Comey says Congress can talk to Benghazi survivors
FBI Director James B. Comey told lawmakers Thursday he is not opposed to Congress speaking with the survivors of the 2012 attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, contradicting the Obama administration’s position that such discussions would jeopardize the FBI’s criminal case against those charged in the terrorist strike.
Mr. Comey’s position on the politically charged issue seemed to surprise some of the senators who have unsuccessfully asked the administration for access to the survivors.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, has said he will block President Obama’s nominees for Federal Reserve chairman and Homeland Security secretary if the administration does not give Congress access to the Benghazi survivors.
The FBI is leading the investigation into the attack that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Critics say the Benghazi survivors could clear up huge lingering questions about the Obama administration’s handling of the attack and its aftermath.
Mr. Comey, a former federal prosecutor who has headed the FBI for just two months, weighed in on what has become a rallying cry for conservatives. Testifying before a Senate committee on the current terrorism threat to the U.S., Mr. Comey said he was unaware that the administration has refused to give some members of Congress access to the survivors because of the FBI investigation.
“As the FBI director, I don’t have an objection to it,” Mr. Comey said. “I don’t know whether the prosecutors would feel differently or if there’s some other reason I’m not thinking of. But speaking from my perspective, yeah, I don’t have an objection to that.”
Conservatives argue that the administration tried to mislead the public about a deadly terrorist attack on Americans in the heat of a presidential campaign, and that an administration internal review of the incident glossed over policy and security failures. In the months since, congressional Republicans have accused the administration of stonewalling their investigations.
“I was very pleased to hear these comments by the FBI director,” Mr. Graham said Thursday. “I’m hopeful the State Department will review and hopefully change their position allowing the Benghazi witnesses to be interviewed by Congress for oversight purposes.”
A diplomatic security agent who was an eyewitness to the Sept. 11, 2012, attack has been questioned by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. But other members want to question survivors as well.
“There should be no reason that the FBI investigation should be used as an excuse for us not to have access to question those witnesses, whether it’s an open hearing or in a secure briefing setting,” Sen. Ron Johnson, Wisconsin Republican, said.
Mr. Comey said he hadn’t discussed the matter with the Justice Department. The Justice Department did not immediately respond to questions about the FBI director’s position.
Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, asked Mr. Comey whether he might have a different opinion after he spoke with prosecutors. Mr. Comey, a federal prosecutor for 15 years and deputy assistant attorney general for two years, said it’s always possible.
In a letter to Mr. Graham last month, the State Department said it was concerned about congressional interviews with the survivors of the attack because of Justice Department advice that they could be witnesses in a criminal trial, and any interviews outside the criminal justice process could jeopardize a case.
The department also wrote that “because these survivors are potential witnesses in a terrorism prosecution, as well as law enforcement professionals who engage in security activities around the world including at high-threat posts, disclosure of their identities could put their lives, as well as those of their families and the people they protect, at increased risk.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki had no immediate response to Mr. Comey’s remarks.
FBI Director James B. Comey goes against the administration when he tells lawmakers Thursday that he is not opposed to Congress speaking with survivors of the 2012 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi.