WASHINGTON (AP) — A House Republican chairman is doggedly pursuing the question of whether military personnel were told to "stand down" during the 2012 deadly assault on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, despite the insistence of military leaders and other Republicans that it never happened.
Rep. Darrell Issa's Oversight and Government Reform Committee is pressing officials in a series of closed-door meetings about the instructions from military commanders in the chaotic hours after the first attack and whether they were told not to assist Americans under siege.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress last June that personnel in Tripoli were never told to "stand down" and top Republicans on the House Armed Services Committee reported in February that no such order was given.
The panel's persistence on an issue the military considers settled underscore that Republicans have no plans to relent in their politically charged investigation of the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed U.S. Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans on President Barack Obama's watch.
If Republicans capture the Senate in November and control both houses of Congress, the GOP will face internal pressure and fresh conservative demands for a special select committee to investigate along the lines of Watergate or Iran-Contra inquiries, especially as the party looks ahead to the 2016 presidential race and a possible Democratic bid by former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who has been outspoken in criticizing the administration on Benghazi, said he would welcome a select committee probe to examine the actions of the State Department, CIA and the White House.
"A joint select committee prevents things from falling through the cracks," Graham said in an interview.
In the meantime, Issa's panel, along with staff from the House Armed Services Committee, continues a full-scale investigation, with additional interviews scheduled for next month. The chairman maintained last month that the question of a "stand down" order remains unresolved.
It first emerged last May when Gregory Hicks, the deputy chief of mission who was in Tripoli, told the committee that four members of a special forces team in Tripoli wanted to go in a second wave to assist Americans but were told to stand down.
Fielding questions at a fundraiser in New Hampshire, Issa said: "Why there was not one order given to turn on one Department of Defense asset? I have my suspicions, which is Secretary Clinton told Leon (Panetta) to stand down, and we all heard about the stand-down order for two military personnel. That order is undeniable. They were told not to get on — get off the airplane and kind of stand by — and they're going to characterize it wasn't stand down. But when we're done with Benghazi, the real question is, Was there a stand-down order to Leon Panetta or did he just not do his job? Was there a stand-down order from the president, who said he told them to use their resources and they didn't use them? Those questions have to be answered."
The February interim report from the Republicans on the Armed Services Committee, including panel chairman Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said Army Lt. Col. S.E. Gibson wanted to take three special operators from Tripoli to Benghazi after the first attack. Military commanders were concerned about the safety of Americans in the capital city, fearing a wave of attacks and the possibility of hostage taking.
According to testimony, Rear Adm. Brian L. Losey, the Africa commander, told Gibson to remain in Tripoli to defend Americans there. In addition, six U.S. security personnel were already en route to Benghazi on a chartered Libyan aircraft to evacuate Americans. The plane with the evacuees on a return flight to Tripoli would have crossed paths with Gibson and three others if they had left for Benghazi.
In committee interviews, Rep. Martha Roby, R-Ala., asked Gibson whether he agreed that his team was ordered to stand down.
"I was not ordered to stand down," Gibson testified. "I was ordered to remain in place. 'Stand down' implies that we cease all operations, cease all activities. We continued to support the team that was in Tripoli."
The committee in its February report said "there was no 'stand down' order issued to U.S. military personnel in Tripoli who sought to join the fight in Benghazi." A separate, bipartisan report by the Senate Intelligence Committee in January said allegations that the military or intelligence community prevented "the mounting of any military relief effort during the attacks" were unsubstantiated.
Dempsey, in testimony to the Senate last June, said, "They weren't told to stand down. A 'stand down' means don't do anything. They were told that the mission they were asked to perform was not in Benghazi, but was at Tripoli airport."
Said Graham: "I don't know of any such order and the people who should know have told me it didn't exist so I'm just going to, if nothing new comes out, accept that."
The GOP majority report from Armed Services also noted that Panetta and Dempsey testified that they never communicated with Clinton that night, raising questions about Issa's suggestion that the secretary of state told Panetta to stand down.
In interviews with Issa's committee, officials have testified that the decision to remain in Tripoli saved lives as a medic who was part of the four-man team helped care for Americans who were evacuated from Benghazi.
Democrats have complained that the panel is trying to redefine the instructions to the military, and Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, complained this week about a "witch hunt."
Frederick Hill, a spokesman for Issa's panel, said the panel understands that Gibson doesn't perceive the order he received as fitting the military definition of a "stand down" order.
"But at the same time the committee does remain concerned about why the decision was made for Lt. Col. Gibson to not be allowed to go to Benghazi to assist Americans who were fighting at the time there but instead was given a different task to do in Tripoli and trying to understand fully, with all different circumstances existed at that time why the priority was for him to stay in Tripoli and not assist Americans under fire," Hill said.