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 Obama 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 Mr. 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.
Mr. 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.