The State Department has seen dramatic boosts in diplomatic security funding and staffing but failed to spend the money strategically and didn’t fill key posts, a congressional investigator said Thursday as Congress took a closer look at how four Americans died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya.
Democrats emerged from one closed-door hearing to defend U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, who has faced the brunt of Republican criticism on the administration’s initial, inaccurate contention that the attack was a response to an anti-Islam Web video.
“Ambassador Rice, in my opinion, was given the same information that we received from the administration through the intelligence community,” said Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, after hearing from a slate of high-powered witnesses.
On Friday, he and his colleagues will try to figure out how the intelligence community came up with that inaccurate assessment when they question former CIA Director David H. Petraeus, who resigned last week after admitting to an extramarital affair. Lawmakers, though, said he still will be able to shed light on his investigation into the events of Sept. 11 and beyond.
Also to come in weeks ahead will be testimony by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose office said she will appear before Congress once her department has concluded its own review.
Four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed in the attack, and several congressional panels are looking at the security lapses beforehand, as well as the administration’s struggles to identify terrorism as the cause.
President Obama and his top aides initially blamed mob protests on an anti-Islam video, which had spawned a protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo the same day. Two weeks later, in the midst of the presidential election, the administration belatedly acknowledged the coordinated terrorist roots of the attack.
Angry Republicans used a public hearing Thursday held by the House Foreign Affairs Committee to accuse the administration of lying.
“What is clear,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, California Republican, “is that this administration, including the president himself, has intentionally misinformed – read that ‘lied’ – to the American people in the aftermath of this tragedy.”
But Mr. Ruppersberger said the initial situation was uncertain and led to the confusing conclusions.
He said the intelligence officials who briefed his committee Thursday showed that the initial attack on the consulate in Benghazi was the result of a “group of extremists who took advantage of the situation” and who were members of al Qaeda and other groups.
He said evidence shows that the second attack on an annex, which was hit with mortar rounds, “seemed to be a lot more sophisticated” and shows that “it clearly was a terrorist attack.”
He said Mrs. Rice was using the latest intelligence conclusions when she went on television the weekend after the attack and blamed the video that mocked Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said her panel viewed a real-time video of the attack that was a composite from multiple sources, including footage from a U.S. military Predator drone.
The California Democrat said Thursday’s hearing was just an initial step. She said the panel will hold more closed-door hearings and may eventually hold a public meeting during which it will release its findings.