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May 08, 2013

Revisiting Benghazi
Posted by James Lamond

IssaToday’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform hearing on Benghazi: Exposing Failure and Recognizing Courage chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa raised more questions than it answered. These are not questions about the assault on Benghazi or the response to the events, but rather questions on the process and rationale behind the hearing.

The tragic Benghazi attack has been thoroughly examined and has established a record with more than 30 hearings, interviews and briefings with senior government officials – including high-profile hearings with former Secretaries Clinton and Panetta as well as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey; the review of more than 25,000 pages of documents; and a thorough investigation by an Accountability Review Board (ARB), chaired by two distinguished nonpartisan statesmen: Ambassador Thomas Pickering and Admiral Michael Mullen.

Meanwhile, today’s hearing was the follow-up to a report released last month by the Republican chairs of five committees, who excluded their Democratic counterparts from the process - an unusual move on a sensitive national security issue. Needless to say there are a few flaws with the process going into the hearing and concerns about how the Committee’s methodology for its investigation.

Witness list: Was Amb. Pickering denied an invitation to testify? This morning a new controversy emerged about the witness list. Chairman Issa claimed in his opening remarks that Amb. Pickering was asked to testify but declined. The State Department disputed this telling ABC News that “Ambassador Pickering volunteered to appear… But Issa said no.” And Amb. Pickering told Andrea Mitchell “Yes, I'm willing to testify.” Jonathan Karl has the full back and forth on this.

Amb. Pickering, in addition to leading the ARB is one of America’s most distinguished and accomplished career diplomats having served as Ambassador to Israel under President Reagan, President H.W. Bush’s UN Ambassador and Undersecretary in the Clinton administration.

If he was denied a spot in today’s hearing this raises a lot of questions about the purpose of the hearing. Much of the hearing focused on the method of the investigation done by the ARB, and Pickering is best in a position to address and answer these concerns. He answers many of the main points in an interview this morning with Andrea Mitchell including the availability and logistics for the aircraft show of force discussed in the hearing and he states that the ARB did in fact interview Sec. Clinton, despite claims to the contrary. If the purpose of the hearing was to determine what happened and address concerns about the ARB report, then Amb. Pickering would be a logical witness to have appear.

Military’s role in the hearing. It is also curious, considering that much of the controversy is over the military response, why there was not a representative from the Pentagon at the hearing to discuss the military deliberations and operations logistics. Spencer Ackerman reports today that Pentagon officials insist “there was just no way that a small team of special-operations forces could have saved four Americans in Benghazi during last September’s deadly attacks.” This was an important part of the discussion in today’s hearing and if there are still concerns remaining from the previous investigations and hearings – including Chairman Depmsey’s testimony – then a representative from the Pentagon able to speak to these issues should have been present.

FEST deployment. One of the items discussed in today’s hearing was whether or not the deployment of the Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST) could have been deployed quickly enough to save lives in Benghazi. The FEST is the “United States Government's only interagency, on-call, short-notice team poised to respond to terrorist incidents worldwide.” While it is a rapid response team there remains a question about how quickly such a team can actually be deployed. The website for the FEST states that the team “leaves for an incident site within four hours of notification, providing the fastest assistance possible.” The Defense Threat Reduction Agency’s Foreign Consequence Management  Deskbook goes into details about the process and timing:

“In the event of a terrorist incident, a Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST) and/or Consequence Management Support Team (CMST) could be deployed to assist the country team in coordinating the U.S. response…  DOS will work with the National Security Council (NSC) to coordinate interagency deliberations to: 1) assess requests for U.S. assistance, 2) identify the specific support to be provided and the agencies that will provide that support, and 3) develop the initial guidance required for responding organizations. This process may take between 4 to 6 hours, but a decision to deploy the FEST could occur within 30 minutes of the event and it could be airborne within 4 hours. More time (i.e., up to a few additional hours) would probably be needed to deploy a CMST.”

Amb. Daniel Benjamin who was the top counterterrorism official at the State Department at the time of the attack spoke specifically to the decision making that took place on that day regarding the FEST deployment:

“After the attack, the first question to arise that involved the CT Bureau was whether or not the Foreign Emergency Support Team (FEST) should be deployed. This interagency team is designed to assist and advise the U.S. Chief of Mission in assessing crises and coordinating U.S. government crisis response activities. The question of deployment was posed early, and the Department decided against such a deployment. In my view, it was appropriate to pose the question, and the decision was also the correct one. There is nothing automatic about a FEST deployment, and in some circumstances, a deployment could well be counterproductive.”

Talking points controversy: Once again the controversy over the talking points that UN Ambassador Susan Rice used following the attack has returned. The argument over the talking points that Amb. Rice used and the controversy over stating the possible connection to the protests that were occurring throughout neighboring countries was a favorite election year talking point for Republicans. The timeline and development of the talking points has been repeatedly addressed. And as recently as last month the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, a career defense intelligence professional, testified that they were accurate given the information at the time, stating “They were the best we could do at the time. And also in light of our concerns from both an intelligence and an investigatory standpoint, that is much as we should say at the time.” This issue has been addressed and readdressed, if the purpose of the hearing was to uncover new information or address new concerns this was not it. 

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