The Obama administration found itself in the cross hairs of mounting Republican frustration Tuesday over national security policy, with particular focus on unanswered questions surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings last month and the terrorist attack last year on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
With 134 Republican members of the GOP-controlled House now signed on to a bill that would create a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, seethed that U.S. national security has “deteriorated” under President Obama’s watch.
“If Benghazi is not an example of system failure before, during and after the attack, what would be?” asked Mr. Graham. “If Boston is not an example of a pre-9/11 stovepiping mentality, what would be?”
Mr. Graham made the remarks on a day when Mr. Obama told reporters that he was unaware of recent accusations by Benghazi whistleblowers that they were being intimidated by the administration over their cooperation with congressional investigators.
While Mr. Obama pledged to look into the matter, State Department officials vowed closer communication with Congress about Benghazi while seeking to discredit a media report that claimed someone in the administration warned CIA and State Department officials not to speak out about the incident.
When asked about the report, Secretary of State John F. Kerry responded that “there’s an enormous amount of misinformation out there” and that he was appointing his own chief of staff, David Wade, to work directly with lawmakers in an effort to answer any questions related to the Benghazi attack, in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
“We have to demythologize this issue and certainly depoliticize it,” said Mr. Kerry. “The American people deserve answers. I’m determined that this will be an accountable and open State Department as it has been in the past, and we will continue to do that, and we will provide answers.”
Later Tuesday, another State Department official took on a dismissive posture toward a report Monday by Fox News. In the report, Washington power lawyer Victoria Toensing said she is representing a State Department employee who has been threatened by unidentified Obama administration officials not to cooperate with lawmakers seeking to keep the Benghazi attack in the headlines.
“The State Department would never tolerate or sanction retaliation against whistleblowers on any issue, including this one,” said the department’s deputy spokesman, Patrick Ventrell. “That’s an obligation we take very seriously.”
Mrs. Toensing, a former Justice Department official and former Republican counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, also told Fox that at least four career officials at the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency have retained attorneys or are in the process of doing so, as they prepare to provide sensitive information about the Benghazi attack to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Her claims appeared to dovetail with a letter written Friday to Mr. Kerry by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, suggesting that the State Department is deliberately making it difficult for private lawyers to achieve security clearances needed for the lawyers to represent department officials.
“In each case, witnesses may need to share sensitive or classified information with their lawyers,” wrote Mr. Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “The Department’s unwillingness to make the process for clearing an attorney more transparent appears to be an effort to interfere with the rights of employees to furnish information to Congress.”
But Mr. Ventrell on Tuesday said that the department’s leadership was “not aware of any employees who have requested … security clearances for private attorneys in connection with Benghazi.”
“In the event of such requests, the department has a security clearance process in place under which clearances can be provided to private attorneys who are representing individual employees of this building,” said Mr. Ventrell. “We’re not aware of any.”
The State Department’s office of inspector general had no comment on the situation Tuesday, although an official in the office said “we really haven’t heard anything about it.”
“It’s not something that anybody has tried to get us involved in” either on the administration’s behalf or from whistleblower lawyers, the official said.
Mrs. Toensing did not responded to multiple requests for comment.
It was not clear whether the State and CIA officials to whom Mrs. Toensing drew attention in the Fox report were among survivors of the Benghazi attack. Some of the survivors reportedly received treatment — even recently — at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for injuries sustained in the attack.
In a March 1 letter to Mr. Kerry, Republican Reps. Frank R. Wolf of Virginia and Jim Gerlach of Pennsylvania said that an unidentified but “reliable source” informed them that “as many as 30 Americans (including State Department and CIA personnel and government contractors) may have been injured in the attack.”
Regarding reports that Mr. Kerry had made a secret visit to one of the survivors at the hospital in Bethesda, Mr. Wolf said that “if somebody’s still being treated six months after the attack, I think the American people need to have the truth.”
In a statement Tuesday evening, Mr. Wolf said Mr. Kerry’s office never responded to his March 1 letter.
“It is clear that the administration just wants the issue of Benghazi to go away,” he said. “But I sincerely hope that Congress will not aid this White House cover up of the mistakes made by high-level members of the administration that cost four brave Americans their lives.”
Mr. Wolf also said 134 House Republicans “have stood up to this cover-up” by co-sponsoring a bill he introduced months ago to create a select committee to deepen investigations about Benghazi by several congressional committees.
“Just one week has passed since the release of the interim progress report on Benghazi by the five committees currently investigating the attack, and already 14 more members of Congress have signed on” to the bill calling for the creation of a separate, select committee, he said.
Obama unaware of report
The president said Tuesday that he was unaware of any allegations of intimidation made by Benghazi whistleblowers.
“I’m not familiar with this notion that anybody’s been blocked from testifying,” Mr. Obama said in response to a question during a news conference in the White House briefing room. “What I’ll do is find out what exactly you’re referring to.”
The White House initially said the attack in Benghazi was likely spontaneous and sparked by demonstrations in other Middle Eastern cities against an amateur anti-Muslim YouTube video, which was produced by a U.S.-based Egyptian Christian.
Administration officials later characterized the attacks as an organized terrorist assault.
Mr. Graham, meanwhile, argued that the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attack was just the start of a pattern of bad management that also can be seen in the aftermath of the Boston bombings.
Democrats, including Mr. Obama, have defended the administration’s handling of the war on terrorism generally, by pointing to the death of Osama bin Laden and, joined by some Republicans, are cautioning against politicizing the Boston bombings.
Several lawmakers have defended the FBI and the U.S. intelligence community for not doing more to chase down intelligence chatter from Russia about the two suspects, both Chechen Muslims, prior to the bombings. They note that the Kremlin did not respond to several entreaties from U.S. law enforcement for more information about the Tsarnaevs and note that Moscow has its own political reasons for exaggerating Chechens’ ties to terrorism.
But Mr. Graham appeared eager to suggest that the White House’s overall posture toward the threat of terrorism has not been serious enough and that, as a result, the administration has fostered a law enforcement and intelligence environment susceptible to missteps and failures.
• Jerry Seper and Susan Crabtree contributed to this report.