WASHINGTON — Two years after the terror attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, many Republicans still have unanswered questions about security issues related to the incident.
But the first hearing of a new special congressional committee investigating the attack got under way Wednesday without the fireworks that have marked the many previous congressional inquiries.
The September 11, 2012, attack left U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Sean Smith, Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods dead, and immediately sparked controversy, with Republicans accusing the Obama administration of mishandling the attack and manipulating the talking points used to discuss it for political reasons.
Numerous investigations into the attack have been championed on the right by media organizations such as Fox News and by Republicans, including former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa.
‘Final, definitive accounting’
The goal of this latest committee — the House Benghazi Select Committee — is to “produce the final, definitive accounting on behalf of Congress of what happened before, during and after the terrorist attacks on our facilities in Benghazi,” according to committee Communications Director Jamal D. Ware.
“Some question the need for this committee and I respect their right to dissent,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-South Carolina — chairman of the select committee — said in his opening remarks. “We know that not all the documents have not yet been produced and we know that there are still witnesses left to be examined and we also know that there are witnesses who have been examined in the past but for whom additional questions may be warranted.”
Democrats have long argued that the questions Republicans want answered about the attack have already been answered — including whether then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton personally authorized cables that reduced State Department security and whether the Pentagon failed to deploy military assets that could have saved lives on the night of the attacks.
Democrats on the committee also say an independent Accountability Review Board and seven congressional committees have already interviewed dozens of witnesses, reviewed tens of thousands of pages of documents, conducted numerous interviews and briefings, held multiple hearings and issued nine separate classified and unclassified reports on the attacks. This latest hearing amounts to nothing more than a fishing expedition, they argue.
“Too often over the past two years, the congressional investigation into what happened in Benghazi has devolved into unseemly partisanship,” said Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee. “Today we have an opportunity to focus on reform. How can we learn from the past to make things better in the future?”
Wednesday’s hearing, titled “Implementation of the Accountability Review Board Recommendations” — a topic the committee spokesman said was selected by Democrats — is aimed at examining the steps being taken to implement dozens of security recommendations. Gregory Starr, assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security, Mark J. Sullivan; former director of the U.S. Secret Service, and Todd Keil, former assistant secretary for infrastructure protection at the Department of Homeland Security testified before the committee.
“Like you, we want to keep our people safe,” Starr said in his opening testimony. A good deal of progress has been made in implementing recommendations to mitigate the risk to U.S. personnel in dangerous places, he said.
However, he added, “While we can do everything we can to reduce the risk, we can never eliminate it fully.”
Sullivan said better communication, planning and logistics and risk management might have helped prevent the deaths in Benghazi, and said improvements were being made in each of those areas.
Keil raised questions about whether U.S. personnel even need to be stationed in dangerous places and said there must be a risk management process put in place to answer that key question.
The alleged mastermind of the attack, Ahmed Abu Khatallah, was captured in Libya earlier this year and brought back to the United States. He pleaded not guilty on June 28 to one count of providing material support to terrorists.