Congress decided to return to work early, or at least one committee did. The House Oversight Committee is holding a hearing at this hour on the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed four Americans, including US Ambassador Christopher Stevens. Marcy Wheeler has been bravely live-tweeting the event; I don’t think I could get through the cynicism.

There is no doubt that the Obama Administration story about the attack shifted as more information came in; this video tells that tale. Susan Rice in particular got way out in front of the story by describing it as a spontaneous attack growing out of protests against an anti-Islam video. We now know that was not the case, that the attack had a pre-planned, pre-meditated quality to it. There was no protest outside the compound prior to the attack, for example.

The State Department pre-empted the hearing today by releasing additional details about the attack, showing that the incident had no precedent in terms of the force of the assault. The White House is circling the wagons today as well, by sending counterterrorism advisor John Brennan to Libya to speak with top officials.

Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa and Romney surrogate and committee member Jason Chaffetz have played up the lack of operational security at the consulate, with the team in Benghazi unequipped to tell with a major threat. There’s no question that security at the consulate was very weak, as the head of a former 16-man security team in Libya told the committee this morning. However, this morning, Soledad O’Brien got Chaffetz to admit that the House Republicans cut funding for embassy security by $500 million prior to the incident:

Rep. Chaffetz says, “I think what we’re going to hear is that we didn’t meet the basic, minimum standards required for a facility such as the one we had in Benghazi. And the request for more security personnel went unheeded, unanswered, and consequently, you know, you have the death of four Americans…”

Later in the interview, CNN Anchor Soledad O’Brien asks, “Is it true that you voted to cut the funding for embassy security?”

Chaffetz answers, “Absolutely. Look we have to make priorities and choices in this country. We have… 15,0000 contractors in Iraq. We have more than 6,000 contractors, a private army there, for President Obama, in Baghdad. And we’re talking about can we get two dozen or so people into Libya to help protect our forces. When you’re in touch economic times, you have to make difficult choices. You have to prioritize things.”

Chaffetz wants to be able to cut embassy security as much as possible then, but offload the responsibility for managing the dwindling security resources to the State Department, which he will criticize from the sidelines. I don’t disagree on the lack of necessity of the giant force in Iraq. But if there was a security failure here, the reduction in appropriations has to play a role.

Oversight Committee ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings immediately called for a supplemental funding bill to restore that $500 million in embassy security cuts. “Restoring our commitment to embassy security would make a real difference to thousands of Americans who serve our country overseas, often in extremely dangerous circumstances,” Cummings said. Republicans didn’t want to talk about the consequences of budget cuts.

The rest of the hearing has had a he said/she said quality. Republicans claim only one diplomatic security officer on site in Benghazi on the day of the attack; Democrats and the State Department say there were five (but that has to do with the presence of the US Ambassador). Cummings said that the Republicans withheld documents and failed to make some witnesses available to the Democrats for interviews. The key witness, State Department Regional Security Officer Eric Nordstrom, said to the press that security in Benghazi was impressive; he recanted some of that today. But Nordstrom also cited the ferocity of the attack in questioning whether a normal state of readiness would have even mattered.

There’s more at the New York Times. I’d call the hearing a pointless exercise, but that might be an insult to pointless exercises.

David Dayen

David Dayen