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Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen
Associated Press/Photo by Charles Dharapak
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Michael Mullen

‘An inside job’

Benghazi Attack | Benghazi review board questioned as investigation into terror attack continues

WASHINGTON—Parents of two of the four men killed in last year’s terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya, blasted the Obama administration on Thursday, saying the government has ignored, rebuffed, and lied to them about what happened on Sept. 11, 2012.

Patricia Smith, whose only son, Sean Smith, died in the attack, called out President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, and former Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice for not answering questions and blaming the assault on a YouTube video.

“Every one of them said it was the video,” an emotional Smith said she was told days after the attack. “They knew it wasn’t the video, so they all lied to me.”

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Smith’s comments came during the second portion of a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Benghazi and followed scrutiny of the Accountability Review Board (ARB) report released in December. Republican lawmakers grilled Ret. Adm. Michael Mullen and Ambassador Thomas Pickering, co-chairs of the ARB, for nearly six hours, asking how an internal probe could be considered objective.

“It looks like an inside job,” said Rep. John Mica, R-Fla. “The Department of State investigating the Department of State.”

Mullen, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Pickering, who spent 42 years working for the State Department, said they were proud of their work and stood by the findings. Pickering called the report “full, fair, and free” and said he “had no sense anywhere that there was any conflict of interest,” even though he personally knew many of the people he was interviewing.

“This was not a gotcha panel,” Pickering said. “Three were from outside and only two of us were from inside.”

“Obviously this wasn’t a gotcha panel, because nobody was ‘gotcha’ed,’” retorted Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the Oversight committee.

The two men said they were given “unfettered” access during the investigation, conducting more than 100 interviews, including “key personnel” who were on the ground in Benghazi. Issa pressed for answers on why his committee has not had the same access: He said the panel has been blocked from speaking with anyone who was on the ground in Benghazi and “even the names to the greatest extent possible have been withheld from this committee.”

Mullen said the committee should be given equal access, but it’s something “Congress will have to work out” with the executive branch.

At the end of the hearing, Issa announced he today subpoenaed two people who were in Libya at the time of the attack, John Martinek and Alec Henderson, “because the State Department has repeatedly lied, saying these individuals were available.” Within an hour of the announcement, Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., who has 176 cosponsors on a bill that would create a Select Committee on Benghazi, released a statement applauding the move as “long overdue.”

“Why has it taken more than a year for these first subpoenas to be issued?” Wolf asked. “Will another year go by before the next subpoenas are issued?”

During the hearing, Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, read a list of relevant witnesses the ARB didn’t interview. Several members wanted to know why former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wasn’t interviewed, but Mullen and Pickering said they didn’t feel it was necessary. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., said Clinton suggested the Benghazi investigation is targeting her because she’s a woman.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, grilled Mullen on his personal objectivity, drawing an admission that he gave Clinton and her chief counsel, Cheryl Mills, a two-hour briefing and a draft copy of the ARB report before it was released.

Mullen also acknowledged he gave Mills a “heads up” call shortly before the ARB interviewed  Charlene Lamb—one of the four employees the State Department later put on leave—whom Mullen thought “wouldn’t represent the department well.” Mullen insisted the call didn’t include any coaching, but Republican committee members repeatedly asked how a process could be objective when the body being investigated gets a “heads up” phone call about things that might not go smoothly.

“Democrats have asserted the ARB was independent—it represents closure,” Jordan told me after the hearing. But “the most important person next to the secretary is Cheryl Mills and he gives her a heads up that the very first witness coming in front of this committee, just a month after this tragedy in Benghazi, is not going to be a good witness. … You can’t tip off the agency you’re investigating.”

Democrats and Republicans on the committee each released reports this week arguing both sides of the ARB report. One point of disagreement centers on whether or not backup forces were given a “stand down” order, which three whistleblowers in May said was the case. Democrats contend the command was never given, and at a Wednesday hearing, Patrick Kennedy, under secretary of state for management, said the same thing.

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