By Julian Pecque
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is shifting the focus of his probe into last month’s attack in Libya squarely onto the White House.
After grilling State Department staffers about security lapses last week, the House Oversight panel chairman sent President Obama a 10-page letter on Friday demanding to know why the administration toned down the U.S. security presence in Libya while the country was still emerging from a civil war. Issa said a witness at last week’s hearing said the decision not to call back a 16-person security team over the embassy’s objection was made as part of efforts to normalize relations with Libya, a claim Democrats dispute.
“Americans … deserve a complete explanation about your administration’s decision to accelerate a normalized presence in Libya at what now appears to be at the cost of endangering lives,” Issa wrote. “These critical foreign policy decisions are not made by low- or mid-level career officials — they are typically made through a structured and well-reasoned process that includes the National Security Council at the White House.
“The ultimate responsibility rests with you as the president of the United States.”
Four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, were killed on Sept. 11 when heavily armed Islamist militants stormed the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi. The attack has become a salient issue in the presidential race and cut into Obama’s lead on national security, and is expected to be a major focus of Monday’s final presidential debate, which is on foreign policy.
The letter to Obama was accompanied by the release of more than 100 pages of documents detailing the embassy’s requests for more security.
The top Democrat on Issa’s panel, Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), blasted the letter in a lengthy response to the chairman.
“It seems obvious that your goal in sending a public letter at this time is to release the most negative and distorted view possible of the attack in Benghazi ahead of the Presidential debate on Monday evening,” Cummings wrote to Issa. “This is particularly disturbing given requests by Ambassador Stevens’ family not to politicize his death as part of the campaign.”
In his letter, Issa asks Obama to answer 11 questions about the decision to remove security personnel from Libya, and how deeply the National Security Council was involved. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon has been floated as a possible secretary of State in a second Obama administration, but Republicans have been gunning for his head over allegations that he leaked classified information regarding a cyberattack on Iran and a foiled plot by al Qaeda’s wing in Yemen to blow up a U.S.-bound flight.
The letter also says the White House “has not been straightforward with the American people in the aftermath of the attack.” The issue of who knew what and when about the details of the attack has become a central source of partisan sparring on Libya, with the administration saying it simply made intelligence public as it became available.