May 1, 2013

State Department downplays reports of Benghazi bullying

The Obama administration found itself in the cross hairs of mounting Republican frustration Tuesday over national security policy, with particular focus on unanswered questions surrounding the Boston Marathon bombings last month and the terrorist attack last year on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

With 134 Republican members of the GOP-controlled House now signed on to a bill that would create a select committee to investigate the Benghazi attacks, Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, seethed that U.S. national security has “deteriorated” under President Obama’s watch.
“If Benghazi is not an example of system failure before, during and after the attack, what would be?” asked Mr. Graham. “If Boston is not an example of a pre-9/11 stovepiping mentality, what would be?”

Mr. Graham made the remarks on a day when Mr. Obama told reporters that he was unaware of recent accusations by Benghazi whistleblowers that they were being intimidated by the administration over their cooperation with congressional investigators.

While Mr. Obama pledged to look into the matter, State Department officials vowed closer communication with Congress about Benghazi while seeking to discredit a media report that claimed someone in the administration warned CIA and State Department officials not to speak out about the incident.

When asked about the report, Secretary of State John F. Kerry responded that “there’s an enormous amount of misinformation out there” and that he was appointing his own chief of staff, David Wade, to work directly with lawmakers in an effort to answer any questions related to the Benghazi attack, in which U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed.

“We have to demythologize this issue and certainly depoliticize it,” said Mr. Kerry. “The American people deserve answers. I’m determined that this will be an accountable and open State Department as it has been in the past, and we will continue to do that, and we will provide answers.”

Later Tuesday, another State Department official took on a dismissive posture toward a report Monday by Fox News. In the report, Washington power lawyer Victoria Toensing said she is representing a State Department employee who has been threatened by unidentified Obama administration officials not to cooperate with lawmakers seeking to keep the Benghazi attack in the headlines.

“The State Department would never tolerate or sanction retaliation against whistleblowers on any issue, including this one,” said the department’s deputy spokesman, Patrick Ventrell. “That’s an obligation we take very seriously.”

Sensitive material

Mrs. Toensing, a former Justice Department official and former Republican counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, also told Fox that at least four career officials at the State Department and the Central Intelligence Agency have retained attorneys or are in the process of doing so, as they prepare to provide sensitive information about the Benghazi attack to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

Her claims appeared to dovetail with a letter written Friday to Mr. Kerry by Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican, suggesting that the State Department is deliberately making it difficult for private lawyers to achieve security clearances needed for the lawyers to represent department officials.

“In each case, witnesses may need to share sensitive or classified information with their lawyers,” wrote Mr. Issa, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. “The Department’s unwillingness to make the process for clearing an attorney more transparent appears to be an effort to interfere with the rights of employees to furnish information to Congress.”

But Mr. Ventrell on Tuesday said that the department’s leadership was “not aware of any employees who have requested … security clearances for private attorneys in connection with Benghazi.”

“In the event of such requests, the department has a security clearance process in place under which clearances can be provided to private attorneys who are representing individual employees of this building,” said Mr. Ventrell. “We’re not aware of any.”

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