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Critics call Chaffetz's Libya probe a political stunt

Published October 10, 2012 9:39 am

Utah representative denies partisan motive, says it's Congress' duty to provide oversight of the administration.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Washington • Rep. Jason Chaffetz on Wednesday will star in a congressional hearing examining the security pitfalls that led to the deaths of U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. On Thursday, Chaffetz will be back on the campaign trail on behalf of Mitt Romney, this time headed to Kentucky for the vice presidential debate.

To critics, the two events are very much related.

"It's all just a big stunt, and it's pathetic," said Jim Dabakis, chairman of the Utah Democratic Party, who views Chaffetz's quick trip to Libya over the weekend as a taxpayer-funded effort to harangue President Barack Obama less than a month before Election Day.

"It was an attempt to get campaign material that he could use fraudulently against the president," Dabakis said Tuesday.

Chaffetz, who chairs the House Oversight subcommittee on foreign operations, spent time over the weekend at the U.S. Embassy in Tripoli asking questions about the attack on Sept. 11 and will participate in a committee hearing Wednesday.

Ahead of the hearing, Chaffetz appeared on several networks and in news stories, charging that the Obama administration had turned down requests for enhanced safety measures at the Benghazi U.S. consulate, where Stevens and a small security detail were killed in a mortar attack.

"They wanted a narrative that they were moving towards normalization, the appearance of normalization as swiftly as possible," Chaffetz told Fox News' Greta Van Susteren. "But that, unfortunately, I think led to the idea that we didn't have the security in place to protect our assets in Libya."

Chaffetz later told "Fox & Friends" he didn't have evidence to that effect but it was his "strong opinion."

"I've been diving into this," Chaffetz told the network. "I've talked to the people who are going to testify; I've been on the ground in Libya; that's my impression."

The Oversight hearing, called by Republican Chairman Darrell Issa of California, is the only such event the recessed House has scheduled in the weeks left in October.

Democrats on the Oversight Committee slammed their GOP counterparts Tuesday for leading an "extremely partisan" investigation in the wake of the consulate attack, charging that Republicans had concealed information from their probe and only told the minority staff about the Libya trip a day before Chaffetz left.

The top Democrat on the committee, Elijah Cummings of Maryland, questioned the timing of Wednesday's hearing.

"While I fully support careful, responsible, and robust congressional oversight," Cummings said, "I do have concerns about rushing to hold a public hearing based on incomplete information if the purpose is to meet some arbitrary political timetable."

Moreover, Democrats note that it was House Republicans who voted during the past few years to cut funding to two programs that pay for embassy and consulate security functions.

Scott Lilly, a former staff director of the House Appropriations Committee who is now a senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, says the House GOP wanted deep cuts to what Obama sought in his budget.

"They attempted to cut both of these accounts by considerably more than they were cut," Lilly said, noting that to come back now and complain about the lack of security is "outrageous."

"I think the first questions [in Wednesday's hearing] ought to be directed at them," Lilly said, "not at the State Department."

For his part, Chaffetz said Dabakis and other critics of the GOP's efforts to uncover the facts behind the consulate bombing ought to understand it's Congress' duty to do so. And Chaffetz bristled at the suggestion that it was meant to play into the presidential campaign.

"The murder of four Americans was not part of anybody's political playbook," Chaffetz said. "What would be a crying shame is if I didn't do my job. If I simply stayed at home and campaigned in Cottonwood Heights, then I'd be ripe for criticism. I'm simply doing my job."

The Utah congressman said he welcomed the debate over budget cuts because the fault actually lies with the Obama administration's priorities — or lack thereof — when it comes to security needs in dangerous missions.

"I'd love to have that debate with them," Chaffetz said. "Security should be dictating security but in the Obama White House it's politics that's dictating security."

Moreover, he added, there are thousands of Americans serving abroad — including more than 100 still in Libya — and Congress needs to step up and ensure the administration is doing what it can to protect them.

Wednesday's hearing is expected to include testimony from Lt. Col. Andy Wood, a Utah National Guard Army Green Beret, who led a security team in Libya earlier this year and has said his requests for more security were denied.

tburr@sltrib.com