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Partisanship Fuels Competing Narratives Over Benghazi Attack

Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call
Issa, left, led the Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing Wednesday during which Hicks testified about the September attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya.

New evidence revealed on Capitol Hill on Wednesday suggested senior State Department officials were involved in key decisions prior to the lethal attack on the U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, last September and the mischaracterizations of that attack afterward.

Those revelations are sure to feed the continued Republican-led investigations into the incident, but they did nothing to convince Democrats that GOP outrage on Benghazi is anything more than partisan gamesmanship.

“We all watched today as unsubstantiated Republican allegations disintegrated one by one,” the House Oversight Committee’s ranking Democrat, Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, said in a statement issued near the end of a more than five-hour hearing. “What should have been a bipartisan investigation involving our national security was another sorry example of Republicans promising explosive new facts but delivering only a press spectacle.”

Democrats did succeed in countering many of the claims the witnesses — Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., dubbed them “whistle-blowers” — made regarding the U.S. military’s response to the Sept. 11 attack, which left Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other State Department employees dead.

And there is still no evidence that anyone at the highest levels of government — President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton or top military brass — was culpable either in decisions related to securing the compound, responding to the violence or the mistaken assertion, repeated by some officials, that the attack was the outgrowth of a spontaneous protest.

It’s also unclear whether most Senate Republicans share the same level of outrage as their House counterparts.

The ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Bob Corker of Tennessee, told MSNBC before the House hearing began that “I feel like I know what happened in Benghazi. I’m fairly satisfied.”

The hearing did, however, raise new questions about the behavior of several top players at Foggy Bottom, who up to this point have avoided scrutiny or fallout.

In particular, Clinton’s counselor and chief of staff Cheryl Mills, Undersecretary of State for Management Patrick F. Kennedy and Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Beth Jones found themselves in the cross hairs of the GOP and the hearing’s witnesses.

No one at Kennedy or Mills’ political level has been held accountable for the events surrounding the Benghazi attack. An independent panel, known as an Accountability Review Board, reprimanded four other mid-level State Department employees, who have been relieved of their posts and placed on administrative leave.

In one of the hearing’s more dramatic moments, Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., read a Sept. 12 email from Jones to the packed audience, which he said was sent to Mills, Kennedy, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland and others. In it, Jones recounts how she told the Libyan ambassador “that the group that conducted the attacks, Ansar al Sharia, is affiliated with Islamic terrorists.” That message, sent the day after the assault, contradicts later administration statements — including those United Nations Ambassador Susan E. Rice made on Sunday talk shows four days later — that claimed the attack was the results of a protest against an anti-Muslim video.

Gregory N. Hicks, the deputy chief of mission in Tripoli at the time of the attacks, also testified that Mills called and berated him after he held a classified briefing with Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, a member of the Oversight Committee who was in Libya as part of a fact-finding delegation after the attack — something Republicans on the panel suggested was part of a broader State Department cover-up of the incident.

“She was very upset,” Hicks recalled.

Republicans pounced. Mills “is the fixer for the secretary of State. She is as close as you can get to Secretary Clinton, is that accurate?” Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, asked.

“Yes, sir,” said Hicks.

He also told lawmakers that Jones “summoned me to her office” when he was in Washington and “delivered a blistering critique of my management style.”

“In hindsight,” Hicks said, “I think it began after I asked the question about Ambassador Rice’s statement on the TV shows.”

Eric Nordstrom, a diplomatic security officer who served in Libya until last summer, singled out Kennedy in his written testimony to the committee, suggesting the undersecretary rejected requests to bring the facilities in both Benghazi and Tripoli up to compliance with State Department security standards.

“I was told by Diplomatic Security (DS) and Overseas Building Operations (OBO) officials that the U/S for Management had authorized occupancy of the building ‘as is,’” Nordstrom said in his written statement, using the abbreviation for undersecretary.

Hicks, too, said that given Kennedy’s role overseeing State Department operations and facilities, he “has to bear some responsibility.”

In his written statement, Nordstrom also pointed out that the waiver for security requirements “for buildings solely occupied by the US government overseas must be approved by the secretary of State and cannot be delegated.”

Since there is no waiver on file, “the obvious question,” he said, is “if the secretary of State did not waive these requirements, who did so by ordering occupancy of the facilities in Benghazi and Tripoli?”

Nordstrom faulted the Accountability Review Board, which was headed up by veteran diplomat Thomas R. Pickering and retired Adm. Mike Mullen and released its findings in December, for focusing its evaluation on lower-level officials.

“For the ARB to ignore the role senior Department leadership played before, during, and after the 11 September attacks ... is inexplicable,” Nordstrom testified.

There were conflicting claims at the hearing as to whether or not Pickering and Mullen had been invited or had refused to testify before the committee.

But Pickering said on MSNBC on Wednesday that he had been willing to appear before the panel.

“I made that clear yesterday. The White House, I understand, made that clear to Mr. Issa,” Pickering said. “He declined. I don’t know the reasons for that, made some statement about perhaps sometime later we could come.”

Pickering also defended the review board’s conclusions that mid-level State Department officials were ultimately responsible for the security failures surrounding Benghazi.

“We met with Hillary Clinton ... before the report was finalized,” Pickering said. “We believed we understood exactly what had happened, particularly in the decision-making chain where she might have been relevant. We believed and we still believe the decision-making was made quite well below her level.”

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