Congressional testimony from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday provided no new information about the CIA’s covert operation in Benghazi involving weapons shipments.
Appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during a hearing on the deadly Sept. 11 Benghazi terrorist attack, she sidestepped questions about a CIA operation to send arms from Libya to Turkey or other countries in the region.
The CIA was operating a compound with more than a dozen operatives about a mile from the diplomatic outpost that was attacked by al Qaeda-linked terrorists, who killed four Americans, including U.S. Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stephens. Two contractors from the CIA compound who tried to rescue the ambassador were among the dead.
Sen. Rand Paul, Kentucky Republican, asked Mrs. Clinton if “the U.S. [is] involved with any procuring of weapons, transfer of weapons, buying, selling, anyhow transferring weapons to Turkey out of Libya?”
A surprised Mrs. Clinton initially responded: “To Turkey?”
“I will have to take that question for the record,” she said. “That’s — I — nobody’s ever raised that with me.”
Mr. Paul said news reports indicated that ships had left Libya that might be carrying weapons.
“And what I’d like to know is — the annex that was close by — were they involved with procuring, buying, selling, obtaining weapons, and were any of these weapons being transferred to other countries, any countries, Turkey included?” he asked.
Mrs. Clinton said: “Well, senator, you’ll have to direct that question to the agency that ran the annex, and I will see what information is available.”
“You’re saying you don’t know?” Mr. Paul asked.
“I do not know. I don’t have any information on that,” she responded.
Details of the CIA operation could not be learned. A U.S. official said the operation was set up last year to try to procure or control weapons that could be used by terrorists that had been taken from the armed forces of the former regime of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
A U.S. military official said the new Libyan regime was very supportive of Syria’s rebels fighting the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Watching Hagel reaction
U.S. intelligence agencies have been monitoring international reaction to the nomination of former Sen. Chuck Hagel to be the next secretary of defense. What the monitoring shows is that Iran and China are favoring a Hagel-led Pentagon, while officials in Israel are viewing the prospect with concern.
Israeli officials are particularly concerned that the nomination of the Nebraska Republican, as well as Sen. John F. Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, to be secretary of state, will increase tensions between the United States and its key ally in the Middle East.
In particular, the Israelis view the choice of Mr. Hagel to head the Pentagon as the first step in President Obama’s new, softer policy toward Iran. As for Mr. Kerry, the Israelis fear his running of U.S. foreign policy will result in more pressure on Israel regarding the Palestinians and West Bank settlement activity.
Israeli officials have been cautious in on-the-record comments about Mr. Hagel.
Avi Dichter, Israel’s home front minister, was asked by Voice of Israel radio earlier this month about Mr. Hagel and said: “We wish him well.” Privately, Israeli officials are pessimistic, with one telling a newspaper, “This is very bad news for Israel.”
The Israelis are worried that Mr. Hagel and Mr. Kerry will make it difficult for Israel to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities. Both nominees object to military strikes on Iran.
By contrast, Iran’s government cautiously welcomed the Hagel nomination. Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast voiced limited optimism on an Iranian Facebook page about Mr. Hagel taking over the Pentagon.
U.S. officials say the positive tone coming from Tehran suggests a greater chance of U.S.-Iran talks this year. Iranian enthusiasm for Mr. Hagel contrasts with the appointments of two predecessors, Leon E. Panetta and Robert M. Gates, whose nominations were met with silence from Tehran.
Iranian media reports also welcomed Mr. Hagel for his anti-Israel views and for his opposition to military attacks on Iran. They see Mr. Hagel as defense secretary as a further deterioration in relations between the Obama administration and the government Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who won re-election this week.
Mr. Mehmanparast told reporters in Tehran that Mr. Hagel could be a sign of “practical changes in U.S. foreign policy.” However, he added that Iran does not place stock in official U.S. statements because in the past they did not translate into action. The state-run IRNA news agency called the secretary-designate someone “known for pro-Iran and anti-Zionist views.”
In Beijing, the state-controlled press also welcomed the nomination of Mr. Hagel.
The China Daily reported in early January that Mr. Hagel was facing a tough confirmation fight in Congress but “appears willing to work with China.”
Shen Dingli, a professor at the government-controlled Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai was quoted as saying: “I see Chuck Hagel is a good candidate. He had the honesty to oppose the Iraq War — a moderate and respectful Republican.”
The People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, said Mr. Hagel “repeatedly opposed sanctions against China as senator.”
“If Hagel serves as secretary of defense, it will to some extent boost the strength of rational pragmatists in the Obama administration,” Yuan Zheng, a researcher at the state-run Institute of American Studies, was quoted in the newspaper as saying.
Terror attack used insiders
Terrorists linked to al Qaeda who attacked a natural gas plant in Algeria last week relied on insiders at the facility as part of the plot, according to a report by an Algerian news outlet.
A report in Ennahar el-Djadid Online, based in Algiers, quoted Mokhtar Belmokhtar — who was identified as the “emir” of the Signed-in-Blood Battalion — as saying he used “former spies” who had been employed on short-term contracts from the British company BP in the attack on the facility.
The insiders worked as drivers, cooks and guards at the gas plant and provided intelligence on the entrances and exits as well as the residence complex, the guard system and details of buildings, the news outlet reported.
The Pentagon has said the attack, which killed some 37 hostages and 29 terrorists, appears to have been an operation of the group al Qaeda in the Ilsamic Maghreb (AQIM), the North African affiliate of the terrorist group.
“When it comes to terrorist attacks of this sort in North Africa, AQIM has to be at the top of the list of suspects, I’ll put it that way,” Pentagon press secretary George Little told reporters Tuesday.
Anti-Brotherhood protest set
Opponents of Egypt’s Islamist Muslim Brotherhood government are planning a protest this week and are mobilizing forces seeking to oust the administration of President Mohammed Morsi.
The protest is being organized by an informal coalition of opposition groups using Facebook and other social media to mobilize Egyptians for the action.
The opposition is opposing the Muslim Brotherhood and Mr. Morsi, who is affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to U.S. officials, more than 50 Facebook pages critical of the Brotherhood have been set up in the past several months.
A key theme of the Facebook protesters is that the Brotherhood is backed by foreign interests, and that Mr. Morsi is an agent of Western powers that seek to destroy Egypt.
According to the protesters’ online postings, demonstrations planned for Thursday are expected to turn out thousands of Egyptians and may spark violence.
The groups opposing the current government include a pro-Egyptian military group and public employees who claim the Brotherhood’s radical policies are harming the economy.
Some opponents alleged that Mr. Morsi was recruited by the CIA while teaching in California and that Egypt has received $1.5 billion in U.S. aid to support American policies.