By Molly K. Hooper - 10/10/12 09:00 AM EDT
A House Republican lawmaker and surrogate for Mitt Romney launched a media offensive on the eve of a high-profile hearing on Libya.
Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) took to the airwaves late Monday and Tuesday to highlight his findings after making a quick trip to Libya. Chaffetz was the first lawmaker to travel there since the Sept. 11, 2012, killing of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi.
“The heart of what I’m concerned about in this situation is there was a conscious decision: Politics were driving the decisions rather than security. … Based on what I’ve seen thus far, the Obama administration was so anxious to have it appear to be ‘normalizing’ [relations] as quickly as possible that they forgot security was really job one for our personnel,” Chaffetz said in an interview with The Hill.
The ambitious two-term lawmaker expanded on those accusations Tuesday morning on “Fox and Friends.”
“It seems to be a coordinated effort between the White House and the State Department, from Secretary [Hillary] Clinton to President Obama’s White House … and building up of an infrastructure, putting up barbed wire on our facility, would lead to the wrong impression — something that this administration didn’t want to have moving forward,” Chaffetz said on the Fox News Channel morning show.
A State Department spokeswoman told The Hill that the administration will address Chaffetz’s concerns at the Wednesday hearing and “not before.”
Since returning to Washington on Monday, the Utah lawmaker has conducted more than a dozen TV and radio interviews.
Democrats on the Oversight and Government Reform Committee were quick to accuse Republicans of “hiding” the trip from them by giving Democrats less than 24-hour notice of the trip.
But Chaffetz disputed those assertions, saying the committee had just as much time as he did to prepare for Saturday’s trip, which entailed a Friday-night stay-over in Germany to pick up Gen. Carter Ham, who is in charge of the U.S. African Command.
“Even I got less than 24 hours’ notice that we were going. I dropped everything to make it happen. [Democrats] chose not to,” Chaffetz said.
Chaffetz explained that he put a request in to make a trip to Libya, and found out at the last minute that he was cleared for a visit to the tumultuous region. He noted that the State Department had a representative on the fact-finding mission, and said Democrats could have had someone as well.
“The State Department flew out an attorney to follow me around everywhere I went. The Democrats had no representation. They didn’t have a member of Congress who thought it was important enough to go,” Chaffetz charged.
Chaffetz made the jaunt soon after he watched Romney debate President Obama in Denver last week.
Asked if he had discussed the current situation in Libya with Romney, Chaffetz said emphatically that he had not broached the topic with the former Massachusetts governor in order to avoid accusations of collusion.
“I have gone to great lengths not to talk to Gov. Romney about the Libya situation. I don’t want there to be an appearance or any involvement in the coordination of the campaign, so I have purposely, totally stayed away from that as it relates to Libya,” Chaffetz told The Hill.
As chairman of Oversight and Government Reform’s Foreign Operations subcommittee, Chaffetz has a direct interest in getting to the bottom of the security situation regarding U.S. personnel in Libya.
He penned a letter with full-committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) last week, demanding answers from the State Department as to how it dealt with repeated requests for additional security in Libya. The panel will hear from whistleblowers and administration officials at noon on Wednesday.
In preparation for the hearing, Chaffetz said he wanted to spend time in Libya — in particular Benghazi — but was denied the request of staying overnight or visiting the site of the deadly attack.
Officials allowed him to go to Tripoli “during daylight hours, from morning to early evening,” due to safety concerns.
“I wanted to understand what had happened with the physical facility, the perimeter of the buildings, the windows, the safe room, all of that — how does that operate? One of the concerns that we have going into the hearing was that the personnel on the ground were asking for more assets and just were denied,” Chaffetz said.
“The second part is they were asking for more personnel to help secure the facilities — that was denied. In fact, they took a lot of Americans away — they ended up with less people, not more people, and that’s going to be the heart of what our discussion is,” he added.
He also claimed on Tuesday that “no one” on the ground in Libya said the controversial American-made anti-Islam video was to blame for the deadly attack. That assertion has been made repeatedly by the Obama administration.
Following Chaffetz’s Saturday visit, Senate Foreign Affairs Committee member Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) made a trip to the North African country on Monday — a sign that Republicans intend to continue pressing the administration for answers.
Democrats, meanwhile, are certain to draw attention to the cuts made by House Republicans to embassy security funding.
A senior Democratic source pointed to recent reporting on the matter, noting that the administration asked for $1.654 billion for the State Department’s Worldwide Security Protection program for fiscal 2012; Congress eventually agreed to grant $1.591 billion, a compromise from the $1.557 billion approved by the House.
Chaffetz said, “Every solution does not require more money, but every decision does require that you prioritize things.”