One year after the terrorist attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi, Libya, the survivors may finally begin to talk.
In a three-page letter to the chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Mike Rogers, CIA director John Brennan says that his agency will provide the “relevant information” to Rogers in order to facilitate meetings between CIA-affiliated personnel in Benghazi and congressional oversight committees. The offer of cooperation, dated September 3, 2013, comes as four committees of jurisdiction in the House of Representatives prepare to reinvigorate separate inquiries into the events of September 11, 2012, and their aftermath. In the next two weeks, the House Foreign Affairs, Armed Services, Government Oversight and Reform, and Intelligence Committees will all hold hearings looking into different aspects of the Benghazi attacks – beginning with an Intelligence Committee hearing later this week on the lack of progress in the investigation and apprehension of the perpetrators of those attacks. 60 Minutes is planning to air its investigation into the Benghazi attacks later this fall.
In his letter to Rogers, Brennan responded to several specific questions the Intelligence Committee chairman had posed in a letter dated August 2, 2013, denying that CIA officers on the ground during the attacks had been subjected to polygraphs or required to sign non-disclosure agreements. He also denied that any CIA officers – “either staff or contractor” – had been told not to speak to Congress about the attacks or threatened with consequences for any such cooperation. “To the best of my knowledge after inquiry, I am unaware of any officer who has been threatened with reprisals,” Brennan wrote. “Nor would I tolerate such behavior. To retaliate or threaten retaliation would be a violation of law.”
But the most important part of Brennan’s letter was the brief section on the possibility of meetings with Benghazi survivors. “Finally, you asked that CIA provide a list of all officers in Libya on 11 September 2012 and arrange for the committee to speak to any of those officers regardless of their current location,” he wrote. “Information identifying those officers is classified. We will work with the Committee to provide the relevant information via classified channels.”
The request from Rogers for access to survivors came after considerable debate among Republicans in the House. One group of lawmakers expressed concerns about demanding access to the Benghazi survivors. Doing so, they argued, would set a bad precedent for intelligence officials in the field. CIA officers have to be risk takers to do their jobs effectively, this group maintained, and calling them back to Washington after a debacle like Benghazi could well make them more risk-averse.
But others argued that any CIA officials in Benghazi that night who wanted to talk were unlikely to do so without the protection that a congressional demand – or, more formally, a subpoena – would provide. CIA officers, they reasoned, wouldn’t volunteer to share details about the events of that night that could damage the Obama administration, particularly since the CIA director had been a close adviser to Barack Obama since his 2008 campaign. The only way these officials would talk is after a demand from Congress that they do so.
The request from Rogers to Brennan comes after months of persistent reports and rumors that Benghazi survivors had been threatened into silence. Sources claiming to speak for some of the survivors have claimed that these officers were forced to sign additional non-disclosure agreements and, in some cases, take additional polygraph tests as part of campaign to keep them from sharing their stories. “While we may never be able to stop the rumors and misstatements regarding the events of that night,” Brennan wrote, “I appreciate the opportunity to refute some of them directly.”
The meetings between survivors and the intelligence oversight committees have already started. Two survivors met with staffers from the Senate Intelligence Committee earlier this summer. Those individuals will meet with the House committee in the coming weeks.
The lack of information from U.S. government officials on the ground in Benghazi that night is the largest hole in the narrative surrounding the attacks. Until now, members of Congress have had to rely largely on the accounts of people who were in touch with individuals in Benghazi – reports that were, by definition, secondhand. But with the apparent commitment of Brennan to help make available CIA personnel who survived the attacks, the public may begin to learn firsthand—after a full year—some of many of the outstanding details of what actually happened in Libya that night.