WASHINGTON (AP) — Seven months after the attack on a U.S. diplomatic mission in Libya, the Obama administration on Wednesday insisted that it was making progress in holding accountable those responsible for killing Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans.
Testifying before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry said the U.S. has identified people it believes were involved in the Benghazi attack. FBI investigators are still combing through video and other evidence gathered from largely lawless eastern Libya, he said.
Kerry, however, didn't say if any suspect has yet been arrested, detained or otherwise targeted by American or Libyan authorities — a lingering black eye for an administration that has repeatedly promised justice.
"We are making progress," Kerry said. "There's video, as you all know. We have identified people. And they are building a case. You know, we're going through the tedious, laborious and very difficult process of gaining evidence from a part of the country which is dangerous and working in a place where the standards are different and the expectations are different. We're working through that."
The former Massachusetts senator, testifying before Congress for the first time as secretary of state, fielded several angry questions from Republican lawmakers over the administration's diplomatic security posture ahead of the attack and its real-time response to violence in a city that served as the base for the U.S.-backed rebels who overthrew dictator Moammar Gadhafi a year-and-a-half ago. They included President Barack Obama's oft-repeated but until now entirely unfulfilled declaration to hold Benghazi's perpetrators accountable.
Kerry repeated his boss' pledge to "do what was necessary to bring somebody to justice," without elaborating on the progress he cited. The State Department didn't immediately provide more information. The National Security Council referred questions to the FBI, while noting the president spoke to Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan about "the importance of Libya's cooperation with the ongoing investigation" when they met at the White House in March.
While less confrontational than the January hearings at which his predecessor, Hillary Rodham Clinton, testified, the proceeding still produced moments of contention and pushed Kerry on a couple of occasions into clear expressions of exasperation.
Chairman Ed Royce of California asked why four State Department officials singled out for criticism remained on the payroll. Fellow California Republican Dana Rohrabacher lamented that the administration "has flooded us with paper for some of the more insignificant things" while withholding the names of all evacuees from Benghazi.
Kerry promised swift action on any case where the administration wasn't providing proper documentation. "I will appoint somebody to work directly with you, starting tomorrow," Kerry said, "to have a review of anything you don't think you've gotten that you're supposed to get."
He noted, however, that the administration has testified eight times and briefed lawmakers 20 times, while Clinton spent five hours answering questions before a Senate committee in response to the attack. Some 25,000 documents have been turned over and video has been made available for members of Congress to watch, he added.
"I do not want to spend the next year coming up here talking about Benghazi," Kerry pleaded. "If there's something legitimate that really needs to be put on the table, I'll put it on the table, and I'll work with you in good faith."
"After we do that ... you will not have questions," he said. "But let's put this behind us. We've got serious, major, big, current, important, vital to our national security issues to be debating."
Having just returned from a 10-day trip to the Middle East, Europe and East Asia, Kerry also briefed lawmakers on his efforts to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace hopes and de-escalate tensions with nuclear-armed North Korea.
On Mideast peace, he urged patience on the details of any two-state plan he might develop in the coming months while stressing that Israel and the Palestinians were running out of time.
"I believe the window for a two-state solution is shutting," Kerry said. "I think we have some period of time — a year to year-and-a-half to two years, or it's over."
Kerry didn't spell out why he believes so little time is left for an agreement that would establish an independent Palestine existing alongside a Jewish state recognized by its neighbors. Several factors are likely to only make peace more difficult in the coming years, including the growing numbers and political strength of Israel's settlers.
On North Korea, Kerry said he was making sure not to repeat the mistakes of previous Democratic and Republican administrations alike. These include promises of food aid for concessions or confidence-building agreements with a regime that regularly breaks its word. He said all U.S. partners in the region were committed to seeing North Korea give up its nuclear weapons, no small feat considering China's key role in facilitating any peaceful agreement.
"It's fair to say that without China, North Korea would collapse," Kerry said. "Therefore I think it is important for us to work with China. And I think China has indicated its willingness to work with us."