By DONNA CASSATA, Associated Press
WASHINGTON (AP) — A House Republican chairman is doggedly pursuing the question of whether military personnel were told to "stand down" during the 2012 deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, despite the insistence of military leaders and other Republicans that it never happened.
Rep. Darrell Issa's Oversight and Government Reform Committee is pressing officials in a series of closed-door meetings about the instructions from military commanders in the chaotic hours after the first attack and whether they were told not to assist Americans under siege.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last June that personnel in Tripoli were never told to "stand down" and top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee reported in February that no such order was given.
The panel's persistence on an issue the military considers settled underscore that Republicans have no plans to relent in their politically charged investigation of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on President Barack Obama's watch.
If Republicans capture the Senate in November and control both houses of Congress, the GOP will face internal pressure and fresh conservative demands for a special select committee to investigate along the lines of Watergate or Iran-Contra inquiries, especially as the party looks ahead to the 2016 presidential race and a possible Democratic bid by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been outspoken in criticizing the administration on Benghazi, said he would welcome a select committee probe to examine the actions of the State Department, CIA and the White House.
"A joint select committee prevents things from falling through the cracks," Graham said in an interview.
In the meantime, Issa's panel, along with staff from the House Armed Services Committee, continues a full-scale investigation, with additional interviews scheduled for next month. The chairman maintained last month that the question of a "stand down" order remains unresolved.
It first emerged last May when Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission who was in Tripoli, told the committee that four members of a special forces team in Tripoli wanted to go in a second wave to assist Americans but were told to stand down.
Fielding questions at a fundraiser in New Hampshire, Issa said: "Why there was not one order given to turn on one Department of Defense asset? I have my suspicions, which is Secretary Clinton told Leon (Panetta) to stand down, and we all heard about the stand-down order for two military personnel. That order is undeniable. They were told not to get on — get off the airplane and kind of stand by — and they're going to characterize it wasn't stand down. But when we're done with Benghazi, the real question is, Was there a stand-down order to Leon Panetta or did he just not do his job? Was there a stand-down order from the president, who said he told them to use their resources and they didn't use them? Those questions have to be answered."
The February interim report from the Republicans on the Armed Services Committee, including panel chairman Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said Army Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson wanted to take three special operators from Tripoli to Benghazi after the first attack. Military commanders were concerned about the safety of Americans in the capital city, fearing a wave of attacks and the possibility of hostage taking.
According to testimony, Rear Adm. Brian L. Losey, the Africa commander, told Gibson to remain in Tripoli to defend Americans there. In addition, six U.S. security personnel were already en route to Benghazi on a chartered Libyan aircraft to evacuate Americans. The plane with the evacuees on a return flight to Tripoli would have crossed paths with Gibson and three others if they had left for Benghazi.