Republican lawmakers on Wednesday confronted State Department officials about the handling of security before last month’s fatal attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, and fired a barrage of pointed questions about why the Obama administration failed for more than a week to characterize the incident as a terrorist attack.
During a politically charged hearing in which the former head of a U.S. security team in Libya acknowledged that “security remained weak” before the “surprise attack” on Sept. 11, lawmakers pushed for answers to why the administration initially thought that the attack resulted from a protest against a video clip of U.S.-made film that denigrates Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
“Why in the heck did it take so long for all these highly briefed and intelligent people to try and figure out that it actually wasn’t a 15-minute YouTube video, it actually was a 9/11 event, a terrorist attack?” said Rep. Mike Kelly, Pennsylvania Republican.
Mr. Kelly and others conducting the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing rejected Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy’s claim that administration officials had been relying on the best intelligence available for their explanation of the attack.
Heated exchanges in the hearing came as Charlene R. Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, acknowledged that she had rejected requests for more security in Libya as violence in Benghazi spiked in the months leading up to the attack.
Protesters or terrorists?
Several Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, homed in on remarks by U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice five days after the attack in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
Appearing on news talk shows on Sept. 16, Mrs. Rice asserted that the attack had not been premeditated, but resulted from a protest against the anti-Islam video.
Protests against the video, which began on Sept. 11 in Cairo, eventually spread to more than 50 countries, and turned violent in many Muslim nations.
Rep. Dennis A. Ross, Florida Republican, demanded to know why Mrs. Rice would have made such claims even after Libyan authorities had asserted days earlier that the incident was actually a premeditated terrorist attack.
“If they were more superior in their intelligence, and you testified just earlier that you were still gathering information, that’s why you didn’t say it was officially a terrorist attack, then why in the world did you say it was anything at all when you put [White House spokesman] Jay Carney out there and Ambassador Rice to say that this is a result of an inflammatory reaction to a controversial film?”
“Sir, it begs the question,” Mr. Ross said. “What happened? Was it as a result of political pressure trumping professional protocol?”
“I have directly served six secretaries of state, Democratic and Republican,” said Mr. Kennedy, who has worked in every administration since President Richard Nixon’s. “On my honor, no political pressure was applied to me in this case by anyone in the State Department, at the National Security Council or at the White House.”
“Then it was professional protocol malpractice,” Mr. Ross concluded.
That exchange defined the more than four-hour hearing, during which it was repeatedly implied that the Obama administration was guilty of a total diplomatic security failure in Benghazi — or that it had intentionally misled the American public about the attack out of fear of appearing weak in an election year.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the committee’s ranking Democrat, cautioned Republicans against insinuating that the administration had pushed Mrs. Rice to say anything other than the truth during her public appearances after the attack.
“To sit here and accuse one of our fellow citizens in Secretary Rice of lying — that’s a very, very serious statement,” Mr. Cummings said. “I’m very concerned about that, because, I mean, she made it clear over and over again that she was dealing with the information that she had at that moment.”
“I’ve looked at every single interview,” he added. “And I think we have to be very careful.”
State Department officials told the hearing there was in fact no protest outside the consulate in Benghazi before the attack, and that Washington officials had monitored events in real-time through open phone lines to the consulate building.
There was also a 90-minute video of part of the attack unfolding that was “in the possession of another government agency,” said Mr. Kennedy.
The term “other government agency” often is used by military and diplomatic personnel to refer to the CIA or other intelligence agencies.
Mr. Kennedy defended Mrs. Rice, telling lawmakers that with respect to the Libya attack, Obama administration officials “have always made clear that we are giving the best information we have at the time.”
“That information has evolved,” he said. “If any administration official, including any career official, were on television on Sunday, Sept. 16, they would have said what Ambassador Rice said. The information she had at that point from the intelligence community is the same that I had at that point.
“As time went on, additional information became available,” he said. “Clearly, we know more today than we did on Sunday after the attack.”
Outrage from both sides
The Republican questioning prompted some to suggest the hearing had been taken over by election-year politics.
“I certainly hope that today’s hearing is not going to be perceived as an effort to exploit a tragedy for political purposes 27 days out from an election,” said Rep. Gerald E. Connolly, Virginia Democrat.
Lawmakers from both sides praised Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her subordinates for their cooperation. But hopes of an amicable hearing soon evaporated, as Democrats accused Rep. Darrell E. Issa, committee chairman, of withholding documents and witnesses that were provided to the committee.
Mr. Issa, California Republican, also “effectively excluded Democrats from a congressional delegation to Libya this past weekend,” said Mr. Cummings. “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.”
President Obama’s spokesman said Wednesday that the White House was not avoiding a politically damaging admission when officials resisted describing the attack on the consulate as the work of terrorists.
State Department officials acknowledged for the first time Tuesday night that the assault on the consulate did not involve any anti-American protests over the film. For more than a week after the attack, Mr. Carney and other administration officials portrayed the violence as a result of the protests.
But the government now acknowledges that the four Americans were killed as part of a planned attack on the U.S. diplomatic post by terrorists using heavy weaponry such as mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.
But the president has refrained in his comments since then from describing the assault in Benghazi as terrorism.
Even after some administration officials acknowledged on Sept. 19 that the U.S. had suffered a terrorist attack, Mr. Obama gave a speech to the United Nations on Sept. 25 in which he talked at length about the movie but never mentioned the word “terrorism.”
Mr. Carney said the administration was relaying reliable information to the public as quickly as possible, and he denied that there was a political motive in the midst of the president’s re-election campaign.
“We’re focused on the facts as we get them,” he said. “Efforts to rush to a conclusion are not helpful.”
• Dave Boyer contributed to this report.