President Obama and the White House have stated multiple times that the President is fiercely “committed” to discovering and punishing those responsible for the attack on the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya in September of last year which cost the lives of four Americans. However, the President’s “committed” administration is now allowing the Tunisian government to release a top suspect in the Benghazi attack without protest or comment.
State Department Spokeswoman Victoria Nuland was bombarded with questions about the Benghazi attack suspect Tunisia released yesterday due to “lack of evidence.” The State Department decided to pass the buck entirely to the FBI or the Tunisian government despite the repeated protests from the State Department press pool. Nuland was asked multiple times to explain how the State Department — the division of the U.S. Government that deals with foreign governments and agencies — could simply cede the responsibility of transparency to the American people and diplomacy in international law enforcement to other agencies or governments. Nuland wouldn’t budge, she only repeated that all questions should be directed to the FBI (who hasn’t given any statements about the ongoing investigation) or the tight-lipped Tunisian government.
The press pool pointed out that the Ambassador to Tunisia just happened to be in the building this week and asked if he had any discussions about the decision by Tunisian authorities. Nuland was silent, stating that she was not going to reveal internal conversations that were happening at the State Department.
Video and a transcript of the exchange with multiple reporters is below:
QUESTION: Can we start with Tunisia perhaps, then Libya, Benghazi? I believe the only suspect who’s so far being held for the attack in Benghazi was ordered released overnight by the courts in Tunisia because of a lack of evidence. I wondered whether the State Department is in agreement with this, what your viewpoint was on that.
MS. NULAND: Well, Jo, we’ve obviously seen the same press reports that you have seen. I think you know that throughout the FBI’s investigation of the Benghazi attacks, we’ve been referring you to the FBI for any details on this case, and we will do that again today.
QUESTION: But have you had any submissions to Tunisia about whether you think it’s right or wrong or –
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m going to send you to the FBI because they have the lead on all of these issues.
QUESTION: But he wasn’t released by the FBI.
QUESTION: He was released by –
QUESTION: I mean, he was released by a foreign government, and you’re the agency that deals with foreign governments, right? Or have you ceded that to the FBI?
MS. NULAND: I’m going to send you to the FBI because they, as you know, are pursuing all of the aspects of this case, and they are also working with all of the foreign governments on the case.
QUESTION: But it said that it’s a restricted release. What is that? Or a monitored release.
MS. NULAND: Again, I’m going to send you to the FBI for more details on the conversations that they may or may not have had.
QUESTION: I don’t understand. What does that mean? Like, he’s under house arrest or you know where he is at all times? Does he have, like, a bracelet on his arm? What’s –
MS. NULAND: I’m going to send you to the Tunisians, then, on that one if it’s some aspect of their law.
QUESTION: The FBI does not handle international diplomacy, and so I think you’re well equipped from this podium to answer the question of whether or not U.S. diplomats have been in touch with Tunisian diplomats regarding this matter.
MS. NULAND: The FBI has the lead on the Benghazi investigation —
QUESTION: On the criminal investigation.
MS. NULAND: — to the degree, and they are working with governments appropriately. I think you know that they’ve had a team in Libya. They also have contacts with other governments as necessary, so I’m going to send you to them. I know that’s frustrating for you all, but they also have a public affairs operation, so I would send you to them. We are not going to be commenting on this case at all from here.
QUESTION: More generally then, are you in touch with the authorities in Libya about some way forward on this investigation? I mean, not just the criminal side of things, but whether it’s going to be deemed to be safe to reopen the U.S. mission in Benghazi again and where they sort of see that going forward?
MS. NULAND: Well, obviously we are in touch with Libyan officials on all aspects of safety and security of our diplomatic facility, of our own posture there. As you know, for many months, we’ve been talking to Libya about our willingness to support efforts that they may have on their own – strengthening their own internal security structures on the police side, on integrating the militias, all those kinds of things. They have not yet availed themselves of some of these offers that we have made. We have not had any discussions or any internal deliberations about reopening Benghazi.
QUESTION: Have you called in the Tunisian Ambassador to Washington to the State Department?
MS. NULAND: To my knowledge, no. This is – as I said, the FBI has the lead on this.
QUESTION: Would the United States request, in this case from the government concerned, that he not be allowed to travel?
MS. NULAND: Again, Said –
QUESTION: Or any agency?
MS. NULAND: — with regard to any aspect of this case, I’m going to send you to the FBI.
QUESTION: Toria, did I hear correctly? You said there are no deliberations about reopening the mission in Benghazi?
MS. NULAND: Not at this stage. Not now.
QUESTION: Okay. So in other words, that’s – but all that will be there will be the Embassy and no facility whatsoever in Benghazi?
MS. NULAND: We are operating from our Embassy in Tripoli. Officers serving in Tripoli obviously can travel around Libya as appropriate. But we do not have any discussions underway at the moment about reopening a presence in Benghazi, a permanent presence in Benghazi.
QUESTION: What’s the feeling in the State Department about the progress in this case? I mean, obviously Ambassador Stevens was one of your own. It’s been four months now and counting since the attack. There’s nobody who’s been charged in this case. There were promises made from the President – to the Secretary that people would be held accountable and justice would be served and would be seen to be served by the American people. It must be incredibly frustrating from the point of view of the Department not to have progressed any further.
MS. NULAND: The President has committed that we will see justice in this case. We have confidence that we will see justice in this case. But he FBI has the lead. They have to do this right. It is their business, and we support them in that business. I’m going to send you to them on the status of the case.
QUESTION: Question. On the public schedule today, I believe it said the U.S. Ambassador to Tunisia was in the building. Is that issue of Ali Harzi, of the 26 year-old jailed person linked to the Benghazi attack, is that in any way coming up in those conversations at State today with the U.S. Ambassador?
MS. NULAND: Ambassador Walles is home for consultations this week. He’s seeing a variety of people here in the building, and he’s also seeing folks interagency, as our ambassadors always do when they come home. He will discuss the full range of issues that he is engaged with the Tunisian Government on, but I’m obviously not going to get into the details of American discussions with Americans.
QUESTION: But would he –
QUESTION: Do you expect he’ll meet with the FBI?
MS. NULAND: I don’t know the answer to that. I’m sure if they need to see him, they have an opportunity to do that either here or there.
QUESTION: But would it be on the table or in the portfolio at all for him to discuss this matter? Or is he allowed to touch this part of the FBI investigation?
MS. NULAND: What do you mean “allowed?” I mean, obviously, the point –
QUESTION: Well, when – you’re saying it’s a matter for the FBI.
MS. NULAND: My point is that the FBI is on – is in the lead on the investigation. They will do any public speaking to this investigation, but obviously, our ambassadors in the field who need to be involved are involved, and there’s nothing that would preclude that from being the case. We’re just not going to speak about this case publicly from here.
QUESTION: And Toria, just to make sure, then, he’s on, in effect, kind of home leave when ambassadors come back to the mother ship here. He’s not here specifically for the Benghazi investigation, et cetera; is that correct?
MS. NULAND: My understanding is he had some holiday leave here in the States, and before going back to Tunis is doing some consultations, as a number of our ambassadors are.