Raising the stakes in the high-profile clash with congressional Republicans over last year’s terrorist attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, a person familiar with the State Department-chartered inquiry said investigators talked last year with CIA personnel who were on the ground during the attack and were briefed about the CIA’s activities at their secret base in the Libyan city.
The quality of the administration’s internal review — and its access for key participants involved in the incident — is a key point of contention as the House of Representatives gears up for a hearing next week on the Obama administration’s handling of the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.
The accountability review board “interviewed everyone that was there who played a role in the events such that their account was needed to answer the questions they had,” said the source familiar with the review, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, has promised bombshells at the hearing, which he says will “expose new facts and details that the Obama administration has tried to suppress.”
The hearing was announced as a Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee called on the upper chamber to supplement the House hearings to resolve remaining questions about the Benghazi incident.
“I strongly urge the Senate to hold new hearings on Benghazi” to get testimony from “people who were on the ground in Libya during the attacks,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Wisconsin Republican who clashed memorably in January with Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was secretary of state at the time. He added that he was “shocked” by press reports that survivors of the attack or other whistleblowers might have been intimidated by more senior officials within the Obama administration to keep silent.
Mr. Issa has publicly accused the State Department of trying to muzzle potential Benghazi witnesses by denying their attorneys clearances to discuss classified information, leading to speculation that his hearing will feature testimony from one or more whistleblowers. His office did not return phone calls or emails requesting comment.
Lawyers Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing, who say they are trying to represent Benghazi witnesses who want to testify publicly about what they know, on Thursday repeated claims that access to their clients was being inhibited by pressure from unidentified administration officials. Mr. diGenova said on Fox News that the hurdles he faced amounted to a “cover-up” and that the Accountability Review Board failed to interview key witnesses for its report, starting with Mrs. Clinton.
But the person familiar with the investigation by the accountability review board, which published a 40-page report last year, insisted that the board already interviewed 100 witnesses, including all the CIA and State Department personnel involved in the defense of the diplomatic post and of the secret CIA base known as the annex a few miles away.
They also had access to transcripts of all the FBI interviews of those and other witnesses.
“The unclassified report is the best account of the events as they unfolded,” he said, adding that, although the inquiry also issued a longer classified report, its conclusions were the same.
The classified version “amplifies and extends the account the Board gave [in the published version] but doesn’t in any way change the conclusions it came to,” said the person, who had access to both versions.
But neither version of the report has been able to satisfy Republican lawmakers in the House, who have maintained a steady barrage of pressure about what they say are unanswered questions concerning the attack, and the U.S. response during and after the seven-hour assault.
State Department officials say they have provided hours of testimony, including by two secretaries of state; and thousands of pages of documents, including — in an unprecedented move — the same FBI interview transcripts that the inquiry saw.
Mr. Issa has said the documents are brought to the Capitol each day by official minders, who watch staff as they review them, and take the documents back to the State Department at the end of the day. It is normal practice for the committee to be provided with copies of its own, which it stores in secure spaces in its office, Mr. Issa said in a letter last week to Secretary of State John F. Kerry.
It was also in this letter that Mr. Issa warned the State Department not to try to muzzle potential whistleblowers by denying their attorneys a security clearance.
The accountability review board report is facing further scrutiny from the State Department’s own inspector general’s office. A spokesman for the office said Thursday that the State Department was notified March 28 that the inspector general was beginning a “special review of the accountability review board process.”
“The review was already planned late last year,” said spokesman Doug Welty.
He said the review was set into motion after post-Benghazi inquiries were made by Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut independent, and Sen. Susan M. Collins, Maine Republican.
“It is not in response to, or as a result of the upcoming congressional hearings on the Benghazi attacks,” Mr. Welty said.
Mrs. Toensing, a Republican former U.S. prosecutor, told Fox News on Monday that she had been refused a clearance to represent a Benghazi whistleblower she said was a career Foreign Service officer.
The State Department replied Wednesday that it had not received any such requests for a security clearance.
That tale took another twist Thursday with department spokesman Patrick Ventrell accusing Mrs. Toensing of “lying.”
Since the State Department issued its denial, he said, Mrs. Toensing “has been in contact with us and is now going through the procedures to get a security clearance. But this individual was on TV repeatedly saying that they were being held back from getting a security clearance before they’d even picked up the phone to call us.”
“She was making false statements,” Mr. Ventrell added, “false statements are lying. … We had somebody who was on national television saying that we were blocking them from getting a security clearance, which was not true.”
For the third day in a row, Ms. Toensing declined to grant The Washington Times’ request for an interview.
Other House Republicans have expressed frustration that they cannot get answers from the administration about the survivors of the attack, one who was reportedly still in a hospital six months after the attack.
Rep. Frank R. Wolf, a Virginia Republican who heads an appropriations subcommittee that controls State Department budget, has written several letters to the department about this issue, saying he believes that the survivors should be recognized in some way. He has not received a reply, staffers said this week.
But the issue is complicated, officials say, because many of those who were at the CIA base near the main Benghazi compound might be undercover or covert operatives whose identities cannot be disclosed.
Moreover, said the source familiar with the inquiry, the panel and department itself both “have an obligation to protect people’s privacy” especially in regard to those who were wounded. “It was important that people weren’t forced into the glare” of the media frenzy around the attacks last year.
He added that many criticisms appeared to be thinly based. “The inventive quality of a lot of that analysis was shocking to me,” he said of Republican commentary on the attacks last year.
On the Senate side of the Capitol on Thursday, there was also “some Republican interest” in another Benghazi hearing like the one Mr. Johnson was calling for, one staffer said.
“But, as you know, the majority makes the decisions on hearings,” the staffer added.
A spokeswoman for Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said no such hearing was scheduled, but did not immediately respond to follow-up questions.
Whether or not the Senate holds hearings, the rekindling row threatens to overshadow a solemn ceremony at Foggy Bottom Friday.
Mr. Kerry will be joined by Vice President Joseph R. Biden to officially commemorate Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, the four Americans killed in the Benghazi attacks.
Their names are among a total of eight being unveiled during a special ceremony as additions to the Memorial Plaque located in the lobby of the State Department’s Foggy Bottom headquarters, the department announced.
The four others are Anne T. Smedinghoff, a Foreign Service officer, who died this month in Afghanistan from injuries sustained during a bombing; Ragaei Said Abdelfattah, a USAID Foreign Service officer, killed during a suicide bombing in Afghanistan in August; Joseph Gregory Fandino, a Foreign Service officer killed in Vietnam in 1972; and Francis J. Savage, a USAID Foreign Service officer, also killed in Vietnam, in 1967.