It has been nearly eight months since attacks on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi, Libya, killed four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens.
In March, President Obama nominated Deborah K. Jones, a career diplomat and Middle East expert, to succeed Stevens. Jones appeared Tuesday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for her confirmation hearing — on the eve of a high-profile hearing that House Republicans are holding Wednesday on the Benghazi attacks.
As Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M, introduced his fellow New Mexican to the Senate panel, he made no bones about what a potentially dangerous assignment Jones is set to take on in Libya.
“Ambassador Jones will be our first ambassador since the tragic events at Benghazi,” he said. “As we consider this nomination, it’s important to remember the work of Chris Stevens and all our diplomatic personnel who died while in service to the United States.”
Jones, a former ambassador to Kuwait, promised the committee the perpetrators of the Benghazi attack “must be brought to justice, and I will work closely with the Libyan government to see that justice is realized.”
Jones said an ambassador does not wake up without considering security — a matter she said she takes very seriously.
“The ambassador is the principal security officer at post, and it is the ambassador who has to decide whether to allow people to travel here or there, whether to ask for additional assets, whether to insist on additional assets, and if you don’t get the answers you need, you pick up the phone and you speak to the people who are responsible for that,” she said.
Besides the committee’s Democratic chairman, only two Republicans showed up for Jones’ hearing, and they all wished her well. One of those Republicans was Arizona Sen. John McCain. He said he does not expect Republican anger over what happened in Benghazi to hold up Jones’ confirmation.
“I don’t think people connect her with the fiasco in Benghazi,” McCain said. “I think there’s an overriding need to have an ambassador there, because there are too many things happening right now.”
Still, Republican lawmakers are not about to let up in their questioning of the Obama administration’s handling of the attacks in Benghazi.
Three State Department employees whom the House Oversight Committee is calling whistle-blowers will testify before that panel Wednesday; one of them, Gregory Hicks, was the No. 2 U.S. diplomat in Tripoli at the time of the attacks.
The issue has become a cause celebre among conservative media outlets. On his radio show Monday, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said Hicks will testify that four special operations soldiers in Tripoli were not allowed to board a Libyan military cargo plane that was leaving for Benghazi.
“We now know that special forces were poised and ready and had repeatedly asked for permission to go in and try to intervene, and they were told to stand down,” Huckabee said. “I know that Mr. Hicks will testify that his jaw dropped when later Hillary Clinton said she did not know of any requests for assistance and that there were no requests for assistance.”
On the same show, South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham predicted Wednesday’s hearing could be a turning point.
“I think the dam is about to break, and you’re going find a system failure before, during and after,” he said. “You’re going to find political manipulation, seven weeks before an election. You’re going to find people asleep at the switch when it comes to the State Department, including Hillary Clinton.”
The focus on Clinton comes amid speculation that the former secretary of state will run for president. Asked Monday whether the House investigation into Benghazi was purely political, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell replied: “It certainly seems so so far. I mean, this is not sort of a collaborative process where the committee is working directly with us and trying to establish facts that would help, you know, as we look to keep our people safe overseas in a very complex environment.”
And no place may be more complex than Libya.