Probe into Benghazi Consulate attack back on front burner in Congress

The terrorist attack that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Libya is back on the front burner in Congress now that President Obama has won reelection.

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No fewer than four House and Senate panels plan to hold closed-door briefings with administration officials about the attack this week, while one committee is holding a public hearing. Members of both parties say they expect the Benghazi probe to last well into Obama's second term.

Rep. Ed Royce (R-Calif.), who has the inside track on the gavel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in the next Congress, has promised his Republican colleagues he would conduct a vigorous investigation of Libya.

“If selected as chairman, I will work against the Administration's most harmful foreign policies, and exercise strong oversight over the State Department and other agencies. The Administration's behavior in the Benghazi incident still demands an accounting,” Royce said in a statement.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), who's running for ranking member on the House Foreign Affairs committee, said Democrats have questions as well.

“If it's going to be a legitimate probe by Congress, then it's not something I would oppose. Because I really want to get to the bottom of it,” Engel told The Hill. “If it's only going to be a probe to be used for political purposes, then I would remind my Republican colleagues that the election's over. Barack Obama has been reelected to a second term. And we ought to start off his second term trying to come together rather than trying to play gotcha politics.”

The attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi less than two months before the election became a political issue as Republicans saw an opening to challenge Obama’s record on national security.

The administration’s shifting explanation of what happened that night — first it was a protest sparked by an anti-Islam video, then an organized terrorist attack — and revelations about security requests in Libya have raised questions that remain largely unanswered.

With the election now over, Engel said it's up to Republicans in Congress to set a new tone and work with Democrats, but partisan tensions remain.

Six Senate Republicans on Friday blasted Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta for what they called his failure to explain why U.S. armed forces didn't intervene on the night of the attack after they sent 13 letters raising their concerns.

“Today, we finally received from the Secretary of Defense the first response to our many letters,” Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) wrote in a statement. “Unfortunately, Secretary Panetta's letter only confirms what we already knew — that there were no forces at a sufficient alert posture in Europe, Africa or the Middle East to provide timely assistance to our fellow citizens in need in Libya. The letter fails to address the most important question — why not?”

White House spokesman Jay Carney suggested Friday more information would be forthcoming on the administration's response to the Libya assault.

“I think the Defense Department, when you talk about military assets, has been answering questions and I’m sure will have more information to provide about the military’s response at the president’s direction to this,” Carney said.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the House oversight committee's subpanel on national security, told The Hill the congressman plans to press the White House for a clearer explanation of what happened in Benghazi in the weeks to come.

Chaffetz and oversight panel chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) have been leading the congressional investigation into the attack and have been accused by Democrats of politicizing it.

“My boss would like to see the Obama administration choose what it believes to be the truth of what happened on Sept. 11, 2012, because thus far they have tried to have it both ways,” Chaffetz spokeswoman M.J. Crenshaw told The Hill. “In the spirit of openness and transparency my boss hopes that the oversight committee, intelligence committee and others will continue to pursue the truth of what really happened there.”

CIA Director David Petraeus's sudden resignation Friday afternoon adds another level of intrigue to the investigation. He was scheduled to testify at several of the Libya briefings next week but will be replaced by acting director Mike Morell.

Petraeus came under fire after the administration singled out the CIA as the source of information about the attack's link to a video that disparaged Islam.

The congressional panels holding closed-door briefings with administration officials are the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Tuesday), the Senate homeland security panel (Wednesday) and the House and Senate intelligence panels (Thursday). State Department officials are scheduled to brief the chairmen and ranking members of several House committees with jurisdiction over national security.

Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, said he hopes Congress can get down to business of uncovering what, if anything, could have been done to prevent the Libya attack.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper sent the committee a compilation of raw intelligence and analysis from an internal review that he conducted of the U.S.-generated intelligence that agencies had access to before and after the attack, as well as information about the attackers.

“The whole purpose of the hearing is to have members hear for themselves what went on and ask questions about how it occurred, why it occurred, what information came out, why we got certain initial information,” Ruppersberger said. “And just to make sure we get to the bottom of this to make sure it won’t occur again.”