Col. George Bristol speaks during the April 2012 ceremony in which he took command of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara. Although the Pentagon has claimed Bristol is now retired, that is not true. Some lawmakers want to question Bristol about the U.S. response to the attacks on the U.S. diplomatic consulate in Benghazi, Libya. (Eric Steen/Army)
Pentagon officials reversed course Friday, saying they will make a retiring Marine who held a key military post during the deadly attacks on the diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, available to meet with members of Congress.
Col. George Bristol was commander of Joint Special Operations Task Force-Trans Sahara, an elite unit that conducts special operations across northern Africa. His position would have put him in position to know what options the U.S. had to protect Americans under fire on Sept. 11, when U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans were killed by insurgents attacks, prompting national outcry and a congressional investigation into the lack of protection.
Bristol stepped down from the post in a change of command ceremony in March, and Pentagon officials told Sen. Lindsay Graham, R.-S.C., other members of Congress and the media that he could not be ordered to testify because he was retired. That isn't the case, however. As Marine Corps Times first reported Wednesday, Bristol was on active duty through the end of the month, said Maj. Shawn Haney, a Marine spokeswoman.
The contradiction raised questions why the Pentagon said he was retired, and whether it was because senior officials there didn't want Bristol to testify. On Friday, the Pentagon swapped gears.
"The Department of Defense has fully cooperated with congressional requests to understand the attacks on the Benghazi compound," said Air Force Maj. Robert Firman, a Pentagon spokesman. "In response to a request from Senator Graham's officer earlier this month, Colonel George Bristol... will be available to meet with House and Senate members and their staffs."
A Pentagon official added that there was "initial confusion on Colonel Bristol's retirement status due to a personnel administrative error," but said the situation was resolved. Several attempts to reach Bristol have been unsuccessful.
The situation became fodder for longtime critics of the way the Obama administration has handled the Benghazi attacks. Rep. Frank Wolf, R.-Va., took to the House floor and said informed sources had told him that survivors of the attacks, along with other Defense Department and CIA personnel, have been asked to sign additional non-disclosure agreements about what happened in Benghazi.
"It is worth noting that the Marine Corps Times yesterday reported that the Marine colonel whose task force was responsible for special operations in northern and western Africa at the time of the attack is still on active duty despite claims that he retired and there could not be forced to testify before Congress," Wolf said Thursday.
"If these reports are accurate, this would be a stunning revelation to any member of Congress... that finds this out and also more importantly to the American people," Wolf said. "It also raises serious concerns about the priority of the administration's efforts to silence those with knowledge of the Benghazi attack in response."