFFREY BROWN: As the hearing was under way, White House Counterterrorism Chief John Brennan was in Tripoli today, meeting with Libyan leaders about the Benghazi attack.