The White House on Monday attempted to deflect new criticism on the administration’s handling of the Benghazi attacks from a firsthand witness and an additional whistle-blower, arguing that an internal State Department review charged with investigating the September attacks was led by an “unimpeachable” team.
When confronted with reports of new complaints by whistle-blowers preparing to testify Wednesday before a House committee looking into the Benghazi attacks, Mr. Carney repeatedly touted the credentials of the two men charged with conducting the State Department’s Accountability Review Board and called their investigation “unsparing” and “highly critical.”
Retired Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Adm. Michael Mullen, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led the review, which faulted leadership and management deficiencies in two State Department offices in allowing the U.S. diplomatic post to become vulnerable to the attack that killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
“There was an accountability review board led by two men of unimpeachable expertise and credibility,” Mr. Carney said, “who oversaw a process that was rigorous and unsparing, that was highly critical in some areas and that produced a series of recommendations that have all been acted on by the State Department, as the president insisted be the case.”
Gregory Hicks, Mr. Stevens’ deputy and one of the top American diplomats in Libya during the attack, has criticized that review, saying it let people “off the hook.” The State Department’s Office of Inspector General now is investigating the findings of the review board, Fox News has reported.
Mr. Hicks also told congressional investigators last month that a special forces team in Tripoli, Libya, was told to stand down and not respond to the attack at a U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi despite its close proximity. In Mr. Hicks’ estimation, a second wave of attacks on a nearby CIA annex in Benghazi could have been prevented if the U.S. military could have scrambled a flight when it first learned of the attacks, which would go on for seven hours.
Pentagon officials have said they didn’t have military assets in position to launch such an air assault, and Mr. Hicks has acknowledged concerns that refueling tankers were not close enough to the nearest fighter jets.
Mr. Carney said he “didn’t have access to” Mr. Hicks’ interview and referred reporters to the Department of Defense and the Accountability Review Board.
He also repeated an assertion first made last week, arguing that the White House is “not aware of anyone being blocked from talking to Congress if they chose or wanted to speak to Congress.”
Mark. I. Thompson, a former Marine who now serves as the deputy coordinator for operations in the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism, also has told congressional investigators that then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton effectively cut the bureau out of the decision-making loop that night. Mr. Thompson also is set to testify Wednesday.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki has called the allegation “100 percent false,” and Daniel Benjamin, who ran the department’s Counterterrorism Bureau at the time, also put out a statement Monday morning strongly denying the charges.
“I ran the bureau then, and I can say now with certainty, as the former coordinator for counterterorrism, that this charge is simply untrue,” he said. “Though I was out of the country on official travel at the time of the attack, I was in frequent contact with the department. At no time did I feel that the bureau was in any way being left out of deliberations that it should have been part of.”
Mr. Carney also directly denied Mr. Thompson’s claim Monday, citing Mr. Benjamin’s statement.