WASHINGTON — Two of the Justice Department's key witnesses in last year's terrorist attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Libya, were summoned to Capitol Hill this month and grilled for hours in separate legal depositions.
Responding to congressional subpoenas, the State Department security agents were asked how the Libyan terrorists stormed the mission and set parts of it on fire, how they were armed and how they killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, sources with knowledge of the matter said. The agents also were asked about security breakdowns and whether the administration reacted appropriately to the Sept. 11, 2012, assault.
How those highly guarded and secret interviews came about was part of an increasingly bitter dispute between two branches of the federal government.
Prosecutors are under intense pressure to arrest and convict the terrorists, while the Republican-led House is determined to find who is responsible for any lapse in security that night, and whether the administration misled the public when officials initially said the attack stemmed from a protest.
Weeks before the interviews, top Justice Department officials repeatedly warned Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., against doing so, saying it would seriously jeopardize any criminal prosecution of the terrorists. They wrote three times to the chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, strongly urging him not to insist on interviewing the agents.
The interviews have not been released. But the Justice Department expressed concern that Issa might reveal some details from the interviews, or that defense lawyers could subpoena them if suspects are apprehended, according to the sources, who did not have permission to speak publicly, citing the ongoing investigation. At least one person has been named in a sealed indictment in the Benghazi attacks.
The interviews "would prematurely alert individuals who may be charged about details of the government's case against them," and would give defense lawyers a golden opportunity to review the depositions and impeach the agents if they testified as prosecution witnesses, the Justice Department warned in one of the letters, according to sources.
"For over a year, department prosecutors and FBI agents have been investigating the attack and preparing for prosecution," top Justice Department officials told Issa on Sept. 23, in the first of their letters. "They have made substantial progress despite the difficulties in obtaining evidence, locating witnesses, and other issues. … We believe that a successful prosecution here is vital to protecting our national security interests."
Issa, mounting his own congressional investigation, learned the agents' names in May, and in September began pushing for access to them. The agents are Alec Henderson, who was stationed in Benghazi, and John Martinec, then based in Tripoli.
The California congressman complained that the administration was not interested in the full story of what happened in Benghazi, and that an internal State Department review was "not fully independent." He is unhappy that four State Department officials, initially placed on paid leave, were reinstated.
Issa initially gave the Justice Department until Sept. 24 to comply with his request or, he said, he would issue subpoenas. But on Sept. 18, six days before that deadline, he announced he had just signed and issued subpoenas for Henderson and Martinec.
"We finally have reached the end of our rope," Issa said at a congressional hearing as he announced his decision.
Earlier he had also demanded access to a third agent, David Ubben, who was seriously injured in the Benghazi attack. But Issa did not subpoena him.
The powerful Republican House chairman learned the identities of the three agents from Gregory Hicks, the former deputy chief of mission in Libya, who testified before the committee.
Hicks revealed that "Martinec ran into my villa (in Tripoli) yelling, 'Greg, Greg, the consulate's under attack.' " He said Martinec had been in phone contact with Henderson in Benghazi, and that Henderson told Martinec "the consulate had been breached and there were at least 20 hostile individuals armed in the compound."
Hicks described Martinec as providing "a mountain of moral support, particularly to the guys who were in Benghazi."
Hicks said Ubben was hit by mortar fire on an annex roof. "I knew David was severely wounded," Hicks said. "Doctors saved David Ubben's leg and they may very well have saved his life."
The dispute over the agents erupted Sept. 10 when Issa wrote to Secretary of State John F. Kerry seeking to specifically interview Ubben and later talk to other witnesses. "Their testimony is key in order to understand what took place in Benghazi," Issa wrote.
Peter J. Kadzik, principal deputy assistant attorney general, responded three days later, asking Issa not to insist on the interviews. He said there were past incidents where defense attorneys used outside depositions to "exploit alleged discrepancies in witness statements." He added, "The risk of inadvertent inconsistencies among multiple statements of witnesses is almost unavoidable," and later warned that the interviews could harm the agents' safety, as well as that of "other potential witnesses."
Issa was unmoved. On Oct. 8, Henderson was interviewed for eight hours. Martinec went next, for five hours on Oct. 10. No prosecutors or FBI agents were allowed inside. But the witnesses were accompanied by their attorneys. Democratic staff on the committee also was permitted to sit in.
Explaining why he went forward, Issa said at the earlier hearing: "We want to make certain that our government learns the proper lessons from this tragedy so it never happens again, and so that the right people are held accountable."