President Obama survived the election without having to answer many key questions about the September terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, but getting through the lame-duck session of Congress that opens Tuesday could be even tougher — especially with one key senator already talking about the possibility of subpoenas.
Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are demanding to know who was responsible for the decisions involved in the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. Consulate in Libya’s second-largest city, and want to know why military assistance didn’t arrive until well after four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, were dead.
“Clearly, the White House believed that if they held information on Benghazi through the election, Congress and the public would lose interest and stop asking questions. That just isn’t going to happen, because the public has a right to know,” said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, California Republican and one of the lawmakers awaiting replies to information requests. “Rather, their silence has probably made matters worse. Instead of asking ‘What happened?’ members return to Washington asking, ‘What are you hiding?’”
On Monday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, even raised the possibility of issuing a subpoena to get a look at a CIA trip report from former agency Director David H. Petraeus, whose resignation last week has become tangled up with the investigation into Benghazi.
Even as many issues divide the two parties on Capitol Hill, Benghazi is one area where they appear ready to work together to get answers.
Part of that is pent-up demand. As information trickled out over the past two months, Congress was in recess, holding only pro-forma sessions while lawmakers hit the campaign trail.
Now, as they return, they are comparing notes, demanding answers to questions and generally nonplussed with what the administration has given them.
Mrs. Feinstein said that given what she knows now, she considers Benghazi a failure of U.S. intelligence — particularly because it took analysts 10 days to conclude that the attack was a terrorist assault, not part of a spate of mob protests against a YouTube video that maligned Islam and the Prophet Muhammad.
“I don’t know what took them 10 days to figure that out, candidly. And that’s a problem,” she said.
Her committee is one of three that has hearings on Benghazi scheduled for this week. The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and the House Foreign Affairs Committee also have hearings — though the two intelligence panels’ proceedings are closed.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee also has a closed-door briefing on the situation.
Lawmakers across the board also have outstanding information requests that they say the administration will have to comply with. That includes Mrs. Feinstein’s demand for the trip report from Mr. Petraeus.
With the hearings looming, the administration began to divulge more details late last week.
On Friday, the Pentagon gave reporters a timeline showing the Defense Department’s response, including posting a drone over the consulate about 90 minutes after the attack began. The Associated Press said the timeline showed it took 14 hours for the first U.S. military units to arrive on the scene.
Also Friday, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta sent a letter to Sen. John McCain of Arizona and other Republican senators explaining that the U.S. didn’t have any aircraft in the region that could have been deployed to help repel the attack.
Mr. Panetta said there were several hundred reports of flare-ups that day, and that there was no prior information that Benghazi could be a target, so no forces had been moved into position.
That answer left Mr. McCain and his colleagues all the more puzzled.
“The letter fails to address the most important question — why not?” Mr. McCain and five other Republican senators said.
Part of Congress‘ difficulty this week will be getting the witnesses it wants.
After his resignation, it emerged that the retired four-star Army general had taken a personal role in the agency’s investigation into the Benghazi attack, flying to Libya himself and personally interviewing officials on the ground.
It was the report of this trip that Mrs. Feinstein said she is trying to obtain.
Acting CIA Director Michael J. Morrell will testify instead of Mr. Petraeus, along with Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce, State Department Undersecretary for Management Patrick F. Kennedy and the head of the National Counterterrorism Center, Matthew Olsen.
Lawmakers said they still expect to hear from Mr. Petraeus at some point.
Meanwhile, the House Foreign Affairs Committee had asked Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to testify publicly Wednesday about what went wrong Sept. 11. In her absence, they will hear from an investigator from the Government Accountability Office and an analyst at the Rand Corp.
In addition to those committees holding hearings this week, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, led by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, has been leading its own investigation, which produced some of the documents that exposed the State Department’s initial refusal to send in more security to protect the consulate and its employees.
The committee has filed direct information requests with the administration, but most of the spectacular details it has uncovered came from unofficial sources within the government.
In the Senate, the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee also has opened an investigation and has made information requests to the Defense and State departments and the director of national intelligence.
With so many inquiries, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and fellow Republicans have called for a single, select Senate committee to head an investigation that would cross jurisdictional lines and deliver a complete accounting.
Mrs. Feinstein said she is “open” to that suggestion, but that the two intelligence committees already are working well together.
“You don’t want to make it so big that it’s a problem, but on the other hand, this has to be bipartisan and it should be bicameral, I would think,” she said.
“CIA has every intention to provide its oversight committees the information they are looking for,” said agency spokeswoman Jennifer Youngblood.
Both the FBI and State Department are doing investigations from the administration standpoint, and the White House repeatedly has declined to make public details about what went wrong, saying it would wait for those two investigations to conclude.
“No one is more interested in bringing to justice those who took the lives of four Americans that night than the president. And the president is very interested in having the results of those investigations provided to him and to the American public,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters Friday.