WASHINGTON (AP) — FBI Director James Comey told senators Thursday he is not opposed to Congress speaking with the survivors of the 2012 attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. That contradicts the Obama administration's position that such discussions would jeopardize the FBI's criminal case.
Comey's position on the politically charged issue seemed to surprise some of the senators who have unsuccessfully asked the administration for access to the survivors. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., has said he will block President Barack Obama's nominees for Federal Reserve chairman and Homeland Security secretary if the administration does not give Congress access to the Benghazi survivors.
The FBI is leading the investigation into the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Comey, a former federal prosecutor who has headed the FBI for just two months, weighed in on what's become a rallying cry for conservatives. Testifying before a Senate committee on the current terror threat to the U.S., Comey said he was unaware that the administration has refused to give some members of Congress access to the survivors because of the FBI investigation.
"As the FBI director, I don't have an objection to it," Comey said. "I don't know whether the prosecutors would feel differently or if there's some other reason I'm not thinking of. But speaking from my perspective, yeah, I don't have an objection to that."
Conservatives argue that the administration tried to mislead the public about a deadly terror attack on Americans in the heat of a presidential campaign. In the months since, congressional Republicans have accused the administration of stonewalling their investigations.
"I was very pleased to hear these comments by the FBI Director," Graham said Thursday. "I'm hopeful the State Department will review and hopefully change their position allowing the Benghazi witnesses to be interviewed by Congress for oversight purposes."
A diplomatic security agent who was an eyewitness to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack has been questioned by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. But other members want to question survivors as well.
"There should be no reason that the FBI investigation should be used as an excuse for us not to have access to question those witnesses, whether it's an open hearing or in a secure briefing setting," Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said.
Comey said he hadn't discussed the matter with the Justice Department. Justice Department spokesman Brian Fallon said the department stands by its public statements that the questioning could hurt the criminal prosecution.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., asked Comey whether he might have a different opinion after he spoke with prosecutors. Comey, a federal prosecutor for 15 years and deputy assistant attorney general for two years, said it's always possible.
In a letter to Graham last month, the State Department said it was concerned about congressional interviews with the survivors of the attack because of Justice Department advice that they could be witnesses in a criminal trial, and any interviews outside the criminal justice process could jeopardize a case.
The department also wrote that "because these survivors are potential witnesses in a terrorism prosecution, as well as law enforcement professionals who engage in security activities around the world including at high-threat posts, disclosure of their identities could put their lives, as well as those of their families and the people they protect, at increased risk."
In a statement, State Department spokesman Alec Gerlach reiterated that Congress had interviewed for eight hours a security officer who was at the compound on the night of the attack, and said "State Department officials in recent months have sat for lengthy interviews with congressional investigators."
"As we have said in the past, we share the Department of Justice's concerns and note that they advised Congress that eyewitness interviews outside the criminal justice process could possibly lead to attempts to thwart the investigation," Gerlach said.
Associated Press writers Donna Cassata and Josh Lederman contributed to this report.