Pentagon protests escalating inquiries from Benghazi panel

Pentagon protests escalating inquiries from Benghazi panel

The Pentagon is rebelling against the House Select Committee on Benghazi in an unusually blunt letter accusing congressional Republicans of making unrealistic demands and threatening to subpoena officials for noncompliance.

In a letter sent on Thursday, the Defense Department’s top liaison to Capitol Hill suggested that the committee was being ineffective, was wasting taxpayer dollars and would produce a report based more on speculation than fact.

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“Congress has as much of an obligation as the executive branch to use federal resources and taxpayer dollars effectively and efficiently,” wrote Stephen Hedger, the assistant secretary of Defense for legislative affairs.

“The department has spent millions of dollars on Benghazi-specific congressional compliance, including reviews by four other committees, which have diligently reviewed the military’s response in particular.”

“The department is working diligently to accommodate your staff’s multiple and changing requests,” Hedger added. “[H]owever, we are concerned by the continuous threats from your staff to subpoena witnesses because we are not able to move quickly enough to accommodate these new requests.”

The letter is an unusual display of frustration for the executive branch against its overseers in Congress, and Republicans called it proof of their “thorough, fact-centered investigation.”

“It’s unfortunate it took the threat of subpoenas for the Pentagon to make witnesses available earlier this year,” the spokesman added in a statement.

“What is [the Department of Defense] so afraid of? Why are they supposedly unable to find their own employees?”

The letter was released by Democrats on the Benghazi panel, who have long protested the committee’s mission. Democrats call the probe a thinly veiled attack on former Secretary of State front-runner Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats ask judge for quick ruling on McGahn subpoena Hillary Clinton: 'Every day Stephen Miller remains in the White House is an emergency' The Memo: Centrists change tone of Democratic race MORE, who is currently the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, and said that this week's letter was evidence that Republicans are frantically trying to dig up dirt in the final moments before the report is released.

“Ever since their disastrous 11-hour marathon hearing with Secretary Clinton backfired last fall, Republicans have been trying to redeem themselves by demanding more and more duplicative and unnecessary interviews and dragging out their sham of an investigation closer to the election,” top Rep. Elijah Cummings (Md.), the top Democrat on the panel, said in a statement.

“The Department of Defense has a critical job to do, which is to keep our nation safe from those who would do us harm. But Republicans continue to squander millions of taxpayer dollars chasing right-wing conspiracy theories and forcing Pentagon officials to waste their time on this partisan fishing expedition.”

The Benghazi committee is approaching its two-year anniversary and is eyeing a plan to release its final analysis in the weeks before this summer’s political conventions.

In recent weeks, the committee has issued a “crescendo of requests” to the Pentagon about the 2012 terror attack in the Libyan city, which killed four Americans including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, Hedger claimed.

“The number and continued pace of these requests since February 2016 are in tension with your staff’s statements that the committee expects to finish its investigation in the near term,” he wrote on Thursday. “Perhaps because of this conflict, the committee’s requests are accompanied by unrealistic timelines for the department to identify the correct service members (who are often only identified by positions), locate them if deployed or retired, and schedule interviews, which in some cases require them to return from overseas.”

The committee has interviewed at least 90 witnesses and forced the handover of tens of thousands of pages of documents.

Many of those, however, have come at the Pentagon’s expense, Hedger indicated, and on a short timeframe. Since just February, the Defense Department has scheduled 10 interviews and two briefings, he claimed.

In his letter, Hedger listed instances in which the Benghazi panel made urgent demands of the Pentagon and then backtracked.

In one case, the committee insisted that the miltiary “immediately” locate four pilots who could have been deployed to the scene of the attack but were not, even though lawmakers had already made plans to interview their commander. The committee eventually abandoned the effort, but not before the military “spent time and resources locating” the pilots," Hedger wrote.

In another instance, the committee asked the Pentagon to find someone calling into a talk show claiming to be a drone camera operator who said that he saw a video feed from the night of the attack. After spending “significant resources,” the Pentagon could find no one matching the description. The committee then asked to interview all drone pilots in the region on the night of the Benghazi attack, which the Defense Department called “unnecessary,” because it had already handed over their video. 

Even when it is able to schedule interviews, Pentagon officials "have been asked repeatedly to speculate or engage in discussing on the record hypotheticals," Hedger claimed, "regardless of the interviewee’s actual knowledge or expertise to provide appropriate analysis or insight."

"This type of questioning poses the risk that your final report may be based on speculation rather than a fact-based analysis of what a military officer did do or could have done given his or her knowledge at the time of the attacks."