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Republicans see key gaps in report on Benghazi

- The Washington Times - Monday, December 17, 2012

The panel investigating the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, delivered its findings Monday to State Department officials, who said the report could be released publicly as early as Wednesday.

But Republican lawmakers already have expressed skepticism about the probe's thoroughness and frustration that their key concerns will not be addressed in the report by the Accountability Review Board — the mandated State Department panel investigating the Benghazi incident.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte, New Hampshire Republican and a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the investigative panel would not probe "interagency discussions" about what occurred at the consulate in the months before the attack and questions about the Obama administration's response during the deadly assault.

"So I think when we get the report of the Accountability Review Board, it will not answer the question of why didn't we have [military] assets in place. It will not answer the question of interagency communications and what deficiencies were there. And so there are going to be some significant limitations to that review from what I know," Mrs. Ayotte told an audience Wednesday at the American Enterprise Institute.

She and fellow committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, had written to the chairman of the accountability board, retired Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, outlining questions they hoped would be answered in his panel's report.

Many of the questions in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Times, relate to the roles of President Obama and his White House staff in handling the crisis.

"When was President Obama informed of the attack on our consulate [and by whom]?" the senators ask. "What actions did President Obama order be taken? Were his orders carried out?"

They also ask whether Mr. Obama directed the response from the White House Situation Room and whether there are any photographs of that.

A report completed

In his written response, Mr. Pickering said the statutory responsibilities of the board were limited to considering security procedures and systems at the consulate and whether they were adequate and properly implemented.

But the board also could consider "such other facts and circumstances as may be relevant to the appropriate security management of U.S. missions abroad," Mr. Pickering said in a letter, which was seen by The Times.

Another accountability board member — retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — said when questioned after a briefing he gave Monday on a different topic that he did not know of the senators' concerns and their correspondence.

"I don't know anything about that," Adm. Mullen told The Times. He declined to comment when the senators' concerns were outlined to him.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said Monday that the board had completed its work.

"Its report has gone to [Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton] this morning. She now has it," Mrs. Nuland said, adding that the report has classified and unclassified sections.

Mrs. Nuland also addressed the illness that prevented Mrs. Clinton from testifying Thursday to Congress, as scheduled, and the timing of the health announcement, which led some Republicans to question privately whether health concerns were a convenient excuse to avoid tough questions at a public hearing.

"Without getting into all of the back-and-forth between her and her doctors," the spokeswoman said, "it was on Saturday morning that we concluded that the secretary needed to follow doctors' advice and rest this week, so the [congressional] committees were made aware and as you know, we put out a statement to that effect in literally hours thereafter."

Briefings and testimony ahead

Mr. Pickering and Adm. Mullen plan to brief the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday in closed sessions, Mrs. Nuland said. Their briefing will be followed Thursday with public testimony by Mrs. Clinton's deputies, William Burns and Thomas Nides.

The press and public "probably" would be allowed to see the unclassified portions of the report Wednesday, Mrs. Nuland said, adding, "but I'm just not in a position to completely confirm all those details at the moment."

Mrs. Ayotte's questions about the role of the White House and the military go to the heart of Republican criticisms of the administration's preparations for, handling of and response to the attack, in which dozens of armed extremists overran and set fire to the consulate and later attacked a CIA compound nearby.

The attack killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department official Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, who were working as security contractors for the CIA.

Republicans have noted that State Department bureaucrats in Washington rejected requests for additional security from diplomats in Libya, have questioned why military assets were not scrambled to attempt a rescue and have accused the administration of blaming the attack on an anti-Islam video to support the president's re-election narrative that al Qaeda had been decimated.

Administration officials have said additional security would not have prevented the compound from being overrun, that there was too little information about conditions on the ground to deploy U.S. forces in time and that the exact nature of the attack — which took place amid a wave of protests against the video across the Arab world — did not become clear until later.

Guy Taylor contributed to this report.

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