The leaders of the State Department’s Benghazi probe defended their inquiry into the 2012 attack, but they acknowledged to Congress on Thursday that their mission was limited in scope and faced questions over why they gave Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton an advance look at their findings.
Retired Adm. Mike Mullen, vice chairman of the accountability review board, also acknowledged that he had warned Mrs. Clinton’s chief of staff not to send a particular official to Congress because he thought “she would be a weak witness” who might have hurt the State Department’s stance.
Republicans said those moves called into question the motives of the review, which was supposed to be an independent look at what went wrong in the attack and how to prevent others.
“If this is so independent, why are you giving the State Department a heads-up about a witness coming in front of this committee?” said Rep. Jim Jordan, Ohio Republican. He said the warning came just days after Adm. Mullen had been appointed to the review board.
Adm. Mullen testified to the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee alongside former Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering, chairman of the review board.
Also appearing before the committee were the parents of two of the Americans who died in the attacks. They said the government failed them and has not been truthful about the events surrounding the assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission, falsely blaming the attack on reaction to a YouTube video critical of Islam.
“I was told a few things, and they were all lies,” said Pat Smith, mother of State Department officer Sean Smith. She said President Obama and his top aides came up to her at the casket ceremony when her son’s body was returned to the U.S.
“Every one of them came up to me, gave me a big hug, and I asked them what happened. Please tell me. And every one of them said it was the video. And we all know that it wasn’t the video. Even at that time they knew it wasn’t the video. So they all lied to me,” she said.
Also Thursday, Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the oversight committee, said he has signed subpoenas to demand testimony from two witnesses who he said talked to the review board but whom the State Department has refused to allow to talk to Congress.
“The State Department has not made those people available, has played hide-and-go-seek and is now hiding behind a thinly veiled statement that there is a criminal investigation,” Mr. Issa said.
The attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi and follow-up attack on an annex building left four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, dead.
The incident became a major controversy for Mr. Obama and his team, who first blamed a mob responding to the anti-Islam video before later acknowledging that the attack was a coordinated terrorist assault.
The review board was created to investigate the security lapses that led to the attack and the lack of response from the government during the two assaults, which spanned eight hours.
Mr. Pickering defended the conclusions, which identified a handful of department employees who failed at their jobs, and made recommendations about security precautions.
“I am aware that no report will ever be perfect, but I am proud of this one, which has been seen by many as clear, cogent and very hard-hitting, as it should be,” Mr. Pickering said. “New information is always welcome. I feel that this report is still on the mark, free of cover-up and political tilt, and will personally welcome anything new which sheds light on what happened and that helps us to protect American lives and property in the future.”
Adm. Mullen said board members interviewed everyone they thought was necessary, more than 100 people, to draw their conclusions.
He said the list of those they interviewed didn’t include Mrs. Clinton, who appointed four out of the review board’s five members, nor did they interview Tom Donilon, national security adviser at the time, because they saw no evidence that either of them made key decisions related to the attack.
“We followed the precepts that Adm. Mullen has just outlined for you, not to go for the people who didn’t make the decisions, but to go, following the will of Congress, to the people who made the decisions,” Mr. Pickering said. “And indeed, we went to the people who reviewed those decisions.”
Republicans weren’t satisfied.
“If the secretary wasn’t involved, I must be on another planet,” said Rep. John L. Mica, Florida Republican.
At another point Rep. Jason Chaffetz, Utah Republican, questioned why no military rescue mission had been mounted, saying the U.S. didn’t even ask for assistance from NATO allies who were close to the scene.
“I actually commanded NATO forces, and the likelihood that NATO could respond in a situation like that was absolutely zero,” Adm. Mullen fired back.
Democrats said Republican accusations of a whitewash were out of bounds.
“Based on all of the evidence obtained by this committee, this Benghazi review was one of the most comprehensive ARB reviews ever conducted,” said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee. “I’ve seen no evidence, none whatsoever, to support these reckless accusations.”
Ahead of the hearing, committee Democrats released a report concluding that there was never a “stand-down” order issued to Americans at the main embassy in Tripoli, Libya’s capital, who might have mounted a rescue mission. That contradicts a claim many Republicans have made.
But Charles Woods, father of Tyrone Woods, one of the former SEALs who was killed in the attack, was not convinced.
“We need to ask the people that were there, not rely upon hearsay evidence as to whether or not there was an order to stand down,” he told the committee. “Ambassador Stevens was alive for a substantial period of time after he made that initial distress call. It’s very possible that there would have been no loss of life if that first order to stand down had not been given. We need to find that out.”