(CNSNews.com) – House Oversight Committee chairman Darrel Issa (R-Calif.) accused the Obama administration of playing “hide-and-go-seek” with Congress at a hearing on Benghazi Thursday, vowing to continue his investigation of the 2012 attack until “the State Department gives us at least the same access” to witnesses and evidence it provided to the Accountability Review Board for Benghazi (ARB Benghazi).
Addressing ARB Benghazi chairman Thomas Pickering and vice-chairman Michael Mullen after their opening remarks, Issa said: ““Both of you said that the administration, the secretary and so on made your job easy because you had full access to 100 witnesses and the attempt was to have full transparency.”
“Correct,” Mullen said.
“Do you think that Congress should have that same option? In other words, since the State Department has not made one of those witnesses you interviewed first available, meaning people in Benghazi who were fact witnesses, none have been made available. As a matter of fact, even the names have been, to the greatest extent possible, withheld from this committee. Do you believe that’s appropriate, or do you believe that we should have access to fact witnesses as we review the process?”
“Mr. Chairman, I think that’s, I’ve been in government a long time, that’s something that historically and certainly in this case has to be worked out between the Congress and the executive branch,” Mullen replied.
“Admiral,” an irritated Issa persisted, “if something like the [USS] Cole attack occurred again today and Congress said we wanted to speak to people who were on the deck of that ship today, would you believe that we should have a right to speak to those people in order to understand the facts on the ground that day? I’m asking from your experience in a DoD framework.”
“I don’t know what would limit you to do that, quite frankly,” Mullen answered.
“I’m in the process of issuing subpoenas because the State Department has not made those people available, has played hide-and-go-seek, is now hiding behind a thinly veiled statement that there is a criminal investigation. As you know, there was a criminal investigation on the Cole and any time that Americans are killed abroad.
“So the answer, quite frankly, is we are not being given the same access that you had or Mr. [Mark] Sullivan and his team [on the Independent Panel on Best Practices] had, and that’s part of the reason that this investigation cannot end until the State Dept. gives us at least the same access that they gave your board.”
Mullen testified that after interviewing more than 100 witnesses, reviewing thousands of documents, and viewing hours of videotape, the board concluded that the fault for the Sept. 11, 2012 attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens, State Department computer specialist Sean Smith, and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods lies “solely and completely with the terrorists who perpetrated the attack.”
In a follow-up question, Rep. Rob Woodall (R-Ga.) asked Sullivan whether Congress, in exercising its oversight responsibilities, was entitled to the same evidence that the Obama administration made available to the ARB. “I do believe these are…. documents Congress is entitled to,” Sullivan testified.
But when Woodall asked Mullen the same question, he answered that such access “is not for me or us to decide today.”
During another tense exchange, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) questioned the independence of the ARB after Mullen admitted he called Cheryl Mills, chief of staff to then Sec. of State Hillary Clinton, to warn her that Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary responsible for embassy security who was scheduled to testify before the Oversight Committee last fall, would make “a weak witness.”
Although the ARB's own report criticized “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department,” Pickering testified that neither Clinton nor former National Security Advisor Tom Donilon had been interviewed, stating that there is “very clear evidence… that the authority and accountability rest with the [four] people we identified.” All four were reassigned, but none has been fired.
“We decided not to go for the people who didn’t make the decisions, but following the will of Congress, to the people who made the decisions,” Pickering explained.
On Monday, the committee released its own highly critical report on Benghazi, concluding that “gaps in the ARB review and final report identified by the Committee signal that the State Department may very well be doomed to repeat its past mistakes…
“To this day, more than one year after the attacks, not a single person at the State Department has actually been fired or formally held accountable for the attacks in Benghazi. More importantly, those most accountable for the attacks in Benghazi – the terrorists who attacked U.S. facilities and claimed the lives of four Americans – have not been brought to justice….
“The Committee will continue to examine the events before, during and after the September 11, 2012 attacks on U.S. diplomatic facilities to properly assign accountability and to make findings that will inform legislative remedies.” (See Oversight Benghazi.pdf)