The House Select Committee on Benghazi has demanded that a top Defense Department official testify after the committee interviewed a witness Thursday who says he was a drone sensor operator on the night of the attack — and is a person the official said in late April the department could not find.
Committee Chairman Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican, said he was stunned by Assistant Secretary of Defense Stephen Hedger’s delays in finding the drone operator, identified as “John from Iowa,” particularly after Mr. Hedger sent an error-filled message thinly accusing the committee of wasting the Pentagon’s time and money.
The committee heard from the drone operator Thursday, and Mr. Gowdy announced Friday that he had issued a subpoena to make Mr. Hedger testify next week on why it took him months to produce the man.
“This witness is still on active duty and confirmed Thursday the Air Force knew exactly who he was — a drone sensor operator who was operating over Benghazi on the night of the attacks,” Mr. Gowdy said.
In late April, Mr. Hedger wrote to Mr. Gowdy about a recent “crescendo” of requests of the Defense Department.
“The number and continued pace of these requests since February 2016 are in tension with your staff’s statements that the Committee expects to finish its investigation in the near term,” Mr. Hedger wrote.
Mr. Hedger said in his letter that the committee had asked to interview the person identified as “John from Iowa,” and only later asked for other drone operators’ information.
“The Department has expended significant resources to locate anyone who might match the description of the person, to no avail,” Mr. Hedger wrote.
Mr. Gowdy said it was the other way around — the committee sought the drone operators and narrowed in on “John” after the Defense Department couldn’t comply with a broader request for the names of all relevant personnel.
He said the testimony from “John” this week confirmed that the Air Force knew exactly who had called into a radio show in 2013, and that it appears the Defense Department had knowledge well in advance of who and where the operator was but claimed he not could be located anyway.
“They claimed ‘significant resources’ had been spent attempting to find him, but given the facts, it’s hard to imagine just how much incompetence would be required for that to be true,” the committee said.
Now, it is Mr. Hedger who will have to answer for his performance, Mr. Gowdy said.
“Mr. Hedger will now have the opportunity to detail exactly what ‘resources’ he ‘expended’ and how,” Mr. Gowdy said Friday. “I look forward to him explaining the serious questions that have arisen with respect to this matter, including whether they are related to incompetence or deliberate concealment of the witness from a congressional inquiry.”
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the ranking Democrat on the committee, slammed Republicans for what he called a “desperate distraction from a failed investigation” and that the decision to unilaterally subpoena legislative staff of the Pentagon was excessive.
A spokesman for the committee’s Democrats said the interview Thursday revealed little new information and it turned out that “John” was the person’s middle name.
But committee Republicans said the criticism was curious because no Democratic members showed up for Thursday’s interviews with either “John from Iowa” or another drone sensor operator, and that information was mined from the interviews.
“Chairman Gowdy wants answers under oath and he wants them quickly — a subpoena accomplishes both,” said communications director Jamal Ware. “The Democrats and administration incessantly whine about the committee’s length, so they shouldn’t be surprised when the committee cuts to the chase.”
Indeed, Mr. Gowdy has said he would like to finish the committee’s investigation into the attack as quickly as possible but that the Obama administration has delayed compliance with information requests.