The White House denied Wednesday that State Department officials are muzzling would-be whistleblowers about last year’s terrorist attacks on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi by blocking security clearances for their attorneys.
Rep. Darrell E. Issa, California Republican and chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, and former U.S. prosecutor Victoria Toensing have separately leveled charges that the State Department is blocking clearances for attorneys for potential whistleblowers, who may want someone to help represent them before Congress or help shield them from retaliation afterward because of their testimony.
Mr. Carney said neither the State Department nor the Pentagon had received any requests from lawyers representing anyone tied to the Sept. 11 Benghazi attacks, which killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, State Department officer Sean Smith and former Navy SEALs Glen Doherty and Tyrone Woods.
The attacks and the administration’s response to them became a heated issue in the presidential election, and they continue to provoke Republican allegations of a cover-up.
“So what you have is an attorney saying she represents somebody, claiming that she’s not getting this security clearance, and yet the agencies involved have no information about that at all,” said Mr. Carney, apparently referring to Ms. Toensing, who aired her charges on Fox News.
Ms. Toensing did not return several requests for comment Wednesday.
In a letter Wednesday to Mr. Issa, Thomas B. Gibbons, assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, said: “The Department routinely considers written requests for a security clearance for an employee’s private attorney which is necessary to ensure proper legal representation.”
“Despite some of the recent media reporting, to date, we are unaware of any such request having been made to the Office of the Legal Adviser regarding Benghazi,” he wrote.
Meanwhile, the FBI released on its website Wednesday the first photos from surveillance footage of the attacks, saying that three men shown in the photographs are wanted for questioning.
“We are seeking information about three individuals who were on the grounds of the U.S. special mission when it was attacked,” the FBI said. “These individuals may be able to provide information to help in the investigation.”
The State Department letter was a response to Mr. Issa’s charges last month that the department appeared to be intentionally making it difficult for private lawyers to get security clearances to represent officials seeking to provide information about the Benghazi attacks to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
The issue arises because two of the four U.S. deaths and an unknown number of the injuries during the attack occurred at a building a couple of miles from the diplomatic compound, which was overrun and set ablaze in the first phase of the attack.
Referred to in official documents as an “annex,” the building was a CIA facility from which the agency, with an unknown number of staff and contractors, was running at least one covert operation.
Officials have confirmed that the CIA was trying to ensure that heavy and advanced weaponry from the Libyan conflict, especially shoulder-launched anti-aircraft missiles, did not leak to extremists in other countries in the region.
Security arrangements at the annex are most likely classified, possibly including the number of or identities of people there, one former official said recently.
When asked about the matter during a news conference Tuesday, President Obama said he was “not familiar with this notion that anybody has been blocked from testifying.”
“Whistleblowers deserve protection,” Mr. Issa said in a statement afterward. “The president’s unwillingness to commit himself to protecting whistleblowers only aids those in his administration who are intimidating them.”
Issa spokesman Frederick Hill also noted that the State Department letter did not directly address the committee’s concerns, adding that the chairman had requested that all employees be reminded of their right to expose malfeasance through the proper channels without suffering retaliation.
Mr. Issa’s committee will begin hearings in the matter next week. He said the hearings will “expose” information on the Benghazi attack that Mr. Obama “has tried to suppress,” and raise questions about the administration’s own investigation — the Accountability Review Board headed by former Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering.