Three weeks after losing the presidential election, Republicans are still pursuing questions on Benghazi, the scandal they hoped would undermine President Obama’s claims to be strong on national security.
Now, one of their targets could soon be off the hook. On Tuesday, Sen. John McCain says he’ll sit down face to face in a secure room at the Capital with Susan Rice, the woman he had previously vowed to oppose if she’s nominated as the next secretary of state. In an interview, McCain told The Daily Beast that Rice herself requested the meeting after McCain made several statements suggesting she misled the American people about the Benghazi attacks when she went on several Sunday talk shows on September 16, five days after the assault. On those shows, Rice said U.S. intelligence believed the Benghazi attack was not a planned act of terror, but instead a demonstration that got out of hand.
“If someone wants to come and see me, it would be improper for me to say, ‘No, I won’t meet with you,’” McCain said in an interview. “I will meet with you and hear your version of events why you went out and told the American people false information.’”
Rice didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Regarding her initial statements about the attack, Rice has said she was relying “solely and squarely” on unclassified talking points prepared by the U.S. intelligence community. Those talking points didn’t include references to groups with al Qaeda links, even though such groups were mentioned in classified intelligence at the time. McCain said he plans to ask Rice if she had seen the classified intelligence before she went on the September 16 talk shows.
The fate of Rice has become a political touchstone. In his first press conference following the election, Obama told McCain and fellow Republican senator Lindsey Graham that if they have criticisms about Benghazi, they should direct their fire at Obama and not Rice.
McCain echoed that sentiment Monday. He said what Rice said was a “problem,” but “the biggest problem is the president of the United States. As late as September 25th [Obama] was talking to the United Nations about hateful videos.”
McCain isn’t the only Republican pursuing the Benghazi line. In a letter sent Monday and reviewed by The Daily Beast, Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, and Rep. Jason Chaffetz, the Republican chairman of the Oversight Committee’s subcommittee on National Security, asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to explain why it took so long to send U.S. military assistance to Libya after the attacks began.
Specifically, the two lawmakers ask why C-17 aircraft and special platoons of Marines known as Fleet Antiterrorism Security Teams, or FAST Teams, were so slow to arrive at Tripoli and Benghazi on the evening of the attack. The C-17 aircraft, they write, didn’t arrive until 8 hours after the attack began. Two FAST Teams were prepared to deploy, according to a timeline recently released by the Pentagon, but only one such team arrived in Tripoli.
Panetta is a new focus for the House Oversight Committee that held hearings in October with witnesses from the State Department. In those hearings, the State Department said it was warned in the three months leading up to the attack by diplomatic security of the deteriorating security environment in Benghazi, but declined requests to extend the tour of a military team that provided security U.S. diplomats in Libya.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration provided a series of classified briefings to Congress on what happened on the evening of September 11 when Ambassador Chris Stevens died of smoke inhalation along with a State Department communications officer named Sean Smith in a safe room at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Two former Navy SEALs, Glenn Doherty and Tyrone Woods, died later when a mortar hit the roof of a nearby CIA base the two men were defending.
While several Congressional committees were briefed by the administration, the House Oversight Committee was not. A senior Pentagon official said Monday that "the department has already provided extensive information in briefings to Congress on its force posture in mid-September 2011, and we're prepared to continue to respond to congressional requests."
The Daily Beast first reported that the State Department and the CIA didn’t request military back up on the evening of the attacks. One reason U.S. officials have said there were no requests is because there was a period of quiet between about 1:00 a.m. in Benghazi after the rescue from the diplomatic mission and the second-wave attack.
“There is no reason to believe that after the first wave, all was safe,” Chaffetz told The Daily Beast. “We had a missing ambassador. Ansar al-Sharia posted on social media a threat to the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli early in the attack. Security personnel were taken from Tripoli and deployed to Benghazi, leaving Tripoli more vulnerable.”