Issa to probe Libya attack in hearing

Congressional Republicans’ top inquisitor, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), on Tuesday jumped into the bitter fight over last month’s attack in Benghazi, calling for a hearing on allegations of lax security at the U.S. Consulate there.

In a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Reps. Issa and Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) asked that she address whistleblower reports of previously undisclosed threats and attacks against the consulate and Ambassador Christopher Stevens, who was killed along with three other Americans on Sept. 11. 

The letter requests that she answer questions about security at the consulate and puts her on notice that Issa’s powerful Oversight panel is planning a hearing on the security situation for next Wednesday.

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“Based on information provided to the committee by individuals with direct knowledge of events in Libya, the attack that claimed the ambassador’s life was the latest in a long line of attacks on Western diplomats and officials in Libya in the months leading up to Sept. 11, 2012,” Issa and Chaffetz wrote. “It was clearly never, as administration officials once insisted, the result of a popular protest.”

The lawmakers said the consulate asked for more security to deal with the growing threat but was turned down by the administration. 

“In addition, multiple U.S. federal government officials have confirmed to the committee that, prior to the Sept. 11 attack, the U.S. mission in Libya made repeated requests for increased security in Benghazi. The mission in Libya, however, was denied these resources by officials in Washington,” the lawmakers said.

The State Department sought to defuse the situation Tuesday by vowing to “cooperate fully” with Issa’s probe. 

The White House declined to get involved, with spokesman Jay Carney telling reporters traveling with the president in Nevada that he was “not going to get into a situation under review by the State Department and the FBI.”

Clinton, in her response to the lawmakers, “will make absolutely clear the desire of this department, her personal desire to cooperate closely with the committee and with all members of Congress, both in their document requests, in their requests for witnesses for their hearing, because we share the same goal: We want to get to the bottom of precisely what happened and learn any lessons that we need to learn from it,” said spokeswoman Victoria Nuland. 

“We’re taking this very, very seriously,” she said.

Issa’s involvement all but guarantees further headaches for the Obama administration, which is already reeling from attacks by Senate Republicans after it backpedaled on its original public assessment of the assault. After initially claiming the attack was a spontaneous response to an American-made anti-Islam video, the administration finally called it a “deliberate and organized terrorist attack” on Friday.

Issa’s Committee on Oversight and Government Reform is one of the most powerful in Congress, being the lone House panel with the power to investigate any issues it wants and to compel depositions by subpoena. The chairman has used his perch to file suit against Attorney General Eric Holder over the botched Fast and Furious “gun-walking” operation and to accuse the administration of hiding the true cost of its healthcare reform law.

Mitt Romney, who is expected to deliver a foreign-policy address in the coming weeks, has also sought to capitalize on the events in Libya and elsewhere in the Middle East to chip away at Obama’s lead on national security. A Bloomberg News poll conducted after the Benghazi attack found that Romney had overtaken Obama on “being tough on terrorism,” 48-42 percent.

Prior to this week, Clinton had successfully short-circuited the Republican-controlled House soon after the Benghazi attack by refusing the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s request for a classified briefing and opting instead to address the entire Congress. That appearance didn’t satisfy the Republican chairmen of committees with jurisdiction over national security, who banded together last week in a letter to President Obama requesting a briefing to address “the intelligence leading up to the attack, the security posture of our embassy, the role former Guantánamo Bay detainees may have played, as well as the way forward in Libya and, indeed, the region.”

The letter from Issa and Chaffetz for the first time reveals an April 6 attack against the consulate in which two former security guards threw homemade improvised explosives over the building’s fence. It also says militants made no secret of their intention to target Americans in Libya.

These include a warning on Facebook that a May 22 rocket-propelled grenade attack against the Red Cross offices in Benghazi would be followed by a “message for the Americans disturbing the skies over Derna” and a separate threat the following month against Stevens based on his morning run routine in the streets of Tripoli, complete with a stock photo of the late ambassador.

Stevens resumed his exercise routine a week later, the letter says, prompting questions about whether the State Department allowed him too much leeway because of his familiarity with the country and his desire to be seen as accessible. Nuland said Tuesday the security protocols were the State Department›s responsibility.

“Ambassadors don’t call the local security posture,” Nuland said. “It’s worked out with Washington, with the post. It’s not something you can do yourself.”