After eight weeks are you still confused about what happened in Benghazi? You're not alone.
As former CIA Director David Petraeus recently left a briefing with the U.S. House Intelligence Committee, it was obvious that more questions were raised than answered.
Members of the committee seemed to have different recollections about Petraeus’ Sept. 14 statements regarding the tragic incident, and hoped this follow-up hearing would provide some clarity. Unfortunately, it only added to the general confusion.
One member of the committee, Rep. Peter King, remembers Petraeus testifying in September that the attack on our Libyan embassy was a spontaneous response to an anti-Muslim movie that was posted on the Internet.
But others remember both of his testimonies having the same general message: the attack was an organized act of terrorism. Unfotunately, the second hearing provided no definitive answers about he said, or meant to say, the first time.
There’s nothing unusual about this type of confusion and the root cause for it. In the world of congressional oversight it’s called “20 questions," which leads to a startling lack of clarity amid the fog of intelligence. Who said what, and when did they say it?
The term "20 questions" was coined by Rep. Jane Harmon and myself during the time I served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. It was born out of our frustration with many witnesses we interviewed from the American intelligence community.
They have a tendency to answer specific questions with very narrow and vague responses. Even after persistent and aggressive questioning from members of both parties, witnesses would frequently leave us wondering precisely what we had just been told.
Efforts to clarify confusing testimony frequently fell short of the goal. I recall numerous follow-up hearings with various witnesses, when we would revisit previous statements and point out obvious inconsistencies. The witnesses would recount their specific answers to specific questions and say, "Here's the question you asked and I answered your question."
Technically they were correct in most cases. They had answered our questions in a truthful, legal manner without disclosing the actual data we were seeking. That’s the way bureaucrats operate, skillfully answering questions without conveying any information of value. It’s practically an art form.
Unfortunately, their skill at avoiding complete answers can cripple efforts by Congress to get at the truth and share it with the American people.This is exactly what's happening with the Patreaus hearings and the multiple investigations of the Benghazi incident. People are playing political word games over a critical issue that must be addressed.
In the case of Benghazi, where four Americans were murdered in cold blood, it’s critical that Congress receives straight answers.
Sadly Congress is no closer to the knowing the facts than it was on September 11. At this rate the American people may never know what happened. Here are some crucial questions that need to be answered:
Did the Obama administration and our intelligence community accurately assess the situation as it unfolded and respond in an appropriate manner? Why were Ambassador Chris Stevens’ pleas for extra security ignored in Washington, D.C.? Why did DNI Clapper first deny any knowledge of the Susan Rice talking points being altered, then take full responsibility for changing them? What was so important in Benghazi that it required a big CIA footprint? Gun running? Detentions and interrogations? Was there anything to cover up?
There’s every indication that the various investigations have already devolved into partisan bickering sessions. That's extremely disappointing and a risk to our national security.The American people need complete, unvarnished answers to these questions. There is a better way to handle this situation. Here are two logical suggestions.
First, House Speaker John Boehner and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid should appoint a bipartisan congressional committee, or a special independent committee, to closely study the facts, determine what happened in Benghazi, and propose solutions that might prevent similar tragedies in the future.
America needs an honest assessment of what was done, right and wrong. This shouldn't be about politics. It should be about maximizing the future safety of Americans serving overseas, and fully understanding the continuing and evolving threat from radical jihadists.
Special congressional committees are not perfect. They have their strengths and weaknesses. But having a single committee focused specifically on Benghazi will produce more legitimate answers than having multiple standing committees with overlapping jurisdictions trying to sort out what happened.
Secondly, much of the information about the Benghazi attack should be declassified. If the facts are automatically blocked, there’s no way we can ever hope to find out what happened and formulate an intelligent strategy to secure our embassies in the future. Everyone involved in the intelligence world knows classification of crucial information has been overly applied and continues to be a huge problem.
The intelligence world needs to be more transparent. The strategy of the intelligence community and executive branch has always been to stamp the word "secret" on as much information as possible. It's easier and allows for less oversight and review. But it's also wrong and needs to stop.
We need to expose all the facts about Benghazi. We need to learn from our mistakes. After eight painful and unproductive weeks it is time to cut through the fog of intelligence. Congressional leaders should appoint a focused special committee to complete the investigation, propose solutions, and shine some desperately needed sunlight on what happened on September 11, 2012.
Greater transparency and focus will help prevent the next Benghazi from occurring. That is an outcome we can all agree on.
Former Congressman Pete Hoekstra was chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. He is currently on the Advisory Board of LIGNET.
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