CIA Contractor Testimony Could Undermine Obama on Benghazi

A House committee this week will hear from the CIA contractors who rescued Americans on the 9/11 anniversary attack. Their testimony could challenge a key administration timeline.

Esam Omran Al-Fetori/Reuters via Landov

Rep. Devin Nunes has kept his powder dry for more than a year when it comes to Benghazi. On Wednesday, however, he made it known to House Speaker John Boehner that Congress’s investigation has in his view failed to answer important questions about the lead up, night of, and aftermath of the attack.

In a letter to Boehner (see the PDF below), Nunes writes “there are significant discrepancies” between the timeline of events at Benghazi offered last year by the Obama administration to Congress and the account of “witnesses on the ground in Benghazi.” Nunes, who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, says eyewitnesses assert that there was no lull in the fighting that evening between the siege of the U.S. mission and the mortar attacks at dawn the next morning that killed Tyrone Woods and Glenn Doherty, two CIA contractors who were manning the roof of the agency’s annex that evening.

Whether or not the attacks in Benghazi occurred in two waves—the assault on the U.S. mission and then a later mortar attack on the CIA annex—is crucial to determining whether air support that evening would have made a difference. The State Department’s Accountability Review Board report says the initial attack on the diplomatic mission began between 9:45 p.m. and 10:00 p.m. local time in Benghazi. By midnight, all but two Americans there were rescued and taken to the CIA annex, a little more than a mile away. The report says there was an hour of light arms fire after midnight and then a lull in fighting until 5 a.m. the next morning, when a second wave attack with mortars began about 15 minutes after a second team of CIA contractors arrived at the annex.

If there was a lull in the fighting that night, as the report states, more air support or specialized counter-terrorism teams would likely not have made much of a difference. If the fighting continued throughout the night, however, or the witnesses allegedly say, the decision not to send more backup that evening would be a more serious blunder.

“We need to determine if the witnesses on the ground agree that such a lull occurred, and if not, whether a call for air support would have been appropriate at that time,” Nunes wrote in the letter to Boehner.Nunes will have an opportunity next week to pose the question to CIA security contractors in a closed session.

The Obama administration has said the Benghazi incident has been reviewed extensively through the State Department’s Accountability Review Board. The president himself has also accused Republicans of trying to politicize a national tragedy. While House Republican leaders have pressed the intelligence committee and the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to continue their investigations, so far Boehner has resisted calls from a majority of House Republicans to appoint a special independent committee to investigate Benghazi.

Unlike many Republican House members who have charged the administration with a coverup, Nunes has a high-level security clearance as a member of the House Intelligence Committee.

Congressional officials have told The Daily Beast that the House committee has reviewed transcripts of interviews the FBI conducted with all the eyewitnesses at Benghazi after the attacks. Earlier this year, the committee held closed sessions with CIA officers stationed at the Benghazi CIA annex and diplomatic security officers who were on the ground that evening. In his letter to Boehner, Nunes singles out Rep. Mike Rogers, the committee’s chairman, and its ranking Democrat for their leadership of a “non-political, efficient, and bipartisan investigative process.”Rogers, in a statement to The Daily Beast, defended his committee's investigation. "As anyone on the committee should know, we have tracked down every allegation and charge brought to us," Rogers said."We are leaving no stone unturned as we get to truth about what happened in Benghazi. My committee follows the facts where they lead, not where some wish they would go. We owe the truth to the four Americans who lost their lives in Benghazi.”

But Nunes also thinks there remain important gaps in the investigation. He says, for example, that the committee should receive access to any classified communications channels on the evening of the attack between U.S. officials on the ground and officials in Washington. He says he would like to know why combatant commanders from Africa Command and European Command had not pre-positioned military aircraft to respond quickly to an attack in Benghazi.

He also asks the administration to provide a list of terrorist groups that would have had the “access and training needed” to carry out the kind of precise mortar attack that killed Woods and Doherty.

The most provocative question Nunes raises in his letter involves the hunt for the killers of Ambassador Chris Stevens and the three other Americans. He asks whether the U.S. military or any other government agency had an opportunity to capture or kill the perpetrators of the Benghazi attack. He also asks whether such an operation was called off because of a “lack of authorization from the relevant U.S. political authorities.”