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Benghazi hearing revives allegations of weapons shipments to Syria

Democratic presidential candidate and former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, looks down during questioning on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 22, 2015, before the House Select Committee on Benghazi. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

In the final hour of Thursday's marathon hearing of the House Benghazi Committee, Rep. Mike Pompeo's questioning of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton turned to an allegation that others have made in the past, but rarely in such a high-profile setting.

"Were you aware, or are you aware of any efforts by the U.S. government in Libya to provide any weapons, either directly or indirectly, or through a cutout to any militias or opposition to [former Libyan President Muammar] Gadhafi's forces?" Pompeo asked.

"That was a very long question, and I think the answer is no," Clinton responded.

"Were you aware or are you aware of any U.S. efforts by the U.S. government in Libya to provide any weapons, directly or indirectly, or through a cutout, to any Syrian rebels or militias or opposition to Syrian forces?"

"No."

"Were you aware or are you aware of any efforts by the U.S. government in Libya to facilitate or support the provision of weapons to any opposition of Gadhafi's forces, Libyan rebels or militias through a third party or country?"

"No."

Clinton also denied she ever seriously considered arming opposition groups through private security experts, an idea that she had floated in an email to one of her aides.

Those answers did not satisfy everyone. Republican presidential candidate Sen. Rand Paul alleged Friday that Clinton was lying about the matter.

"I don't think she's being honest with us," Paul said on CNN, "and I think the CIA annex did have something to do with routing arms into Syria. Whether or not it was the CIA or they were using a proxy, they were gathering up arms in Libya...Were they a conduit to arms in Syria? I think they were."

Paul has made this claim several times before.

At a 2013 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, Paul asked Clinton, "Were they involved with procuring, buying, selling, obtaining weapons, and were any of these weapons being transferred to other countries?"

"I do not have any information on that," Clinton responded.

Following that hearing, the State Department issued a statement denying U.S. involvement in any transfer of weapons from Libya to Turkey.

Paul told WorldNetDaily at the time that his "suspicion, although I don't have any proof, is that guns were being smuggled out of Libya, through Turkey and into Syria."

He made similar allegations on CNN in May 2013, again admitting there was no evidence: "I've always actually suspected, although I have no evidence, that maybe we were facilitating arms leaving Libya going through Turkey into Syria...Were they trying to obscure that there was an arms operation going on at the CIA annex? I'm not sure exactly what was going on, but I think the questions ought to be asked and answered."

While the investigation by the House Select Committee on Benghazi is still ongoing, previous investigations have found no evidence to support Paul's allegations.

The House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence concluded in its 2014 report, "The CIA was not collecting and shipping arms from Libya to Syria."

The committee's report cited eyewitness testimony and thousands of pages of documents. Witnesses testified that they only saw "standard CIA security weapons" at the annex.

"The Benghazi annex was not itself collecting weapons," the report states. "The Committee has not seen any credible information to dispute these facts."

Rep. Pompeo's office has not responded to a request for comment on whether he disputes the committee's findings.

Pompeo's questioning and Paul's comments point to an underlying question about the attacks that the public may never fully know the answer to: what was the CIA doing in Benghazi?

"The CIA's mission in Benghazi was to collect foreign intelligence. From the annex in Benghazi, the CIA was collecting intelligence about foreign entities that were themselves collecting weapons in Libya and facilitating their passage to Syria," the House Intelligence Committee concluded, citing interviews with officials and witnesses.

"All CIA activities in Benghazi were legal and authorized," the committee's report said. "On-the-record testimony establishes that CIA was not sending weapons (including MANPADS) from Libya to Syria, or facilitating other organizations or states that were transferring weapons from Libya to Syria."

Some Republicans and media outlets have suggested otherwise, though.

CNN reported in August 2013 that the CIA was "going to great lengths to make sure whatever it was doing remains a secret" and pressuring those with knowledge of the mission not to discuss it. In the absence of a complete explanation for the covert operation, speculation has run rampant online that the Obama administration was involved in shipping weapons that had once belonged to the former Libyan government through Benghazi to rebels fighting the Assad government in Syria.

These claims have never been substantiated, but Pompeo's questions revived them. The CIA declined to comment Friday on those allegations specifically or the agency's mission in Benghazi at the time in general.

Paul and others have based their accusations in part on reports of an arms shipment that left Benghazi days before the September 11, 2012 attacks.

Fox News and the Times of London reported that a cargo ship transported 400 tons of surface-to-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades from Benghazi to Turkey for use by Syrian rebels. "Was Syrian weapons shipment factor in ambassador's Benghazi visit?" Fox asked, although the report provided no conclusive answers.

The United Nations Security Council's Panel of Experts on Libya reported in March 2013 that they were investigating reports that the vessel, Al Entisar, had carried a large shipment of weapons on that voyage despite a shipping manifest claiming it was transporting humanitarian cargo, but they had no concrete evidence at the time.

A subsequent U.N. report indicated that a separate shipment of rifles, pistols, and ammunition was found on the same ship when it docked in Turkey in April 2013.

Reuters interviewed a Libyan arms dealer in June 2013 who described shipping weapons from Benghazi to Syrian rebels with the support of Libyan officials. He did not allege any cooperation by the U.S. government, though.

