Lawmakers grilled State Department witnesses about who knew what, and when. “The Taliban is on the inside of the building,” says a security officer.
Image by Jose Luis Magana / Reuters
WASHINGTON — State Department officials defended early, inaccurate statements about the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi at a hearing on Capitol Hill Wednesday.
Republicans on the committee honed in particularly on a Sept. 16 statement by Ambassador Susan Rice on Meet the Press, in which Rice called the attacks "a spontaneous reaction to what had just transpired hours before in Cairo, almost a copycat of the demonstrations against our facility in Cairo, prompted by the video" on YouTube disparaging Muhammed.
Since then, the administration has said its understanding of the attack has been "evolving," and officials Wednesday declined to engage in the details of what has been widely reported as a planned, armed assault, not a spontaneous protest.
"With 35 years of experience, I choose to wait until the investigation is complete before drawing a conclusion," Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Charlene Lamb said.
Under Secretary Patrick Kennedy also defended the State Department's early statements. "We wanted to know what was happening more than anyone else," he said. "We were looking for every piece of information we could get.
Rice was reportedly working off Central Intelligence Agency guidance on the attack.
But Lt. Col. Andrew Wood, who was not working for the Department of Defense on Sept. 11 of this year , said what transpired was "instantly recognizable to me as a terrorist attack."
Committee Chairman Darrell Issa said he planned to request a classified interview with Rice.
The parties also sparred over the reasons that the State Department appeared to economize on security, as witnesses agreed that additional security forces likely could have done little to quell the attack — and that the State Department did not have the resources to commit extra forces, in spite of repeated requests for more protection from department personnel in Libya.
Eric Nordstrom, a former regional security officer at the U.S. embassy in Libya, recalled expressing the need for more security forces to a regional director. According to Nordstrom, the man replied, "You're asking for the sun, the moon and the stars."
Nordstrom said he responded: "You know what is the most frustrating about this assignment? It’s not the hardships, it’s not the gunfire, it’s not the threats. It’s dealing, and fighting, against the people, programs and personnel who are supposed to be supporting me. And I added it by saying ‘For me, the Taliban is on the inside of the building.’”
The Democrats on the committee circulated a memo during the hearing outlining spending cuts pushed by Republicans that might have affected security on the ground in Benghazi.
California Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a Republican, asked Lamb, deputy assistant secretary of state, if cost had been a factor in the decision not to increase security forces. She said it was not.
Democrats also said in advance of the hearing Wednesday that it was politically motivated, scheduled 27 days prior to the election to incur the most damage electorally.
And, indeed, Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking Democrat on the committee, said in his opening statements that he hoped the committee would "put partisanship behind us and focus on the security of our personnel."