From left: Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, hold a news conference about Benghazi on Oct. 30 at the U.S. Capitol in Washington. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Several Republican lawmakers said Wednesday they will block Obama nominations for top positions until the White House stops what they say is muzzling people about the terrorist attack in Benghazi that killed a U.S. ambassador.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he will block the nomination of Janet Yellen to head the Federal Reserve until eyewitnesses and the statements they made to the FBI within 48 hours of the attack are made available to Congress.
“That’s the only leverage we have,” Graham said. “How can Congress conclude an investigation if we don’t have access to the people who were there?”
Joining Graham at a news conference in Washington on Wednesday were Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire and Reps. Trey Gowdy of South Carolina, Jason Chaffetz of Utah and Jim Jordan of Ohio. They said the Obama administration is pressuring government employees to keep them from testifying to Congress about what they may know.
The State Department said in a letter to Graham this week that releasing those witnesses and their statements could jeopardize a criminal investigation and endanger the lives and families of witnesses, some who are working in high-threat foreign posts.
Graham said that if such a theory were allowed to stand, it would block Congress from exercising its oversight responsibility.
“For the good of the country you can’t hide behind a criminal investigation,” Graham said. “If that were allowed to stand, just imagine how it would allow the administration to shield itself behind an ongoing investigation.”
The senators say they want to know why known security problems before the terrorist attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were not addressed by the State Department, which at the time was headed by Hillary Rodham Clinton.
They also want to know why the U.S. military did not do more to rescue Americans who were pinned down in the hours-long attack, and why the White House promoted a false narrative about who the attackers were and why they attacked.
President Obama and Clinton insisted for weeks that the attack emerged from a spontaneous protest of Libyans upset over an anti-Islam video produced in the United States. But personnel who have testified to Congress say State and White House officials were aware that the CIA and others concluded the attack was likely an organized pre-planned assault by al-Qaida-linked terrorists. There was never a protest.
The White House has said it has worked in good faith with Congress to explain the Benghazi incident, and has characterized Republican focus on the incident as politically motivated.
On Sunday, the CBS news program 60 Minutes reported that a British security contractor using the alias Morgan Jones said it was clear that security was far too lax at the Benghazi compound.
Jones said he was hired a few months before the attack to train a Libyan guard force at the compound. He said he knew when he drove up to the compound and found the guards drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes inside instead of stationed outside that they would not stand and fight in an attack.
Jones said he complained so often that the guards were not adequate and should be replaced that “in the end I got quite tired of hearing my own voice saying it.”
Lt. Col. Andy Wood, a top U.S. security official in Libya during the attack, told CBS he warned his superiors weeks before the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that an attack was imminent but his warnings were ignored.
Al-Qaida-linked militants based in Benghazi had posted online warnings earlier in the year that they would attack the British, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Americans in the city. By June, there had been an assassination attempt on the British ambassador in Benghazi, and an attack on the Red Cross.
“They carried out the first two and the only ones left were the Americans,” Wood said. “I made it known. You’re going to get attacked in Benghazi, it’s going to happen. Move out temporarily or set up a new location somewhere else in the city. Do something, they’re in the final planning stages.”
His warnings resulted in no change in the Benghazi posting’s security arrangements, Wood said. Testimony has already been heard that Stevens himself had requested more security from State but none was approved.
When the attack happened, mortar fire on a second U.S. compound attacked that night was so accurate it was clear “they practiced those things,” Wood said.
The Administrative Review Board that looked into the security question was chosen by Clinton and placed the blame for the terrorist attack on four mid-level officials, all of whom have remained at State. Clinton was not interviewed by the board, though she was ultimately responsible for security at diplomatic missions overseas.
Former Tripoli regional officer Eric Nordstrom testified in May that Clinton waived security requirements for the U.S. consulate in Benghazi despite the extremely high risk levels that staff was complaining about. Clinton has said State was relying on the Libyans to provide security despite the risk.
On the question of military rescue during the attack, Greg Hicks, the State Department’s top official in Libya after Stevens at the time, said he learned from the defense attaché about an hour into the attack that the U.S. military was not sending help.
“For a moment, I just felt lost,” Hicks said.
Hours later, two former U.S. Navy SEALs, Glen Doherty and Tyronne Woods, were killed defending the second compound.
Former Pentagon chief Leon Panetta has said that the U.S. military had determined that a rescue would take too long and be too risky, though the attack dragged on for hours and a drone provided a live video feed of the attack. He said Obama told the Pentagon to decide how to handle the attack when it was first learned of.