By Julian Pecquet and Carlo Muñoz - 03/14/13 09:00 AM EDT
Republican lawmakers are threatening to subpoena U.S. survivors of the terrorist attack in Benghazi.
Exasperated GOP members say unless they get more answers from the White House, they will call on the survivors to testify before Congress, and might hold up President Obama’s nomination to replace the U.S. ambassador who was killed on Sept. 11, 2012 in Libya.
The recent revelation that U.S. survivors are recuperating at Walter Reed Hospital has sparked GOP demands that the White House provide Congress with access to them. It has also breathed new life into the controversy that was highlighted repeatedly during the 2012 presidential campaign.
But reports that as many as 30 Americans may have been wounded in the attack — including seven treated at Walter Reed — have put Benghazi back in the spotlight.
“That’s why this story continues to perpetuate itself,” said Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), the chairman of the House Oversight subcommittee on National Security. “And it will not end, because the State Department’s not allowing us to put a nice, tight ribbon on it.”
Republicans say they might delay the confirmation of Deborah Jones, the State Department official Obama nominated Wednesday to succeed Christopher Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya who died along with three other Americans in the attack six months ago.
In a March 1 letter to Kerry, Reps. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Jim Gerlach (R-Pa.) said they’d been informed that “as many as 30” Americans — including State Department and CIA officers and government contractors — were injured in the attack. They demanded the names and contact information for each survivor “so that we can make appropriate arrangements.”
Republicans have additional questions about who at the State Department knew — or should have known — about the security risks in Benghazi, as well as the embassy’s unanswered requests for more security. Some of them also continue to question the administration’s motivation for initially attributing the attack to a peaceful protest gone awry.
Wolf introduced a House resolution earlier this year to set up a select committee to investigate the run-up and aftermath of the Benghazi attack, which had 60 co-sponsors as of Wednesday. The congressman is not sure about the number of injured — he told The Hill the “30” figure seems high — but that their sacrifice should be acknowledged, even if it’s done discreetly, in the case of CIA operatives.
“We should be honoring them,” Wolf said. “We should be thanking them.”
Following the letter, Kerry acknowledged that he had visited one of the survivors at Walter Reed.
“Why have we not heard from any of the Benghazi survivors? I can’t tell you the answer to that,” Kerry told Fox News last week. “I can tell you that I have visited with one of the survivors ... who is a remarkably courageous person, who is doing very, very well.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is leading the charge on the Senate side. He’s drafting a letter to Kerry and seeking access to the survivors and to the FBI files of their accounts “to see what they said” and how it was possibly used to draft up the administration’s now infamous initial talking points on the terrorist strike.
“We will be looking at every option,” Graham told The Hill on Wednesday in a reference to potentially issuing subpoenas for access to the witnesses. He said it was “pretty disappointing” that Republicans might have to resort to forcing the Benghazi survivors to appear before Congress, but that “the story of Benghazi has to be told.”
Leaders in the House, where Republicans are in the majority and could get subpoenas approved in committee, made similar threats.
“Leadership has been exceptionally patient, but we’re getting to the point where there’s no other option,” Chaffetz told The Hill. “Nobody wants to go there, but we’re probably going to have to do that if we’re serious about doing our work here.”
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, say they might delay the confirmation of Jones as Libyan ambassador.
“Unfortunately it seems like that’s the only vehicle we can use to get the answers,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who crossed swords with Clinton when she testified in January. “I’d like to cooperate with the president and make sure that his administration is staffed and these important ambassadorships are filled, but if that’s the only avenue we have in terms of eliciting information from the administration, that might be something we have to do.”
He said the State Department has been citing an ongoing FBI investigation to deny requests for more information, but that it should be concluded soon.
“Certainly my part in the confirmation hearing of Sen. Kerry for secretary of State was basically asking him, ‘Will you cooperate’? And I kind of got that assurance that he would cooperate with us,” Johnson said. “As soon as [the FBI probe] is concluded, maybe even before that, I think the American people have a right to know, so we should have access to those witnesses.”
Holding up the nomination of the ambassador, Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) concurred, “is certainly an avenue” to get answers.
“But I would hope that the level of cooperation between the [intelligence] community and the [Senate Intelligence] committee is at a level that we’ll be able to get those without any threats,” said the second-ranking Republican on the Intelligence panel. “I don’t see that as an option right now.”
He said the committee needs the “flexibility to interview any witnesses that we feel are appropriate. I think the first step is thoroughly reviewing the FBI interviews — we have yet to do that. And then once we do that, we can be a little more specific about who we might need to talk to or if we need to talk to anybody.”
It is possible that witnesses would testify in a closed session.
Democrats say Republicans are simply looking for any avenue to score political points.
“Benghazi is over and done with,” Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), a senior member on the Intelligence Committee, told The Hill. “As far as [Republicans] are concerned ... this has always been a political issue and that is the way they will continue to [pursue] it.”
Senate Minority Whip John Cornyn (R-Texas) put the blame squarely on the administration’s shoulders.
“This all could have been resolved a long time ago,” he said, if the White House had fully disclosed all the pertinent details about its response to the terrorist attack.