WASHINGTON – Tensions escalated Thursday between the House Benghazi committee and the Pentagon when the committee subpoenaed a Defense Department official who has accused the panel of making excessive requests for information.
The GOP-led Select Committee on Benghazi has ordered Stephen Hedger, assistant secretary of defense for legislative affairs, to appear for a private interview as early as next week.
Committee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., wants Hedger to explain why it took the Pentagon so long to identify a drone sensor operator who was on duty the night of the 2012 attacks in Libya that killed four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens.
To date, the man has been known only as “John from Iowa” for calling into a radio show in 2013 about what he saw the night of the attacks. Hedger told Gowdy in April that defense officials have spent “significant resources” to identify him, to no avail.
The man, an active-duty member of the Air Force, was interviewed behind closed doors by the House Benghazi committee on Thursday. Gowdy said in a statement the service member told the committee that Air Force and Defense Department officials knew who he was even before the Benghazi panel asked that he be found.
“Mr. Hedger will now have the opportunity to detail exactly what ‘resources’ he ‘expended’ and how,” Gowdy's statement said. “I look forward to him explaining the serious questions that have arisen with respect to this matter, including whether they are related to incompetence or deliberate concealment of the witness from a congressional inquiry.”
Committee Republicans said they asked the Pentagon on Feb. 26 to locate all relevant drone operators and on March 24 asked specifically about “John from Iowa.” On April 28, Hedger said they had tried but failed to identify him. On May 20, the Defense Department gave the committee a list of names of drone operators working in the region on Sept. 11 and 12 of 2012, but Republicans by then had already independently identified the man.
In his April letter to Gowdy, Hedger requested a meeting to address what he said was a “recent crescendo” of requests from Benghazi committee investigators. He accused the investigators of making subpoena threats, changing priorities and asking that witnesses speculate rather than provide facts, and he detailed the time and expense involved in finding and scheduling witness interviews.
Gowdy said Hedger’s letter was “overtly partisan” and mischaracterized the committee’s requests of the Pentagon.
The subpoena sent Thursday demands that Hedger talk to the committee in private, under oath, on Wednesday.
Democrats on the Benghazi committee have said Hedger’s letter is further proof the probe is wasting taxpayer dollars on something already investigated by multiple congressional committees. And they said Thursday's testimony from “John from Iowa” offered “virtually no substantive information we didn’t already have.”
“To the contrary, he referred us back to the same videos the Pentagon made available to the select committee more than a year ago,” said Paul Bell, a spokesman for committee Democrats. “The Republican press release complains that it took the Pentagon several months to track down ‘John from Iowa,’ but Republicans are the ones who waited more than a year and a half to even request the interview.”
The Select Committee on Benghazi, created two years ago, is expected to issue a report this summer about the circumstances before, during and after the attacks. Previous investigations have found inadequate security at the U.S. facilities in eastern Libya, but Republicans say there was more to learn about the military response to the attacks and how the Obama administration handled the aftermath.
Democrats say the panel was designed to inflict political damage on presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of State at the time of the attacks.
Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the top Democrat on the panel, called the decision to subpoena Hedger an "abuse of authority."
"There was absolutely no reason to unilaterally subpoena the legislative staff of the Pentagon – after ignoring their request for a meeting – except to retaliate against the Defense Department for exposing the Select Committee's abuses, delay this partisan investigation even further into the election season, and distract from the fact that the Republicans have come up empty in their three-year attack on Hillary Clinton," Cummings said through a spokesman.
Contact Mary Troyan at firstname.lastname@example.org