Some have also questioned why Ambassador Chris Stevens, one of four Americans killed in the attacks, was in Benghazi on the anniversary of 9/11 in the first place, given the security risks involved.

Clinton mentioned in her opening statement Thursday that Stevens "knew how urgent it was to ensure that the weapons Gadhafi had left strewn across the country, including shoulder-fired missiles that could knock an airplane out of the sky, did not fall into the wrong hands."

Sen. Lindsey Graham said on Fox News in 2013 that Stevens was in Benghazi "because that's where the action was regarding the rising Islamic extremists who were trying to get their hands on weapons that are flowing freely in Libya."

According to the State Department Accountability Review Board report, "timing for [Stevens'] trip was driven in part by commitments in Tripoli, as well as a staffing gap between principal officers in Benghazi."

Prior to the attack on the night of September 11, Stevens met with a Turkish diplomat. Citing an unnamed source, Fox News alleged that meeting was to negotiate a weapons transfer to get missiles away from Libyan extremists.

A Defense Intelligence Agency report obtained by Judicial Watch indicates that the agency was aware that sniper rifles, RPGs, and howitzer missiles were being shipped from Benghazi to ports in Syria between October 2011 and September 2012. It does not indicate who was responsible for the shipments.

In the London Review of Books in April 2014, journalist Seymour Hersh alleged that the CIA and British intelligence were involved in getting weapons to Syria through front companies in Libya. A former intelligence official told Hersh the State Department's facility in Benghazi was only there to provide cover for the weapons transfers.

Hersh claimed details of a CIA "rat line" running weapons to Syria through Turkey were included in a highly-classified annex to the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the attacks.

Former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morrell denied similar allegations in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. Though portions of the transcript are redacted, Morrell said, "They were not facilitating arms going to Syria. I can guarantee you that. They were there doing a number of missions."

According to Morrell, CIA officers in Benghazi were there for three reasons. One was "to collect intelligence on terrorist organizations that were setting up shop in eastern Libya." The other two were redacted.

During his testimony, Morrell confirmed that officials were aware of arms shipments from Libya to Syria but said the CIA was not coordinating them.

In an interview with Fox News earlier this year, Morrell said the U.S. played no role in moving weapons from Libya to Syria but he could not comment on whether the CIA was watching other people do it.

In his book, "The Great War of Our Time," Morrell wrote, "CIA had established a presence in Benghazi with the mission of collecting intelligence--contrary to some press reporting, it did not play any role in moving weapons from Libya to the opposition in Syria."

Documents indicate the House Benghazi Committee is still investigating the theory.

In a 2014 subpoena, Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy requested that the State Department produce any documents related to "weapons located or found in, imported or brought into, and/or exported or removed from Libya."

Democrats on the committee criticized Gowdy for unearthing a "repeatedly debunked accusation."

Fred Burton, a former State Department special agent and co-author of "Under Fire: The Untold Story of the Attack on Benghazi," said the question of what the CIA was doing in Benghazi is a legitimate one, but the full answer may remain classified for decades.

"What was so critical to our national security interests?" asked Burton, now vice president of intelligence at geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor.

Congressional reports indicate 28 people were based in Benghazi. Burton said that is a large staff for such a location, but "a tremendous amount of weapons" had flooded the area after the fall of Libyan President Muammar Gaddafi and were ending up in the hands of various militias.

From a tradecraft perspective, he said a staff of that size, including case workers and Global Response Staff, may have been necessary solely for intelligence-gathering to determine who had those weapons and where they were going.

Throughout his research, Burton said, "there were always comments and suspicions that part of what else was taking place centered on support for the Syrian rebels." Some suggested it was through various liaisons or through the Turkish government--as Hersh alleged in his article--but he did not find solid evidence of that.

Even if some kind of covert support for the Syrian rebels was occurring in Benghazi, Burton doubts the attacks were directly related to it. The sizable American staff in the city would have been hard to fully conceal, though, and may have created a target for terrorists.

"I think that the large presence of Americans there...certainly presented a target set or a footprint that allowed these [attacks] to occur," he said.

He noted that the FBI has likely questioned Ahmed Abu Khatallah, the only suspect apprehended in connection with the attacks, about what he knew of the CIA's presence there.

"With only one suspect in custody, he's going to be your best source" for answers regarding why the terrorists struck, whether they knew Stevens was there, and whether they intended to target both the State Department and the CIA from the start. The FBI has not released that information.

In preparing the book, Burton and co-author Samuel Katz found no "smoking gun" proving that the CIA was arming specific rebels in Libya or Syria.

"We were not focusing on what the CIA was up to in Benghazi," he said, and he did not want to speculate about that in his book.

Burton cautioned that the Benghazi committee members likely know more than the public does about what the CIA was doing, but they may not be able to reveal that publicly.

Whatever it was, he is confident Ambassador Stevens knew details of any intelligence activities in the country.

"It's very reasonable to assume that Stevens knew exactly what was taking place inside of Libya," he said. Whether Clinton knew, however, is a different question.

"What an ambassador may know on a granular level is taking place in a country is totally different from what a cabinet-level official may know back in Washington."

Clinton's response to questions Thursday asserted that she is not aware of any efforts to arm rebels in Syria through Benghazi. It does not necessarily mean such a program did not exist.

"That's the kind of thing that I'm not sure we'll ever know," Burton said.

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