WASHINGTON (AP) — An interim report released Tuesday by House Republicans faults the State Department and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton for security deficiencies at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, prior to last September's deadly terrorist attack that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Senior State Department officials, including Clinton, approved reductions in security at the facilities in Benghazi, according to the report by GOP members of five House committees. The report cites an April 19, 2012, cable bearing Clinton's signature acknowledging a March 28, 2012, request from then-U.S. Ambassador to Libya Gene Cretz for more security, yet allowing further reductions. The report does not include actual copies of the cables or other internal correspondence that Republicans cite to support their findings.
"Senior State Department officials knew that the threat environment in Benghazi was high and that the Benghazi compound was vulnerable and unable to withstand an attack, yet the department continued to systematically withdraw security personnel," the report said.
Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, said the GOP report "appears to raise questions that have already been asked and answered in great detail" by Obama administration officials. Hayden said the administration has taken "extraordinary steps" to work with Congress in investigating the Benghazi attacks, providing more than 10,000 pages of documents and extensive briefings for members of Congress and their staffs.
The top Democrats on the five committees were quick to criticize the GOP report, telling House Speaker John Boehner in a letter Tuesday that they strongly objected to the report, the politicizing of national security, and their exclusion from the investigation. They called the GOP's findings a "partisan Republican staff report on Benghazi" that dispensed with regular House procedures "for vetting official committee reports to correct inaccuracies and mischaracterizations."
Release of the report comes as dozens of House Republicans separately have pushed for Boehner to create a select committee to investigate the Sept. 11, 2012, attack.
The report also is highly critical of President Barack Obama and White House staff. In the days following the attack, White House and senior State Department officials altered what the report said were accurate "talking points" about the attack drafted by the U.S. intelligence community in order to protect the State Department.
And contrary to what the administration claimed, the alterations were not made to protect classified information. "Concern for classified information is never mentioned in email traffic among senior administration officials," according to the 43-page report.
The talking points cost Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, an opportunity to replace Clinton as secretary of state. Less than a week after the attack, Rice used the talking points to say on a series of Sunday talk show interviews that the raid may have been a protest that got out of hand. Republicans blasted Rice over her initial comments about the attacks and she later asked for her name to be removed from consideration to head the State Department.
Last December, senior State Department officials acknowledged major weaknesses in security and errors in judgment that had been revealed in a scathing independent report on the deadly assault. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns and Deputy Secretary of State Thomas Nides admitted that serious management and leadership failures left the mission in Benghazi woefully unprepared for the terrorist attack.
Clinton, testifying before Congress in the final weeks of her tenure, took responsibility for the department's missteps and failures leading up to the assault. But she insisted that requests for more security at the diplomatic mission in Benghazi didn't reach her desk, and reminded lawmakers that they have a responsibility to fund security-related budget requests.
During congressional testimony in January, Clinton rejected the notion that a secretary of state sees every cable addressed to them. More than a million cables come to the department every year from missions and field offices. And while these cables are all addressed to her, she said, "they do not all come to me." Likewise, every cable from Washington to the department's field offices is sent over the secretary of state's name.
The report from the House committees is the latest broadside in what has been a long-running and acrimonious dispute between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans who have challenged the White House's actions before and after the Benghazi attack.
House and Senate Republicans for weeks fought for access to information about the attack and used the nominations of two key Obama administration national security officials — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and CIA Director John Brennan — as leverage to obtain internal documents about the raid.
The Benghazi raid also resonated during the presidential campaign as the Obama administration struggled in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 6 election to tamp down speculation of a cover-up involving the Benghazi attack.
Obama, in his role as commander in chief, failed to anticipate the significance that Sept. 11 held as a date and did not provide the Defense Department with the authority for missions beyond self-defense, according to the report. Military assets were properly positioned across the North Africa region, but had no approval to be in an alert posture that would have permitted offensive operations and were given no notice to defend U.S. diplomatic facilities, the report said.
U.S. Africa Command, which has responsibility for military operations in the region, has serious deficiencies that hindered the Defense Department's response to the attack, according to the report. The command, which was established in 2008, had no Army or Marine Corps units formally assigned to it. When the attack occurred, the Pentagon had to order units attached to a separate command in Europe to respond.
The report defends U.S. intelligence officials, who are described as being vigilant in gathering information about threats in the region and warning senior U.S. officials of the deteriorating security environment in Benghazi.
The independent report issued in December by retired Adm. Mike Mullen and Thomas Pickering, a retired ambassador, as well as testimony from Clinton and other senior Obama administration officials have failed to assuage Republicans. Seven months after the attack, more than 100 House Republicans, led by Rep. Frank Wolfe, R-Va., have backed a resolution calling on Boehner to create a special congressional panel to investigate.
Outside groups also have pressured Boehner, with Special Operations Speaks, a group of Special Operations veterans, demanding that Congress investigate "Benghazigate" and suggesting that the president is guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors.
The group claims that Americans on the ground in Benghazi were denied military support by high-ranking administration officials even though senior Defense Department officials have explained that they didn't have the intelligence to simply send in fighter planes and were uncertain about the location of the ambassador.
Privately, Republicans say the Libya attack and criticism of the Obama administration is an issue that energizes the Republican base, a crucial political calculation ahead of congressional midterm elections in which control of the House and Senate are stake.
The GOP-led House Armed Services, Foreign Affairs, Judiciary, Oversight and Government Reform, and Intelligence committees prepared the interim report.