Seven seconds of total silence.
The nation's top intelligence officials have answered the question countless times over the past year and a half, but they seemed stumped during a House hearing Tuesday when a Florida congressman asked them one more time: "Can anybody at the table tell us when somebody will be held responsible for the murders in Benghazi?"
For seven seconds, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, CIA director John Brennan, Defense Intelligence Agency director Michael Flynn, National Counterterrorism Center director Matt Olsen and FBI director James Comey sat quietly – each one seemingly waiting for one of the others to rescue them from a question for which they have no easy answer, regarding a tragedy that almost since the outset has been wrapped in political partisanship.
After the seven seconds of silence prompted by Florida Republican Rep. Jeff Miller's question, FBI director Comey leaned into the microphone.
"What I can tell you, Congressman, is that this is a top priority of the FBI," he said. "We've made progress on the matter. I'm not at liberty to talk about the details of that progress. It's a difficult investigation, but one we've invested a lot of resources in and one that we've made headway on."
It has been nearly 17 months since the Sept. 11, 2012, attack on a U.S. diplomatic facility and CIA annex in Benghazi, where U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans lost their lives. But with a series of 2014 congressional hearings and a 2016 presidential race on the horizon that could feature former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a candidate, U.S. intelligence officials are once again facing questions on the Libyan disaster that have dogged them for months.
The silence before the House Intelligence Committee today – as fleeting as it was – reflected a complex situation in which law enforcement and intelligence agencies are facing some hardened obstacles. There are "inherent challenges" in the Benghazi case, as an FBI spokesman recently put it.
The U.S. intelligence community has identified "several individuals responsible for the attacks," many of them tied to terrorist groups such as Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Northern Africa, and Yemen's Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, according to an extensive, bipartisan report released last month by the Senate Intelligence Committee. In addition, Republicans on the committee named three "leading suspects," including militia leader Ahmed Abu Khattala, who has been interviewed by Western news agencies in Libya even as he's been secretly charged in a New York federal court.
But, the Senate committee's report concluded, "insight into the current whereabouts and links between these individuals in some cases is limited due in part to the nascent intelligence capabilities in the region." And FBI efforts have "been hampered by inadequate cooperation and a lack of capacity by foreign governments to hold these perpetrators accountable," the report said.
In particular, the Libyan government "has not shown the political incentive or will within its own country to seek out, arrest, and prosecute individuals believed to be associated with the attacks," and the security situation on the ground in Benghazi means witnesses there who work with the U.S. government could wind up dead, according to the report.
Meanwhile, the Senate committee's report suggests U.S. officials still have their own unanswered questions themselves about the Benghazi attacks.
"It remains unclear if any group or person exercised overall command and control of the attacks or whether extremist group leaders directed their members to participate," according to the report, whose authors had access to some of the most sensitive intelligence in the U.S. government's possession. "Intelligence suggests that the attack was not a highly coordinated plot, but was opportunistic … Some intelligence suggests the attacks were likely put together in short order, following that day's violent protests in Cairo against an inflammatory video."
In light of all that, Comey today was once again pushed to answer for what critics describe as a key U.S. shortcoming: the inability to arrest, much less convict, any suspects.
"We will never give up on this matter until we have the people responsible in our custody … no matter how long it takes," Comey said. "The one thing we don't do at the FBI is ever forget."
Last week, Comey was similarly asked about justice in the Benghazi attacks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. And Attorney General Eric Holder faced similar questioning last week during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing.
"We are determined to hold accountable the people who are responsible for that attack," Holder said, "and we will take and use all measures of the American government in order to effectuate that desire."
Asked today whether any Benghazi suspects might be brought to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay if captured by U.S. personnel, Comey said such a decision is "not a judgment for the FBI to make, but I'm sure that all options will be looked at by the government."