Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., is the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee ranking Democrat. Cummings and Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., traded barbs at a May 8 hearing on the attacks on the US diplomatic facility in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. (Mike Morones/Defense News)
WASHINGTON — Testimony by US State Department whistleblowers on Capitol Hill did little to punch holes in Pentagon officials’ statements about the lack of a military response to the Benghazi attacks.
What several State Department officials told the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee largely confirmed what senior Defense Department officials told a Senate panel in February.
At that time, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey told the Senate Armed Services Committee that there were no F-16s stationed near the Libya town nor deployed after two attacks on a US diplomatic facility there left the ambassador and three other Americans dead. Dempsey noted it would have taken about 12 hours to get an armed aircraft above the Benghazi facilities.
Dempsey told the Senate panel in February the Pentagon never received a request for forces to send to Libya — and even if F-16s had been closer, those jets would have been “the wrong tool for the job.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the panel’s ranking member, seemed skeptical that F-16s would have been enough to thwart the deadly attacks nor enough to deter the allegedly al-Qaida-affiliated fighters who carried out the first strike from launching a second one.
Citing Dempsey’s comments, Cummings said senior Pentagon officials determined F-16s and other US military platforms were “too far away.” Those fighters were based in Italy.
“Our nation’s top military commanders have testified repeatedly that they did everything possible,” Cummings said.
Calling it the “best military in the world,” Cummings said “even with [its] technological advances, [it] could not get there in time.”
An emotional Cummings, who accused panel Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., of waging a “smear campaign” against Obama administration officials “for political reasons,” defended Dempsey and then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s actions on Sept. 11, 2012.
“I have seen nothing to make me question the truthfulness of our military commanders,” Cummings said.
But Issa and other Republican members, such as Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio, repeatedly pressed the three current and former State Department witnesses about why the military and State Department did not deploy armed personnel to potentially thwart the attacks.
Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission in the U.S. diplomatic facility in Libya, and two other State Department witnesses were unable to shed any new light on just who within the U.S. national security apparatus made decisions against deploying armed aircraft, military commandos or a special State Department emergency response force.
Turner called the State Department emergency response team a group of “highly trained individuals with useful skills that would have been helpful in Benghazi.” He asked Hicks if he knew who told that team to “stand down.”
“I actually do not,” Hicks responded.
Mark Thompson, acting deputy assistant secretary of state for counterterrorism, defended Foggy Bottom, saying other parts of the apparatus — including the White House — would have been involved in issuing that “stand down order.”
Thompson told the committee US officials could have launched an aircraft that he said “always” is on standby to assist ambassadors in hotspots like Libya.
But Thompson could not clearly describe why that aircraft was kept from responding to the Benghazi attacks.
The witnesses also had little new to share with the lawmakers about why a small team of US special operations forces were not deployed to back up security forces at the Benghazi compounds. They also did not clearly describe whether the team of four commandos could have stopped the attacks.
Patrick Ventrell, acting deputy State Department spokesperson, said Wednesday that State “is focused on keeping our people safe overseas.
“We’ve had the Accountability Review Board, we’ve had their recommendations, all of which we’ve accepted and are vigorously implementing,” Ventrell said, referring to an independent Benghazi review commissioned by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. “And we have to respond constantly to evolving threats, and that’s what our focus is on.”
Issa and Cummings traded sharp rhetorical elbows at the start of the lengthy hearing.
The chairman panned Cummings for failing to “stand with me” in demanding the Obama administration provide more information and witnesses to give lawmakers a clear picture of just what happened at Benghazi on Sept. 11, and which US officials made specific decisions before, during and after them.
Cummings charged Issa with playing politics, and criticized the firebrand Republican for suggesting he and other Democrats were unwilling to protect the whistleblowers from retribution at Foggy Bottom.
“No member of this committee, Republican or Democrat, fails to uphold the right of a whistleblower to come forward,” Cummings said, calling it “sad when that accusation is made against any member of Congress.”