Benghazi hearings: Not a circus
The House Oversight Committee hearings on the Benghazi attack that featured several state department whistleblowers could have easily beome a circus with members preening for the cameras and making speeches instead of asking questions.
For the most part, that wasn't the case yesterday.
Three State Department officials on Wednesday provided a riveting, emotional account of last year's fatal attack on U.S. installations in eastern Libya as they accused senior government officials of withholding embarrassing facts and failing to take enough responsibility for security lapses.
The testimony provided new details on the Sept. 11, 2012, assaults on U.S. installations in Benghazi and their aftermath. But the new information failed to break the political logjam the attacks spawned, with Republicans and Democrats offering starkly different interpretations of what happened and who within the U.S. government is to blame.
Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) opened the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing by saying that panel Democrats had "mostly sat silent" while Republicans tried to wrest the truth from an uncooperative Obama administration.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.), the senior Democrat on the committee, countered that Issa's GOP majority had launched a "full-scale media campaign . . . of unfounded accusations to smear public officials."
But in expanding the narrative of the intensely politicized episode, the witnesses raised fresh questions about whether then-Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and her deputies were sufficiently engaged in assessing the security posture of diplomatic posts last year.
Speaking before the panel, they also reiterated criticism of the administration's initial reluctance to describe the attacks as premeditated terrorist acts. The Libyan government had labeled the attacks a terrorist assault, and the absence of similar descriptions from the United States made it more difficult for Libyan officials to assist the FBI's investigation of the incident, according to the former deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Libya.
"It negatively affected our ability to get the FBI team quickly to Benghazi," Foreign Service officer Gregory Hicks said. President Mohamed Yusuf al-Magariaf was "insulted in front of his own people. His credibility was reduced. His ability to lead his country was damaged," Hicks said.
Hicks testified that a team of special ops soldiers in the Libyan capital of Tripoli could have been on the scene in time to have made a difference, but were told to "stand down." But the Pentagon says that the 4-man team was needed to protect diplomats in the capital and wouldn't have been able to arrive in time anyway.
Other efforts to organize a military rescue were considered unworkable says the Pentagon, and wouldn't have arrived in time.
Hicks also revealed that once he went off the reservation on the false talking points, he was harshly criticized and eventually demoted. This after having been praised by President Obama for his actions on the night of the attack.
In addition to the altered talking points that another witness, Mark Thompson, believe impeded the FBI investigation into the attack, there was criticism of the state department's "independent" commission that looked into the issues surrounding the attack.
One of the chairmen of the Accountability Review Board (ARB), Thomas Pickering, former high ranking state department official in the Clinton administration, bristled at the idea that the ARB hadn't done its job:
The State Department has defended the review carried out after the Benghazi assault, calling it exhaustive. The former top diplomat who led the probe, Thomas Pickering, told MSNBC that "the notion of a coverup," as some Republicans allege, "has the elements of Pulitzer Prize fiction."
This is typical Washington misdirection. No one is alleging a "cover-up" per se. The operative word is "white wash" where certain facts are simply not included and some witnesses aren't asked to give their version of events.
I described the purpose of the ARB in another blog post reporting that the state department IG is looking into the procedures of the ARB:
There may not have been any direct interference from the State Department into the review board's deliberations, but that's not the issue. Members of that board knew what their job was and set out to do it; absolve higher ups of responsibility. It's an old Washington game and is the purpose of many"independent" review panels.
Pickering served as Ambassador to Russia under Bill Clinton and also held the #3 post at State during the Clinton years. Mullen served as Obama's chairman of the joint chiefs for the first few years of his administration. Both men are old Washington hands and knew exactly what was expected of them. They delivered.
It will be very difficult for Republicans to keep this story alive unless they can convince the rest of the House and Senate to form a Select Committee on Benghazi made up of members from both chambers. This is extremely unlikely as long as Harry Reid refuses to allow a resolution to come to the floor.
Despite the responsible manner in which the hearing was conducted - except for the shameless smears offered by Democrats - interest in what happened in Benghazi is likely to wane over the next week. Without new revelations, the press will move on and the unanswered questions about the attack will remain a mystery.