Setting aside the partisan skirmish over a fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, the defense policy panels plan to focus next year on weaknesses exposed in the military’s ability to respond to the terrorist attack, senior congressional aides say.
The Pentagon announced recently that it was reassessing its ability to come to the immediate defense of U.S. facilities or personnel in a place like North Africa if they come under attack.
"We were not properly positioned and we know that," one senior House aide said. "We will have a whole series of wide-ranging hearings on this with the idea of laying groundwork for legislative action."
A senior Senate aide noted that Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., is mulling hearings into the Benghazi attack that would mostly likely occur next year. The issue also is expected to be addressed when the defense policy panel takes up the nomination of the new Africa Command leader early next year.
"We haven’t drafted advanced policy questions" for the military, the senior aide said, but "we have made our concerns known to the Pentagon."
Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans were killed in the Sept. 11 assault on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which appears to have been part of a larger Central Intelligence Agency presence in Libya.
The issue became intensely partisan during the presidential election after GOP candidate Mitt Romney sought to cast the administration as too soft in its response to the attacks. Indeed, Senate Armed Services members John McCain of Arizona, ranking Republican on the panel; Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H.; and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., charged the president with perhaps covering up details of the attack.
"This tragedy has raised many important questions that affect the national security of the United States and the safety of those Americans who serve our country abroad," the three lawmakers wrote in a Nov. 2 letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. "While we await the findings and recommendations of these reviews, it is essential for the Congress to conduct its own independent assessment of the attack in Benghazi."
In a letter to McCain released Nov. 9, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta acknowledged that military forces we are not in a position to provide timely aid to U.S. personnel in Benghazi.
"We are conducting ongoing assessments of our regional force posture in light of continued concerns over possible threats throughout the region to our facilities, personnel, and property," Panetta wrote. "We will carefully evaluate whether changes in our regional force posture are necessary or appropriate."
But in a statement, McCain, Graham and Ayotte noted that Panetta had offered little more than was already known. And given that forces were not prepared to respond, they asked, "Why not?"
The lawmakers contend that while several committees hold jurisdiction over portions of the events that occurred, the matter is too important and complex and should be handled by a temporary select committee as an integrated review.
Levin opposes a special commission.
"He thinks we ought to deal with things through the committee," a senior congressional aide said.