More than seven months after the attack Sept. 11, 2012, on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the Obama administration continues to defend itself against allegations from House Republicans that the administration has not fully cooperated with Congress on the investigation into the attack.
On Tuesday, both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry addressed claims being made by House Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committee leaders that the administration is impeding the Congressional testimony of State Department and CIA employees who survived the attack.
“I’m not familiar with this notion that anybody’s been blocked from testifying,” said the president. “What I’ve been very clear about from the start is that our job with respect to Benghazi has been to find out exactly what happened, to make sure that U.S. embassies, not just in the Middle East but around the world, are safe and secure and to bring those who carried it out to justice.”
Speaking to reporters following a meeting with the Spanish foreign minister at the State Department on Tuesday, Kerry said “there’s an enormous amount of misinformation out there” about Benghazi. He referenced his testimony before the House two weeks ago, when he told members that the State Department would work closely with Congress to clear up any lingering questions about the attacks so that everyone could move on and begin focusing on other pressing global issues.
“I do not want to spend the next year coming up here talking about Benghazi,” Kerry said.
He also promised to assign someone from his staff specifically to work with Congress to answer all remaining questions.
On Tuesday, Kerry confirmed that he has tasked his chief of staff, David Wade, with working “openly and accountably” with House GOP members on Benghazi issues. But he also expressed some exasperation about the politics of the continued debate.
“We have to de-mythologize this issue and certainly depoliticize it,” said Kerry. “The American people deserve answers. I’m determined that this will be an accountable and open State Department, as it has been in the past. And we will continue to do that, and we will provide answers.”
At the State Department briefing on Tuesday, spokesman Patrick Ventrell went further, denying GOP House members’ allegations that the State Department is trying to stop whistleblowers in the department from talking.
“Let me be very clear: The State Department is deeply committed to meeting its obligation to protect employees, and the State Department would never tolerate or sanction retaliation against whistleblowers on any issue, including this one. That’s an obligation we take very seriously, full stop,” said Ventrell. “The department regularly sends notices, as we do to our entire staff, to employees advising of their right to federal whistleblower protections.”
Ventrell said the State Department sent a “routine” update just last week advising department staff of their whistleblower protections.
He also flatly denied the claims that State Department employees who were survivors of the attack have requested security clearance for private attorneys because the administration is trying to block them from talking to Congress or the public.
“We’re not aware of any employees who have requested … security clearances for private attorneys in connection with Benghazi,” said Ventrell. “In the event of such requests, the department has a security clearance process in place under which clearances can be provided to private attorneys who are representing individual employees of this building.”
But Victoria Toensing, a lawyer for one of the State Department employees who witnessed the attack and is seeking to share the story fully with Congressional investigators, says the department is not being entirely truthful. Toensing maintains that asking employees, who are acting as whistleblowers, to go come forward, identify themselves and then inform the State Department that they are seeking council before they have representation leaves them vulnerable to intimidation and retribution.
“These people want their own lawyers,” Toensing tells ABC News. “They shouldn’t have to go in to their employer what I call ‘naked’, without an attorney.”
On April 16th, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., the chairman of the House Oversight Committee, sent a letter to State Department lawyers asking for guidance on the process to have private attorney’s cleared, but Toensing says he never received an answer. As a result ten days later Issa sent another letter, this time to Secretary Kerry, detailing the various ways he said the State Department has “attempted to impede or otherwise delay the committee’s investigation”
Issa specifically highlighted restrictions the department put on members reviewing classified and unclassified documents, allowing them only to review them while being monitored in a room that houses classified documents, not allowing members to photocopy or examine documents in a lengthy fashion.
“Notwithstanding the fact that the committee has both the right and the capability to review and possess classified information, I note that approximately 80 percent of the documents in question are unclassified and marked identically to documents routinely sent to the committee without the same restrictions placed upon them,” Issa wrote in the letter.
The congressman also accused the State Department of purposefully restricting access to witnesses of the attack for the Congressional investigation.
Toensing, a former Chief Council for the Senate Intelligence Committee who also served in the Department of Justice under the Reagan administration, says she is still waiting for the State Department to provide her with what she needs to do to be cleared to represent her client. She says that her client faced pressure and threats from the department during the initial Benghazi Congressional hearings and subsequent investigation, which is why she and other lawyers have taken the cases of both State and CIA employees who want to talk, pro-bono.
She says she and other lawyers are not asking that their clients be free to divulge classified information to the general public or media, but to speak fully with Congressional investigators. Toensing says being blocked from doing so is tantamount to obstructing justice.
“By not clearing lawyers they have made it so that clients cannot give lawyers the full story,” she says.
Toensing, who represented New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time’s Matt Cooper in the Valerie Plame case, says she’s “a lawyer before… a Republican” and that her involvement in the on-going controversy over the Benghazi attack is not driven by partisanship, but on what she thinks is right.
“Why can the Boston bomber get a team of defenders right away, and I agree with him getting that, he should, that’s our system; but a career public servant, who’s wants to represent government employees can’t be cleared three weeks later ?,” she says. ” I just want to be able to represent my client fully”