Late Tuesday, the U.S. House of Representatives released an interim progress report on its investigation into the assault on the American compound in Benghazi, Libya that led to the murder of U.S. Ambassador Chris Stephens and three other men. To put it mildly, the findings of the investigation thus far are damning.
The product of combined investigations by the House Committees on the Armed Services, Judiciary, Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Government Reform, the report says that "There remain unanswered questions about the events surrounding the attacks, and the Administration owes answers to the American people."
According to the executive summary, the ongoing investigation by the five House committees has already determined that:
- Reductions of security levels prior to the attacks in Benghazi were approved at the highest levels of the State Department, up to and including Secretary Clinton. This fact contradicts her testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee on January 23, 2013.
- In the days following the attacks, White House and senior State Department officials altered accurate talking points drafted by the Intelligence Community in order to protect the State Department.
- Contrary to Administration rhetoric, the talking points were not edited to protect classified information. Concern for classified information is never mentioned in email traffic among senior administration officials.
- All of this seems to conflict with what the Obama Administration told the American public in the thick of the president's ultimately successful re-election campaign.
Of particular importance is the report's conclusion that the administration focused for far too long on the idea that a YouTube video provoked the attack. "The Administration willfully perpetuated a deliberately misleading and incomplete narrative that the attacks evolved from a political demonstration caused by a YouTube video. U.S. officials on the ground reported – and video evidence confirms – that demonstrations outside the Benghazi Mission did not occur and that the incident began with an armed attack on the facility," the report says. "Senior Administration officials knowingly minimized the role played by al-Qa'ida-affiliated entities and other associated groups in the attacks, and decided to exclude from the discussion the previous attempts by extremists to attack U.S. persons or facilities in Libya."
This alone creates significant problems for the administration, arguing as it does that senior officials were less than candid about what they knew in the face of allegations being made by President Obama's Republican challenger, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
The interim report is also critical of the Obama administration's choice to respond to the attack with an investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation rather than the U.S. military or other intelligence agencies, which "contributed to the government's lack of candor about the nature of the attack."
"Responding to the attacks with an FBI investigation significantly delayed U.S. access to key witnesses and evidence and undermined the government's ability to bring those responsible for the attacks to justice in a timely manner," the report said.
There is still a lot of work to be done. The report outlines the direction each of the committees will take moving forward. Nonetheless, it identifies several significant policy considerations that do not make the White House look like it was on top of the situation:
- The events in Benghazi reflect the Administration's lack of a comprehensive national security strategy or a credible national security posture in the region.
- This singular event will be repeated unless the United States recognizes and responds to the threats we face around the world, and properly postures resources and security assets to counter and respond to those threats. Until that time, the United States will remain in a reactionary mode and should expect more catastrophes like Benghazi.
- Congress must maintain pressure on the Administration to ensure the United States takes all necessary steps to find the Benghazi attackers.
- Congress must also provide an effective counterweight to the Administration's failure to adequately communicate the nature and the extent of the threats our country faces today. The Administration must do more to develop a coherent and robust national security strategy, and Congress must hold it accountable to do so.
Expect more from Congress in the future but, based on the interim report alone, what the House has already uncovered is going to put the Obama administration – including former senior officials like Hillary Clinton – in the spotlight for some time.