House Republicans criticized the Obama administration on Thursday for mishandling security at the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi before and during the deadly Sept. 11 terrorist attack, when the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three additional Americans were killed.
"The coordinated, preplanned, and brazen attacks against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on Sept. 11 was an outrage," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.) said during an open House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing she led. "Also disgraceful is the sad parade of conflicting accounts of the attack that we have received from administration officials in the weeks and months since."
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Senior U.S. intelligence, law enforcement, and State Department officials also met behind closed doors in both the House and Senate to explain why there were few security forces to protect the compound in Benghazi and a CIA annex about a mile away.
Former CIA Director David Petraeus is set to testify Friday, also behind closed doors. He is expected to be questioned about a still-classified review of the events of Sept. 11 in Benghazi. Petraeus was quoted by CNN as saying his resignation was not linked to the Benghazi scandal.
Meanwhile the CIA said in a statement last night that it is conducting an exploratory investigation into Petraeus’ conduct.
"At the CIA we are constantly reviewing our performance," an agency spokesman said. "If there are lessons to be learned from this case we'll use them to improve. But we're not getting ahead of ourselves; an investigation is exploratory and doesn’t presuppose any particular outcome."
The CIA had been working in Benghazi with a State Department program to recover some of the thousands of weapons that circulated in Libya during and after the revolution and Western intervention last year that ousted Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi.
White House National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon declined to answer questions about Benghazi when asked by the Washington Free Beacon following a speech Thursday.
Meanwhile the CIA briefing notes used by U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice when she asserted on television shortly after the attack that it was a "spontaneous" demonstration gone bad were leaked.
CBS News disclosed the talking points produced by the CIA and used by Rice in five Sunday talk show interviews. They reveal the CIA believed "the currently available information suggests that the demonstrations in Benghazi were spontaneously inspired by the protests at the US Embassy in Cairo and evolved into a direct assault against the US diplomatic post in Benghazi and subsequently its annex."
"There are indications that extremists participated in the violent demonstrations," the assessment said.
That assessment later proved false. There were no protests but there was an assault using rocket propelled grenades, mortars, and small arms carried out by several dozen terrorists associated with the al Qaeda-linked Libyan militia known as Ansar al-Sharia.
Rice’s inaccurate comments have put her chances of becoming secretary of state in jeopardy. Senate Republicans have vowed to block her future nomination for the post because of the comments. President Barack Obama said on Wednesday that he has not made any decisions on who might succeed current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Few details are available of the classified meetings of the House and Senate intelligence oversight committees.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R., Ga.), vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, said the 30 minute video shown to the committee showed the "horrible, horrific actions" in Benghazi.
"We got to see it real life and up close," he told Fox News.
"There were a bunch of bad guys who stormed this consulate in Benghazi, some carrying automatic weapons, others not carrying automatic weapons or any weapons, but firing [rocket propelled grenades], firing mortars into facility as well as to the [CIA] annex down the road," he aid. "Which means that it was very clear … from Day One this was a terrorist attack."
Chambliss also said the hearing made clear U.S. intelligence agencies did not plan to put out any "unclassified talking points" about the attack and the administration’s response to it in the near future.
Chambliss said the intelligence committee would hold two additional close-door hearings and one public hearing.
The officials who testified included Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, acting CIA Director Michael Morell, National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen, FBI Deputy Director Sean Joyce, and Under Secretary of State for Management Patrick Kennedy.
At one of the closed sessions, lawmakers engaged in heated exchanges with the officials over the talking points and who had approved them, Fox News Channel reported.
According to Fox News, neither Clapper nor Morell knew who finalized the talking points used by Rice.
"At the end of the day we’re going to have an open hearing where the American people will be able to determine for themselves and to hear from these folks [government officials] and make a decision about what they think happened," Chambliss said.
Asked if Rice relayed inaccurate CIA information about the attack in public comments or was the result of White House political maneuvering, Chambliss said: "What Susan Rice said was exactly what President Obama told her to say."
Chambliss said Obama’s statement criticizing Sens. John McCain and Lindsay Graham for their criticism of Rice was "uncalled for."
"Because it looks like they were getting ready to throw her under the bus" for the comments, he said.
"But the fact is she was making a political statement. I don’t think there’s any question about that, " Chambliss said.
Petraeus' testimony is needed for the "minute-by-minute" events of what happened in Benghazi, Chambliss said, noting that Petraeus was in Libya in the aftermath of the attack and "we look forward to hearing from him on that aspect."
Chambliss said there is no information to indicate that the CIA was holding Libyan militia members in detention in Libya.
Morell also was asked about comments made by Petraeus to House members in September that the Benghazi attack was the result of a "flash mob." Morell ducked answering the question by saying he was not present at the Petraeus briefing.
Ros-Lehtinen harshly criticized the administration for failing to provide security forces and other measures to protect the compound at the open House Foreign Affairs hearing.
"Successive revelations in public reports indicate that the administration failed to adequately protect the American consulate and denied consulate requests for additional security," she said.
Ros-Lehtinen said the administration was warned of the deteriorating security situation in Benghazi a month before the attack and that 10 Islamic militias and extremist training camps were in the city.
"Yet, the administration denied repeated requests for additional security measures," she said.
The provisional Libyan government relied on a local militia, the Feb. 17 Brigade, to provide security for the compound. However, the brigade members were unable to protect the facility that was burned and looted during the Sept. 11 raid.
Ros-Lehtinen said that the failure to bolster security in Benghazi prior to the Sept. 11 attack "appears to repeat the same disastrous pattern" of past embassy security failures.
"This time we must learn the lessons and fix the problems," she said. "In addressing these underlying issues, we must move past the perennial question of, what did the administration know and when did they know it, and toward actually defining the problem."
The administration has thus far provided incomplete answers and conflicting timelines of events surrounding the terror attack.
Obama said on Wednesday that he ordered subordinates to do everything possible to help the people under attack in Benghazi. But he declined to say what specific steps were ordered and what was actually done.
"And I’m happy to cooperate in any ways that Congress wants," Obama said. "We have provided every bit of information that we have, and we will continue to provide information. And we’ve got a full-blown investigation, and all that information will be disgorged to Congress."
Ros-Lehtinen said Secretary Clinton would testify next month on the security scandal after a review is completed.
CNN reported that lawmakers at the intelligence committee hearings were shown a video recovered from the compound that shows the attack as it was taking place.
The officials said the lawmakers were told what steps were taking place behind the scenes in Washington and at the U.S. Africa Command headquarters in Europe on how to deal with the attack.
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R., Calif.) said the administration lied to the American people about the attack.
"What is clear is that this administration, including the president himself, has intentionally misinformed, read that lied, to the American people in the aftermath of this tragedy," Rohrabacher said. "The arrogance and dishonesty reflected in all of this is a little bit breathtaking, and it's about time that the president of the United States decide to level with the American people. Let's find out the facts. Let's not stonewall this issue and cover up mistakes, as appears to be happening today."
Rep. Gary Ackerman (D., N.Y.) called the Republican criticism "hypocrisy."
"The stench of hypocrisy that hangs over this city today emanates from this room," Ackerman said. "I've listened to my colleagues talk about the president of the United States and others in the administration using [the] terms ‘deliberate,' ‘lies,' ‘unmitigated gall,' ‘malfeasance,' which is malicious and knowing evil-doing, ‘disgust,' ‘coverups.'"
"If you want to know who is responsible in this town, buy yourself a mirror!" he said.