- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Obama administration’s handling of the deadly September attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, faces another congressional grilling when outgoing Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta testifies Thursday on Capitol Hill.

Nearly five months after the terrorist attack killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans at a U.S. diplomatic post in the restive Libyan city, questions remain about the attack and the administration’s shifting explanations for what happened and why.

Beyond pointing at a possible role played by the nebulous grouping of North African Islamists known as al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), senior Obama administration officials have yet to present a clear narrative of who planned and carried out the attack, critics contend. And if the myriad of congressional hearings that have already been held are any indication, Mr. Panetta’s appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee is unlikely to provide one.

Apart from identifying and apprehending those behind the Sept. 11, 2012, attack, several questions remain unanswered, including:

• What happened to Stevens between being separated from his security detail during the attack and turning up dead several hours later at a Benghazi hospital?

• Who was watching the live-streaming feed of images from drones over the area of attack that night?

• Which officials from the White House and the Pentagon were in the decision chain about how the U.S. military should respond?

• Was President Obama involved in that decision chain in real time?

Who did it?

When it comes to the big questions of who did it and how the United States should retaliate, Mr. Panetta will likely respond the same way the White House has: that the FBI and Libyan authorities are conducting an investigation and that more time is needed to figure out what happened.

Top U.S. defense officials have offered only ambiguous speculation on who was behind the Benghazi attack. U.S. Army Gen. Carter F. Ham, head of the military’s Africa Command, recently told the McClatchy news service: “I believe there are individuals who participated in the attacks in Benghazi who had at least some affiliation with AQIM. I don’t interpret from that that this was AQIM-directed or even an AQIM-inspired or -supported effort. But the connection is there. And I think that what I am wrestling with is: What is the connection with all these various individuals or groups?”

One open question is whether members on the Armed Services Committee will actually bring enough focus to the hearing to pressure Mr. Panetta for such an assessment. If the performance lawmakers gave during former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s hearings two weeks ago are any indication, they will not.

A heated highlight of Mrs. Clinton’s testimony came when Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, pressured the former secretary of state to explain why the Obama administration had originally tied the Benghazi attack to an anti-Islam video rather than pinning it outright on al Qaeda.

An early December report by The Wall Street Journal outlined how the words “al Qaeda” were removed from talking points given to senior administration officials after an intense debate among intelligence officials. Some officials thought the claim of an al Qaeda link had not come from a reliable source. Others felt that including references to al Qaeda would unnecessarily tip suspected members of the organization that they were being monitored.

“What difference, at this point, does it make?” declared Mrs. Clinton during her Jan. 23 testimony, her hands chopping the air at the witness table in frustration.

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