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Several senators want a special congressional panel to probe a deadly embassy attack, potentially raising the stakes in the ongoing foreign policy scandal four days before election day.
GOP Sens. John McCain of Arizona, Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire are asking congressional leaders to establish a special House-Senate committee to examine what happened before, during and after a Sept. 11 attack on a U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
The senators have been hammering the Obama administration for weeks about what it knew about a possible attack and how it responded or opted not to after the strike was underway. The attack, for which an al-Qaida affiliate has claimed responsibility, left the U.S. ambassador and three others dead.
The Obama administration is conducting an internal probe of the events leading to and following the attack. President Obama has vowed to hunt down those responsible for the attack, and also to punish any U.S. government officials who made mistakes.
In reports published Nov. 1, the CIA revealed it attempted to surge personnel to the consulate, but those forces were unable to thwart the attack, for which an al-Qaida-linked group has claimed responsibility.
But the GOP senators believe a non-administration probe is necessary to get answers.
"We believe that the complexity and gravity of this matter warrants the establishment of a temporary select committee that can conduct an integrated review of the many national security issues involved, which cut across multiple executive agencies and legislative committees," McCain, Graham and Ayotte said in a Nov. 3 letter to Senate Democratic and Republican leaders.
"Among the issues we believe a select committee would need to examine are the following: the intelligence and other threat reporting that preceded the attack; the security measures and manpower decisions taken to protect our people in Benghazi prior to the attack; the military force posture in the region at the time of the attack and the resulting ability of our Armed Forces to respond in the event of a crisis; the response of U.S.government officials once the attack began, the public characterization of the attack in Benghazi in the days and weeks that followed; the adequacy of intelligence and intelligence-sharing during the attack; as well as other important issues," the senators said.
The special panel's findings could be used to inform potential changes in how the U.S. secures such facilities across the globe, the senators said.
While the three GOP senators have led the way in criticizing the Obama administration's handling of the situation, some former officials and experts say the administration acted properly.
"The US did almost everything possible to protect our people once the attacks had started, though not in advance. ... Decision makers in Washington appear to have been leaning forward, as they should have been,"
Paul Wolfowitz, deputy defense secretary under GOP President George W. Bush, wrote in a Nov. 2 blog post, according to the L.A. Times. "The military's most capable rescue force, based on the East Coast, was deployed immediately (something that is very rarely done), but given the distances involved arrived at Sigonella only after the crisis was over."
Loren Thompson, a former Georgetown University professor and now COO of the Lexington Institute, acknowledges "clearly mistakes were made, but U.S. diplomatic personnel serving in unstable countries are always at risk."
Thompson questions whether the GOP lawmakers possess the credibility necessary to criticize the Obama administration for its handling of foreign policy and national security.
"What's absurd about the domestic political opera playing out over Benghazi in this election season is the utter lack of humility from a party that gave us the most incompetent management of national security in living memory during the first eight years of the new millennium," Thompson wrote in a Nov. 2 Lexington briefing paper.
He cited the Bush administration's stumbling in Iraq which GOP lawmakers supported for years as a prime example.
"When a political party has delivered this kind of leadership to America during its most recent run in the White House," Thompson wrote, "the idea that it has any useful lessons to teach its successors about national security is laughable."