House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-CA) compromised the identities of several Libyans working with the U.S. government and placed their lives in danger when he released reams of State Department communications Friday, according to Obama administration officials.
Issa posted 166 pages of sensitive but unclassified State Department communications related to Libya on the committee's website afternoon as part of his effort to investigate security failures and expose contradictions in the administration's statements regarding the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi that resulted in the death of Amb. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
"The American people deserve nothing less than a full explanation from this administration about these events, including why the repeated warnings about a worsening security situation appear to have been ignored by this administration. Americans also deserve a complete explanation about your administration's decision to accelerate a normalized presence in Libya at what now appears to be at the cost of endangering American lives," Issa and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-UT) wrote today in a letter to President Barack Obama.
But Issa didn't bother to redact the names of Libyan civilians and local leaders mentioned in the cables, and just as with the WikiLeaks dump of State Department cables last year, the administration says that Issa has done damage to U.S. efforts to work with those Libyans and exposed them to physical danger from the very groups that had an interest in attacking the U.S. consulate.
"Much like WikiLeaks, when you dump a bunch of documents into the ether, there are a lot of unintended consequences," an administration official told The Cable Friday afternoon. "This does damage to the individuals because they are named, danger to security cooperation because these are militias and groups that we work with and that is now well known, and danger to the investigation, because these people could help us down the road."
One of the cables released by Issa names a woman human rights activist who was leading a campaign against violence and was detained in Benghazi. She expressed fear for her safety to U.S. officials and criticized the Libyan government.
"This woman is trying to raise an anti-violence campaign on her own and came to the United States for help. She isn't publicly associated with the U.S. in any other way but she's now named in this cable. It's a danger to her life," the administration official said.
Another cable names a Benghazi port manager who is working with the United States on an infrastructure project.
"When you're in a situation where Ansar al-Sharia is a risk to Americans, an individual like this guy, who is an innocent civilian who's trying to reopen the port and is doing so in conjunction with Americans, could be at risk now because he's publicly affiliated with America," the official said, referring to the group thought to have led the Benghazi attack.
One cable names a local militia commander dishing dirt on the inner workings of the Libyan Interior Ministry. Another cable names a militia commander who claims to control a senior official of the Libyan armed forces. Other cables contain details of conversations between third-party governments, such as the British and the Danes, and their private interactions with the U.S., the U.N., and the Libyan governments over security issues.
"It betrays the trust of people we are trying to maintain contact with on a regular basis, including security officials inside militias and civil society people as well," another administration official told The Cable. "It's a serious betrayal of trust for us and it hurts our ability to maintain these contacts going forward. It has the potential to physically endanger these people. They didn't sign up for that. Neither did we."
One administration official accused Issa of doing harm to the investigation for the sake of creating negative news stories days before the final presidential debate, which will focus on foreign policy. In previous investigations, Issa has acknowledged and respected the need to protect information that could be important to completing the administration's own investigations, the official noted.
"He's trying to gather all the facts, but he's blurting out all the evidence before the State Department and FBI investigation is done," the official said.
Frederick Hill, a spokesman for the Oversight Committee, defended the release of the documents in a Friday afternoon interview with The Cable. He said some of the documents had been released by the committee after the Oct. 10 hearing Issa held with State Department officials and the State Department has not directly complained to the committee so far.
Hill said it was the administration that had endangered lives by failing to put adequate security measures in place before the attack.
"Certainly there are people who made reckless decisions and put lives in danger in this situation and these people have motivations to discredit efforts to hold them accountable rather than having their true motivations be the security of people on the ground," he said.
The administration failed to protect sensitive information when it fled the compound during the attack, so its complaints about Issa's release are hypocritical, Hill argued.
"This is the administration that had all sorts of information sitting around the consulate. Where was their outrage and urgency when all that was happening?" he said.
Hill discounted the administration's official's assertion that the public outing of U.S. government sources and contacts on the ground in Libya places those people in any danger.
"None of these folks would seem to be surprising folks to be talking to U.S. officials considering the organizations they represent and the types of activities they were involved in," he said.
The Cable pointed out that even WikiLeaks had approached the State Department and offered to negotiate retractions of sensitive information before releasing their cables. Hill confirmed that Issa did not grant the State Department that opportunity but said it was the State Department's fault for not releasing the documents when they were first requested.
"We gave them the opportunity to have them present us with documents and have them tell us at that time what they were concerned about," he said.
Committee ranking Democrat Elijah Cummings (D-MD) responded to Issa's letter late Thursday, writing that Issa's letter "completely ignores sworn testimony provided to the Committee, recklessly omits contradictory information from the very same documents it quotes, irresponsibly promotes inaccurate information, and makes numerous allegations with no evidence to substantiate them."
UPDATE: A senior State Department official wrote in to The Cable to contest Hill's assertion the State Department had an opportunity to work with the committee to identity sensitive information in the documents before they were released by Issa.
"Many of the documents the committee posted weren't provided by State. So there wasn't any discussion about their sensitivity prior to the committee revealing them for all to see," the official said. "Had State been given that opportunity, we'd have taken it and pointed out what documents needed to be handled with extreme care so as not to endanger anyone."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.