As the investigation into the Obama administration’s handling of the attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi intensifies, lawmakers on Capitol Hill are seeking to conduct transcribed interviews with thirteen top State Department officials in the coming weeks in order to learn more. Those named in the letter include a wide range of current and former State Department personnel, from senior advisers to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to mid-level career officials with responsibility for diplomatic security.
Among those officials: Jacob Sullivan, then deputy chief of staff and director of policy planning (and currently national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden); Victoria Nuland, then State Department spokesman; Raymond Maxwell, deputy assistant secretary of state for near east affairs; Patrick Kennedy, undersecretary of state for management; and Eric Boswell, former assistant secretary of state for diplomatic security.
In a letter dated May 17, 2013, Representative Darrell Issa, chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, wrote to Secretary of State John Kerry to request formally that Kerry make these current and former State Department employees available. “The State Department employees whose testimony the Committee is seeking are critical fact witnesses who are positioned to shed light on what happened before, during and after the terrorist attacks that claimed the lives of four Americans in Benghazi.”
Issa reminded Kerry of his recent promise to run “an accountable and open State Department,” but noted that State’s “posture with respect to the congressional investigation of the Benghazi attacks has not lived up to your commitment to ‘provide answers.’” The State Department, Issa wrote, “continues to limit the Committee’s access to relevant documents and witnesses.” The transcribed interviews are likely a first step towards requesting—or demanding—congressional testimony for several of those listed.
In addition to the thirteen State Department officials, Issa’s committee will conduct a transcribed interview on June 3, with Ambassador Thomas Pickering, one of the two primary authors of the Administrative Review Board report on the Benghazi attacks. That investigation, which failed to interview Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other officials with knowledge of the attacks, has not fared well under the additional scrutiny that it has attracted as more information on the attacks has become public. Sources tell THE WEEKLY STANDARD that the committee will likely seek to interview Admiral Mike Mullen, the other chief author of the ARB report, at some point in the near future.
Republicans on the committee hope that the next round of interviews will provide a better sense of the State Department’s role in providing security before the attacks, in the deliberations about a military response during the attacks and in the creation of the administration’s public narrative after the attacks.
Sullivan figured prominently in emails sent between senior Obama administration officials about the formulation of Benghazi talking points that were distributed to policymakers in Congress and the executive branch in the aftermath of the attacks. An email from a United Nations staffer to Ambassador Susan Rice, who would present the administration’s case on five Sunday talk shows on September 16, reported that Sullivan would work with officials from the intelligence community on those talking points. Subsequent emails between Sullivan and the U.N. staffer showed efforts to ensure that Rice was kept in the loop on those talking points.
In another email exchange, this one with State Department spokesman Victoria Nuland, Sullivan reports that he will make edits to the talking points working with National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor. Nuland had previously objected to some of the language in the talking points, on the grounds that members of Congress would be in a position to say things that she had not been allowed to say and that members might criticize the State Department for ignoring warnings about previous attacks.
Sullivan, in his email to Nuland, wrote: “I spoke with Tommy. We’ll work through this in the morning and get comments back.” Moments later, Sullivan reiterated the point: “Talked to Tommy. We can make edits.”
The emails contradict claims from Jay Carney and others that neither the White House nor the State Department played a significant role in editing the talking points. Several major edits were made to the talking points at or following a meeting of senior Obama administration officials during a secure video teleconference on Saturday morning.