As the investigation into the Obama administration’s handling of the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi intensifies, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are seeking to conduct transcribed interviews with thirteen top State Department officials in the coming weeks in order to learn more. Those named in the letter include a wide range of current and former State Department personnel, from senior advisers to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to mid-level career officials with responsibility for diplomatic security.
Among those officials: Jacob Sullivan, then deputy chief of staff and director of policy planning (and currently national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden); Victoria Nuland, then State Department spokesman; Raymond Maxwell, deputy assistant secretary of state for near east affairs; Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management; and Eric Boswell, former assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security.
In a letter dated May 17, 2013, Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry to request formally that Kerry make these current and former State Department employees available. “The State Department employees whose testimony the Committee is seeking are critical fact witnesses who are positioned to shed light on what happened before, during and after the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of four Americans in Benghazi.”
Issa reminded Kerry of his recent promise to run “an accountable and open State Department,” but noted that State’s “posture with respect to the congressional investigation of the Benghazi attacks has not lived up to your commitment to ‘provide answers.’” The State Department, Issa wrote, “continues to limit the Committee’s access to relevant documents and witnesses.” The transcribed interviews are likely a first step towards requesting—or demanding—congressional testimony for several of those listed.
In addition to the thirteen State Department officials, Issa’s committee will conduct a transcribed interview on June 3, with Ambassador Thomas Pickering, one of the two primary authors of the Administrative Review Board report on the Benghazi attacks. That investigation, which failed to interview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other officials with knowledge of the attacks, has not fared well under the additional scrutiny that it has attracted as more information on the attacks has become public. Sources tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the committee will likely seek to interview Admiral Mike Mullen, the other chief author of the ARB report, at some point in the near future.
Republicans on the committee hope that the next round of interviews will provide a better sense of the State Department’s role in providing security before the attacks, in the deliberations about a military response during the attacks and in the creation of the administration’s public narrative after the attacks.
Sullivan figured prominently in emails sent between senior Obama administration officials about the formulation of Benghazi talking points that were distributed to policymakers in Congress and the executive branch in the aftermath of the attacks. An email from a United Nations staffer to Ambassador Susan Rice, who would present the administration’s case on five Sunday talk shows on September 16, reported that Sullivan would work with officials from the intelligence community on those talking points. Subsequent emails between Sullivan and the U.N. staffer showed efforts to ensure that Rice was kept in the loop on those talking points.
In another email exchange, this one with State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, Sullivan reports that he will make edits to the talking points working with National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. Nuland had previously objected to some of the language in the talking points, on the grounds that members of Congress would be in a position to say things that she had not been allowed to say and that members might criticize the State Department for ignoring warnings about previous attacks.
Sullivan, in his email to Nuland, wrote: “I spoke with Tommy. We’ll work through this in the morning and get comments back.” Moments later, Sullivan reiterated the point: “Talked to Tommy. We can make edits.”
The emails contradict claims from Jay Carney and others that neither the White House nor the State Department played a significant role in editing the talking points. Several major edits were made to the talking points at or following a meeting of senior Obama administration officials during a secure video teleconference on Saturday morning.
Lawmakers want to ask Nuland about an email she sent expressing her concerns and those of her “building leadership” at the State Department to some of the contents of the talking points. In another email, Nuland notes that State Department leadership would be contacting the National Security Staff directly.
In testimony on January 23, Hillary Clinton claimed that the talking points were “an intelligence product” and that the “intelligence community was the principal decider about what went into the talking points.” But her testimony is contradicted by an email from the CIA’s Office of Public Affairs, which reported: “The State Department had major reservations with much or most of the document. We revised the document with their concerns in mind.”
Was Clinton involved in the revisions?
Beyond the talking points, lawmakers want answers to questions decisions on security before and during the attacks. Kennedy, who has testified previously about Benghazi, will no doubt face additional questions about his role in refusing to send the Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST) to Benghazi when the attack began. CBS’s Sharyl Attkisson reported this week that deployment of the FEST team to Benghazi was “ruled out from the start,” a “decision that became a source of internal dissent and the cause of puzzlement to some outsiders.” An official who spoke to Attkisson said that Kennedy dismissed the idea.
Maxwell, who was placed on “administrative leave” last winter, recently told Josh Rogin of the Daily Beast that he had nothing to do with decision making on Benghazi. “I had no involvement to any degree with decisions on security and the funding of our security at our diplomatic mission in Benghazi,” Maxwell said. Maxwell’s punishment came after the release of the ARB report, and Rogin reports that Maxwell has never had access to the classified version of that report, where some of the State Department’s failures are laid out.
The same is true for Greg Hicks, former deputy chief of mission in Libya, who recently offered in congressional testimony a critical assessment of State Department leadership during and after the Benghazi attacks. Victoria Toensing, who is representing Hicks, says he has still not been allowed to review the classified version of the ARB report, despite his having been interviewed for it.
This lack of access to the classified ARB report is one of many questions Pickering will face when he is interviewed early next month. Why not let Hicks and others interviewed for the report see the final product?
In addition, lawmakers will press Pickering on a report that many consider to be a whitewash. Not only did the ARB team fail to interview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, they didn’t speak with lower-level personnel in the chain of decision making who had volunteered to speak with them. One of those officials, Mark Thompson, the State Department’s acting deputy assistant secretary of state for counterterrorism, offered to share his experience from that evening with the ARB, but was never contacted for an interview.
Thompson was one of a handful of State Department officials who had a firsthand view of what was happening in Libya that night. When he learned that Ambassador Chris Stevens was missing and that others had sought safe haven, Thompson testified, he told his leadership at the State Department “that we needed to go forward and consider the deployment of the Foreign Emergency Support Team.”
“I notified the White House,” Thompson continued. “They indicated that meetings had already taken place that evening” and that FEST would not be deployed.
Did the ARB leadership believe this testimony wasn’t relevant to their investigation? Or was it inconvenient to the conclusion they wanted to reach?